My anger is a palpable thing.
It starts from my center, white-hot behind my ribcage, a supernova replacing my heart. It runs through my veins, fills my fingertips with fire, boils over and spews from my mouth with the savage strength of an atomic bomb explosion levelling everything before me. My vision dims, and the pulsating thrum of my blood running molten is so loud I can’t hear myself think. I am a feral wildling, bestial and brute, at the mercy of my rage run rampant until I eventually fall limp, spent and exhausted by the sheer ferocity of myself.
In the weary lethargy of recovery, I imagine the way my anger looks before it explodes out of me. It is twined tightly around the double helices of my DNA, broken glass shards glittering, embedded deeply as the needle-points of foxtails. It cannot be pried out with a scalpel. My anger is impassive, a cold and calculating causal antecedent of epigenetics passed down through generations. It was a gift from my mother, passed down from her father, passed down from his mother. It was a benefaction that would have been better left abandoned generations back.
There were good reasons for the anger: the marital pact that made my great-grandmother into a slave, so far from a beloved wife. The childhood abuse inflicted by someone my grandfather trusted. The way my mother’s childhood was darkened by her father’s addiction and alcoholism, because that’s what secrets writhe and twist into when left unshared. My mom has done—is doing—her damndest to outrun the promise of those genetics: by escaping to the other side of the country, by interrogating its existence in therapy, by looking it in the eye and not backing down. In many ways she has succeeded, she continues to succeed. But sometimes, especially when I was a teenager—when she felt frightened, backed against a wall, left with only bared teeth and claws for protection—the anger coiled at the base of her spine reared its head and hissed at me, her eldest child, in warning.
(I suspect that even if she had somehow been able to remain passive through the entirety of my childhood, a near impossibility with a headstrong child like me, I would have come into it regardless. My anger, after all, is my promised birthright, and you cannot run away from the blood pumping through your veins.)
At first, the anger was merely a flash, a starshine burst streaking across the sky before disappearing. What did I have to really be angry about at thirteen? But as I got older, life’s cruelties and complications stoked the fires of my rage. My body began to ache, my spine twisted and curling into itself for reasons no doctors could explain. Before I graduated high school, I gave my heart to men who betrayed me, who left me to handle STIs and abortions alone. Before I graduated college, I married a man who punished me for every single thing he hated about himself, using his words and his hands to illustrate his loathing. I met his fury with my own silver-steel, and our anger clashed like blades in a sword fight.
After years, I finally escaped him and floundered, searching for meaning in my work as a mortician—my dream career as a child, a place where I could make sense out of the pain of others while ignoring my own. I struggled to understand why there was so much hurt in my life, and when I couldn’t find answers I simply simmered in the familiar warmth of my own anger. At least that was something I could understand—unlike my spine, which still stymied me and every doctor I saw. Then my jaw began to dislocate, and not even the cold calculations of a surgical suite could realign my teeth into orderly rows like headstones. My left foot followed, a forest fire burning up my shin when I stood straight and tall for funeral services. They twisted two screws into my ankle, but still my bones escaped. Eventually, finally, someone gave a name to my agony and diagnosed me with an incurable, rare degenerative disease; that was only a relief until my diagnosis stole away my deathcare work and my fertility and my ability to heal even the smallest of wounds. Eventually, someone with letters abbreviated at the end of their name added PTSD to my chart.
(How do you carefully paraphrase the traumas of your life? Stack them up and count them like laundry quarters, tarnished and dulled instead of silver-shiny and new? How cut and dry they sound, written down on paper, carefully constructed around proper syntax and the right punctuation.)
I was not yet in my third decade, yet my life had already offered a litany of inescapable hurts. There were good reasons for my anger. I’d lived through enough to last lifetimes. It was unfair and overwhelming and exhausting, but mostly it just made me mad. Some days my anger was so great that I worried I would explode and immolate everyone else around me; other days I worried (perhaps, more accurately, I wished) that I would burn myself down instead. I lived and breathed anger because it was what I had been taught, what my mother had known, what her father had imparted. I spewed fire and smoke and frightened everyone around me.
There was never a silver-screen moment where someone forced me to decide on doing and being better before I could move on to something better, too. There was simply the lived reality of recognizing that my life would be what it would be, and so far it had mostly been hard. I could continue waving the torch of familial fury with all the reasons life had granted me to be angry, I could let my anger smolder and scorch until it destroyed me, or I could try to change the cycle.
A conscious shift required understanding what I wanted to transform my anger into, and what I wanted most was whatever was its exact opposite. What was the light to the darkness of my rage? What was the softness to the hardness of my hurt? If anger was the desire to annihilate and decimate, to leave behind only ashes and then to salt and raze even those until nothing green could grow, then kindness must be the diametric opposition to my wrath. Kindness was the desire to build up, to recreate. It was gentleness and sympathy, affection and loving softness. It was careful nurturing and encouragement until you’d coaxed something verdant from the ground and surrounded yourself with lush new growth.
And so I began to focus my anger into sharp, precision-honed kindness. I wielded this sharp kindness like a weapon in the face of a cold world and a brutality-filled life. Before, in moments where I might normally detonate into a frenzied grenade of ire, I channeled my outrage into deliberate softness instead. I tamped down my furor, consolidating it from unfiltered lividity into something more useful. I packed away my anger, carefully folded it and placed it on the highest shelf of my heart, and used every opportunity I could to purposefully choose kindness instead.
This conscious shift put me in a new position of control and granted me a strength that anger never had. Anger had been pure powerlessness, on my knees at the mercy of my own uncontrollable rage. Kindness was a choice, a mastery of regulation that didn’t leave me cursing myself for how I’d ended up hurting others. Being kind meant not having to back down, because no one could point out my kindness as a character flaw or inability to restrain myself. No one could tell me that I’d lost myself in the impotence of my own vexation. Being kind meant pausing, breathing, and focusing. It was (and is) a skill; it requires practice to hone and properly wield, and still, I do not always succeed.
The world remains cruel. My life is still hard, and my body will always betray me. I cannot control other people—the way that they may treat me and the possible indignities of their indifference. But I can always control myself. Choosing to be kind in the face of the world’s cruelties requires a colossal amount of strength, but adjusting the warp and weft of my anger into something calmly beautiful has been life-changing.
My anger is now my kindness, and my kindness is my strength.