Anger is like a magnifying glass: Depending on your perspective, it either distorts everything or makes everything clearer. Anger is one of those emotions that retains the power to make us feel ashamed of ourselves. It’s embarrassing to be angry, and so many of us have learned how to hide it so effectively that we sometimes manage to hide it even from ourselves.
But anger doesn't disappear just because it’s not seen; every closed eye doesn’t mean a peaceful sleep. My anger takes over when I’m feeling out of control in my life; for others, anger is what they use to control the world around them.
Paradoxically, anger is also an emotion that can make us feel unashamed, can make us feel stronger after we feel defeated and humiliated. It can help to restore a sense of self worth--anger is an indication that you merit judicious treatment.
It can mark a turning point. “Anger stirs and wakes in her,” writes Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye, a novel about an abused child’s coming of age, “It opens its mouth, and like a hot-mouthed puppy, laps up the dredges of her shame. Anger is better. There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and presence. An awareness of worth.”
This last point is perhaps the most important one: If you allow yourself to get angry at an injustice committed against you, you underwrite your emotion with a sense of self worth. If you get angry at an injustice committed against others, you underwrite their value with a sense of your own worth. Anger can offer a sense of indignity to replace a sense of shame.
And some of the revenge stories that get passed around like chain mail involve precisely this sort of replacement of shame by rage. One I heard from women in New York, St. Paul, and Toronto, who all swore that it happened to someone a friend of theirs actually knew, involves just this sort of gratifying movement from embarrassment and self-doubt to justified anger. The details of the story changed very little from one city to the next: A young woman without a family is about to marry into a fairly aristocratic household. Her fiance, a man of some means, generously offers to foot the bill and she gratefully accepts, given that she has very little money herself. (She was described as a freelance writer, a medical student, and a dancer by the respective narrators). It all seems like a fairy tale until she discovers that he has been sleeping with her maid of honor.
The bride-to-be decides, uncharacteristically, not to do anything about it. The one or two friends who know that she knows are surprised by her lack of action but they keep their shock to themselves, believing that their friend must have decided that the financial security was worth the humiliation. The wedding day comes and everything goes beautifully until the minister asks, in front of the assembled congregation of several hundred guests—most of whom are on his upright and conservative family’s side—whether anyone has a reason why these two should not be joined in matrimony. The bride turns away from the alter and addresses the guests saying “I know why we cannot be wed. He’s sleeping with the maid of honor.” Walking out of the church into a waiting taxi, she leaves him with a red face, an angry and ashamed lover, and a huge bill for the non-existent wedding party.
It’s no surprise why this story gets repeated as the sworn truth: It has all the elements of positive revenge. The young woman did not sit around wondering what she did wrong to “drive” her fiance into the arms of another woman; she did not exonerate those closest to her by blaming herself for their selfish actions. Her anger clarified the impossibility of her situation and allowed her to leave with her self-esteem intact after a severe set-back. One imagines that lessons were learned all around.
But not all methods of getting even can be committed with such deliberately balanced methods and consequences, especially when they involves truly powerless individuals.
“I lived with my brother and his wife when I was growing up,” began one caller to a radio program where the topic of the discussion was revenge. I was on the other end of the line and immediately sensed the hurt and anger in the voice of the woman who was speaking. She was an adult, and the incident she was relating happened many years ago, but the skid marks were clearly still on her soul. “My brother was a decent man, taking me in after our parents died, but his wife was awful. She was cold and aloof, and made sure I knew that I was living off their charity. One day in fifth grade I dared to bring two friends home from school, and she humiliated me in front of them by saying that while she had to provide food and lodging for me she wasn’t under any obligation to provide it for the whole town. I was afraid to tell my brother because I thought he might side with her and I didn’t have anywhere else to go. It was awful.”
“About a week later I was just sitting in their formal living room and I got the idea to tear out one page from every book in their library. It took me almost a year, but I think that I got to every single volume. I used to wad up the pieces of paper and carry them in my pocket so that I could touch them and tell myself that I had some way to get back at her. Somehow it calmed the fury that had no where to go. It’s taken me fifteen years of therapy to admit that I ever committed that secret crime. The irony is that I am now a librarian. I spend my time taking care of books.”
Much has been written about anger, mostly about how to work through it. Working through anger is like working through a 3,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of the aerial map of Antarctica; it’s a invigorating idea in the abstract but almost impossible to do in the natural span of an ordinary lifetime. And “working through” anger might not necessarily purge the emotion; sometimes facing the anger and the need for reciprocity against an injury can underscore a longstanding grievance.
“I knew a man so accustomed to revenge that he didn’t even have to carry the small change of anger around with him,” said an elderly gentleman, referring to a gangster he knew in his youth. But clearly revenge should not be associated only with men in fedoras whose last names are full of vowels; sometimes the good side wins, motivated in part by healthy anger.
The belief that some version of fate will take care of the vulnerable and punish the wicked is the linchpin of the myth promising that, as long as you trust that good will triumph, everything will work out on its own. In general, therefore, people are expected to remain part of—that is, they believe they should be part of—a system that will always make everything come out even in he end, that will balance the scales without anybody having to put their thumb down on the edge to make sure the scales are right.