I got you a thing. You don’t need it, this thing, from me or from anyone else. But I got it for you anyway, just in case it would help to have it. I’ve been thinking about this thing for years now, about how theoretically maybe possibly we all know that we already have it, and about how rarely we use it and why, and about what would happen—to us, to those around us, to our world—if we used it more.
Jennifer Palmieri, Director of Communication for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, is on the press tour for her new book, Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World. She says that the alternative title for the book was Crying at Work, and indeed much of the early coverage of the book has focused on the chapter called “Nod Less, Cry More.” There is an interesting thing happening on Twitter where former male White House staffers are retweeting the coverage with some form of “I cried X times while at the WH. My female colleagues should be free to do that too.” This is the very reason for the chapter, and the book as a whole. But dude, did you think to support your female colleagues at the time? To maybe tell them they didn’t have to work so hard to appear so stoic? Maybe some did, but I wonder how many did not and are patting themselves on the back now for their tweets.
So maybe, just maybe this book will move the goalposts. Maybe Emma Gonzalez furiously dragging the ball of her hand across her face to keep the tears from obscuring the words on the page will. Because President Obama crying for the first graders slaughtered in Newtown sure as shit did not.
But you know what? Making crying socially and professionally acceptable might be an easy lift compared to what I’d really like to see acknowledged, liberated, and celebrated—justified, pure, white-hot anger.
I’ve never been angry at A’s death. Ours is a set of circumstances where it really and truly was nobody’s fault. It just happened. He died, and was born, and it gutted us. And everyone at the hospital was incredibly kind and considerate, and my doctor is an actual human embodiment of compassion and professionalism. And so I was, and am, sad. Other things too, of course—kind, happy, loving, and joyful, among others. But from that day forward, sad.
Here’s the thing, though: I have my own personal super-reliable never-fail Hulk smash button. It is encountering what might be described as pain policing—telling other people how they should handle their grief and pain. Which—have you noticed?—tends to involve not making things too uncomfortable for the unaffected. I am sure I do not need to list the greatest hits of the babylost universe. Hell, we here can probably do a reasonable rendition of those as a spontaneous choir piece with three-part harmony, set to something immortal like Ave Maria or the Itsy Bitsy Spider.
But I also see red when, say, conventional wisdom is summoned to predict the outcome of a person’s illness, implying that one’s character just might be the determining factor in how things turn out. John McCain announces a likely terminal cancer, and messages pour in. As they should. But with every “[h]e is strong—and he will beat this,” “[c]ancer doesn’t know what it’s up against,” and “[i]f anyone can beat cancer, it’s John McCain” I cringe and wish for a handy punching bag. Because seriously, people? As Bruce Buschel says, “[t]he idea of winning or losing is just cruel. […] The sooner we stop pitting humans against a disease, cease using war metaphors, the better off we all shall be, especially cancer patients and their loved ones.”
But also because while sentiments like this are harmful enough expressed in confined spaces and directed at small audiences, they become culture cudgels when transmitted over a publicly-performative medium like Twitter. And I don’t know about you, but I could certainly do with fewer rules about what is and isn’t acceptable to do and not do, and at what exact time point is that thing acceptable or not, when faced with cancer diagnosis. Or when your baby dies. Or when someone sexually harasses or abuses you.
In her piece on the importance of cultivating girls’ anger, Mona Eltahawy quotes the late Ursula K. Le Guin from her 1986 commencement address at Bryn Mawr: “[w]e are volcanos. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.”
Culture is built of things “everyone knows.” Mona Eltahawy reminds us that when everyone and everything in a girl’s environment tells her that she’s weak (while telling her brothers and male friends that they are strong), by age 10 a girl believes it. And so do the boys.
A video from Tony Robbins’ event went viral this past weekend. In it, Mr. Robbins uses his power to claim that the #MeToo movement is about victimhood and about women using “the drug called significance to make [themselves] feel good.” Mr. Robbins enjoys the reputational power he’s accumulated over decades as a leading self-help guru and also the sheer power of his towering physicality, and he used both to attempt to intimidate Nanine McCool, a survivor who stood up to him in that arena full of his supporters.
Mr. Robbins has since issued a rather weak tea apology in which he addresses neither his physical intimidation of Ms. McCool nor his strange assertion that naming abusers is “making somebody else wrong.” And I haven’t even touched the part where he explains that apparently powerful men can’t possibly keep themselves from assaulting attractive women and therefore must, in abundance of caution, not hire any of those, however qualified they might be.
What I see in that video is a powerful man using that power to silence, delegitimize, and disappear a whole lot of less powerful people. Why? To reinforce the structure that maintains his power. To limit the field of socially acceptable reactions to pain and grief. To ensure that the already comfortable may remain so. To ensure that maps don’t change.
Mona Eltahawy cautions that some of us are afforded even less room to feel and express anger than others, that when patriarchy intersects with racism, “the space for girls’ rage shrinks.”
And cue Tony Robbins attempting to take it away entirely. “Anger is not empowerment,” he proclaims. Mr. Robbins is not qualifying his statement here. He’s not just going after women and girls of color, or even after just women and girls. He’s after the women and men of #MeToo, sure, but he’s after the Parkland teens too, and after those parents of the slain kids, in Parkland or anywhere else, whose pain rings with anger.
Society fashioned in the image of Tony Robbins’ seminar affords neither the angry nor the desperate the respect of acknowledging their humanity, the legitimacy of their very existence. If recovering from a deadly disease is a matter of how tough you are, being scared and worried certainly won’t pass inspection, will it? And neither will being angry about your life plans suddenly turned upside down. If getting a law passed in your dead child’s name or “channeling your grief into” a high-impact non-profit are the acceptable models of how to be a bereaved parent, then taking a shower and having a stocked fridge don’t count as wins, and you are not allowed to tell that lady at the party exactly what she should do with her platitudes. And for sure it is not possible for the bereaved parents who are running an impactful non-profit to also count taking a shower as a big win for the day.
It wasn’t Nanine McCool’s responsibility to confront Mr. Robbins. She chose to do that, and in choosing that action she changed the map. It is never our job or responsibility to try to educate the obnoxiously comfortable and the ostentatiously untouched. Choosing to protect oneself, to preserve what resources one has for oneself and those who matter is always ok, more than ok. But you know what, it is also not our job to enable the untouched and the comfortable to maintain the lifestyles to which they have grown accustomed. It is not our job to make excuses for them, to swallow our anger.
So, in case you’d like it, here it is, the thing I got you:
P E R M I S S I O N S L I P
This note is to remind you that you are a volcano, that your human truth is important, valid, and valuable, and that you are absolutely permitted and entitled to change maps and raise new mountains.
What is your relationship with anger?