Is it possible to view anger positively?
Is letting go an essential aim in the healing process?
Continuing my quest for a fuller understanding of adultery and looking at sources not directly related to the issue I have found two, totally unrelated books, that have enhanced my perceptions with regards to anger and to the notion of ‘letting-go’. When first confronted with the reality of my husband’s adultery I raged like I have never raged before. I became like one of the Furies in Greek mythology; a female spirit of justice and vengeance. They were also called the Erinyes (angry ones). They punished their victims by driving them mad.
Although far less angry than I was (it has been almost three years since D-day) my memories of my anger remain with me and I won’t forget how they threatened to engulf me. Equally, the anger has not gone away, it remains a burning ember. The metaphor is apt. Burning embers can glow very hot, sometimes as hot as the fire which created them. They radiate a substantial amount of heat long after the fire has been extinguished, and if not taken care of properly can rekindle a fire that is thought to be completely extinguished and can pose a fire hazard. Being told to ‘let go’ can re-ignite the anger!
Although it is nearly three years since the discovery I have not been able to let ‘it’ go, although increasingly I am becoming confused as to what ‘it’ actually is and what letting ‘it’ go might actually mean. I remain deeply troubled that someone I loved and trusted could betray me, cheat and lie. I am troubled that his adultery was normalised by ‘friends’. I am troubled by how women treat other women so cavalierly. I am troubled by how the trauma and tragedy that is a direct consequence of adultery is swept under society’s carpet. I am troubled by the web sites of the Ashley Madison kind.
If letting go is forgiving and forgetting then I resign myself to a life of holding on. The best I have achieved is acceptance and in order to affect this I have needed to firstly bring it all in. Bring in every nasty detail of his actions. Make a diary of the events and align then to my journal of that time. Gather pictures of Pig Shit, find out about her sorry life. Go to the depths of my own emotional barrel and examine my deep rooted insecurities. Read and read and read and then read some more about adultery and infidelity and betrayal. Go on to the internet and find the experiential stories of other people’s adultery. Share the trauma and pain. Contribute to the kaleidoscope of fear, anger, hurt and hope. Learn to recognise what my body does when I think about the shitty mess that my marriage became. Maybe, one day in the future I will have this sense of letting go BUT maybe it can only be let go of when the time is right.
“There are times in life when people must know when not to let go. Balloons are designed to teach small children this.” Terry Pratchett
Interestingly I have reconciled my anger and letting go (or not letting go) by putting together two quite separate ideas. One is the idea proposed in the book ‘The Anger Habit’ by Carl Semmelroth and Donald Smith who suggest that anger is a kind of insanity in everyday life, with the hallmark being loss of self-control. “Most of what is commonly seen and labelled as anger (aggressive language and overt attacks), as well as most of what is experienced as anger (angry thoughts), are really habitual behaviours.” If, as they suggest, anger is a habit then it is something that I can have control over. But this is rather contrary to our common assumptions of anger which considers anger as a force that drives our behaviour and dangerously builds up if not released. “The resulting manoeuvres which aim at countering, deflecting, and releasing anger… wreak havoc on people’s lives.” This view of anger suggests that angry behaviour is involuntary and results in a chronic struggle among people and/or within people over their behaviours and feelings.
This book suggests an alternative view. Instead of thinking of anger as a force they consider it to be information. The feeling of anger tells us information about our self and the world around us. It is an indication that we are making a transition from distress to attack. It is this transition that they label the anger habit and it is something that we have learned and practiced over our lifetime. However, if we recognise the gap between distress and attack we are in a position to control our response. We have the opportunity to choose our behaviour, whether to attack or to consider other solutions. In order to have other solutions to consider we need the appropriate information to make that deision.
“It may be strange to think about your own anger as a warning signal about what you are about to do. But seeing anger in this way is the first step to preventing anger as a habit. It is our blindness to angry feelings as information that makes it so easy for us to view anger as out of our control”.
Whilst reading this book I became aware that their antidote to the anger habit is something that I have been unconsciously applying whilst dealing with my feelings of anger around my husband’s adultery. The antidote is quite simple: seek information in order to make more informed, better choices! For me, when I first discovered the adultery my anger turned my distress into attack. On many occasions I felt totally out of control. However, over the years I have done a lot of work whilst my husband has done all that he has needed to do in order to manifest his renewed commitment to our marriage. My work has addressed two issues; understanding the universal concept of adultery, and examining my feelings of self-worth. It helps to know that I am not on my own, that I am not insane and that you don’t have to be in an unhappy marriage for adultery to occur. It helps to know that being the OW is a wretched business no matter what ribbons and bows might be attached to the idea. It helps to know that many people deeply regret their adultery. It helps to know that his adultery had nothing to do with me or our marriage but was rooted in his emotional immaturity and lack of personal boundaries.
I still feel angry, of course, but I do not blindly attack any more and I am aware of the need to take care so that the embers do not ignite. Having accumulated all this information on adultery I feel quite an authority and this helps when listening to others whose views are not compatible with mine. It has given me a quiet confidence. But this has not been easy. I have travelled down some very dark alleyways and have not always been sure that I’d find my way home. I think adultery cuts you to your core in a way that you’d never expect, and facing this despair has been life changing for me. I have reflected upon what might be deemed to be my obsession with adultery but after reading the second of my books, Gillian Rose’s book ‘Love’s Work’ I am able to better understand the method that may lie in my madness.
Actually, it was my second reading of Rose’s book. The first reading was in 1996. Reading it in 2015 in my current personal context the book offered so much more. The theme that runs through her book is “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not” a phrase attributed to Staretz Silouan, an Eastern Orthodox monk of Russian origin. The book offers an autobiographic and philosophical perspective on life and love, and knowing that she wrote it with the cancer that would eventually kill her at the age of 48 adds a melancholy to her erudite and scholarly work.
For Gillian Rose, denial and unexamined suffering are the two main reasons for unhappiness. “It is the unhappiness of one who refuses to dwell in hell and who lives, therefore, in the most static despair”. There is no letting go of emotional stuff here. Instead it is a full embrace of that which threatens to annihilate us.
“When something untoward happens, some trauma or damage, whether inflicted by the commissions or omissions of others, or some cosmic force, one makes the initially unwelcome event one’s own inner occupation. You work to adopt the most loveless, forlorn, aggressive child as your own, and do not leave her to develop into an even more vengeful monster, who constantly wishes you ill. In ill-health as in unhappy love, this is the hardest work: it requires taking in before letting be”.
You see, she has summed it up for me. I have made my experience of my husband’s adultery my own inner occupation and made it my adopted aggressive child, preventing it from becoming a bigger, more frightful monster in my head. This activity has created an accumulation of knowledge and understanding of adultery which has offered me a sense of grace and turned my personal into a universal experience. This in turn has provided me with what Semmelroth would describe as an antidote to my anger habit. However, whilst I keep my mind in hell I am aware that I want to remain a good human being and to be this I have to accept my continuous vulnerability. This will never go away.
“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.” Martha Nussbaum
Image Credits: Angry Calendar by Stuart Miles; Hand With Butterfly by Salvatore Vuono; Dangerous Angry Leopard Tiger by khunaspix; Shattered Face by hyena reality; all via freedigitalphotos.net