Monday, January 02, 2012

Has Anger Solved Your Other Problems?

Get me started on posting again, and I can’t seem to stop, sorry! Actually, I have been saving up this post since last spring, and it’s another email post, so it sort of autofilled. It’s about something that absolutely delighted me and made me even more aware of the value of not hanging on to anger.

First, check out this post by Anne Nahm (and her link to her earlier post) for a beautiful illustration of this tenet. She claims that she would have responded to something with anger if she’d had her wits about her, but I am skeptical, and anyway it ended up not mattering.

I’ve written before about how bad my college experience was. Much of the blame for this is on me — I did no research, applied to only one, and never even visited the place before my brother dropped me off with a trunk of clothes and a bag of feta cheese (a story for another time). However, it was genuinely a bad place. It has an exalted reputation, and therefore does not have to treat its students well. The students there were also … troubled. Already damaged — by their ambition, by the pressure they or their parents put on them to excel, by the fact that they had spent so little time developing their own personalities, by privilege … who knows. I made some friends, but none of them are even on my Facebook page now.

And I had an unhappy, often angry roommate there who ending up sticking me with a big phone bill (this was the pre-cell era; long distance calls were pricey). After asking a few times, I figured it was better to write it off rather than create more bad feeling in the universe over some money. (That is not to say that I was saintly about it; oh no, I complained.) I managed to come up with the money, but I had a collection service on my back for a while.

I wrote it off, but I never forgot it. I always wondered why she had done it. I didn’t think she was evil, and I thought she had plenty of money.

Then last spring, this popped into my inbox:
From: College Roommate
Subject: oh my
Date: May 27, 2011 2:32 AM

Dear DM,

It’s [Roommate], from so so long ago. I stiffed you for a phone bill. I owe you money... with interest. It’s been bothering me for about ... twenty years. Would love to pay you back! For real!

I hope this finds you well!
From: DoctorMama
Subject: oh my
Date: May 27, 2011 10:17 AM

oh my indeed!
I don’t think I’ve been this surprised by an email, like, ever.

It makes me happy. Not for the money — which of course I don’t need/want now and would never accept. Happy because it did always bother me — again, not the money, but because I always wondered about what bad place you were in in your head then, and why, and that I never knew if you ended up thriving or sinking. I know I was in a bad place ... I hated it there and did not thrive until I left.

(I have something that has bothered me for 30 years: I once arranged to stay with a penpal in France, but when I got to Europe ditched her to travel with my new boyfriend instead. I was only 15 and I suppose I should cut myself some slack, but somewhere out there is a middle-aged French woman who is probably still pissed off, and I’d love to apologize. I have no way to do so — I don’t even remember her name. Maybe there’s a Craigslist Missed Connections in France?)

Anyway. Find a random college student who is hard up for cash and give it to her, and the world will be back on its axis. And then tell me about it if it’s a good story.

Although I will never attend any college function, I do look through the reports, and it looks like you HAVE thrived? I would like to hear details if you feel like it.

College was a surreal time in my life — as if I saw a movie about it rather than lived it. None of it felt authentic. I am grateful for my life these days. My job, running, my strange husband and even stranger son — everything kind of fell into place eventually.

I’ve kept a blog for the past six years: If you want proof that I have not been bitterly adding up the interest on your debt for the past 20 years (honestly I do not even remember the amount), you can look there. Or if you want to take up running (if you don’t already), which is a crusade of mine.
From: College Roommate
Subject: oh my
Date: May 29, 2011 8:17 AM
Thank you. You are very gracious. I love your blog! I want to run!! But I don’t really know how to “start.”

Re: The phone bill. I will do it! I have just the college student in mind. Like me, she is the child of an alcoholic. Like me, going to [an overrated college] ... and like me, probably pretty broke and embarrassed about it. And struggling with the ramifications of growing up surrounded by addiction. I know her through an Alateen group I sponsor. Good. Thank you, thank you.

I think ... that I was just really broke, ashamed, lost, and wanted someone to take care of me. I was angry. I wanted someone to “pay.” And you got stuck with that. And it has haunted me for decades. It was incredibly selfish and egotistic and I so appreciate your response, on so many levels. 

College was a horrible place. It was horribly destructive for me as well. And yet ... it was a necessary stop on the journey. Able to see it more clearly now in many regards.

I will read your blog, and will have many questions about running!
So, if you are looking around for a New Year’s resolution (and are already running, of course), try finding some anger and/or guilt, root it up, and let it go.


Anonymous said...

Sigh. Yes. But doesn't part of the glorious spectrum of being fully human include being annoyed, or irked, or angry, or enraged? From an existential viewpoint, isn't it your privilege and burden to get pissed off from time to time? To find something really fucking annoying? Also, Buddhism says these are valid feelings and should be listened to and respected for what they are trying to tell us about ourselves. I've gotten to the point when I'm angry I can tell if it's coming from a fear or needy place, or if it's something genuinely deservedly driving me batshit crazy (like a neighbor's dog who is left out to bark all day every day. Or a child punching me in the groin). What's trickier is in close family relationships, especially with my spouse, is to tell the difference then between fear-based anger and righteous anger.

DoctorMama said...

r3 - oh yes.

mary said...

What a GREAT post! I am also the child of an alcoholic and although I never stiffed anyone with a phone bill, I am SURE I did other things that were just as harmful to others. This story is such an inspiration for me, as I find myself to be angry and annoyed often.

I too, like r3, thought that it was my right to be angry when injustice has been served. What I didn't realize, until recently, is that every time I get annoyed, enraged, irked, angry, I was basically saying "I am better than you." or "I would not be doing what you are doing, if I were in your shoes." You see, my anger comes from a prideful place, the place where I think I am BETTER or would DO better than whoever I am judging.

I am not saying that it's wrong to be angry, or to feel hurt. But it's when I take that out on others, that they turn ugly. Or use them to manipulate others to change.

Anyway, GREAT post doctormama!

OMDG said...

@Mary -- It's funny. When *I* get angry at someone, it's because I perceive that they think they're better than I am. Which is of course, just a twist on what you're saying you do in your comment.

The thing is, it does me absolutely no good whatsoever to be angry about it. What a waste of emotional energy! What I really need is to assess whether I think the other person's viewpoint has merit, and then modify my behavior accordingly. If I don't think I need to change, then I should be confident enough in my approach that I don't care what the other person thinks, and just ignore their behavior towards me.

I guess it all boils down to figuring out whose opinions count, and whose do not, and responding accordingly.

DoctorMama said...

OMDG - I think you mean *which* opinions count rather than *whose* opinions - yes?

OMDG said...

Haha. Depends on whose opinions they are, and what they are. Good point though.


Kehla said...

Ugh - in college, I loaned a casual friend about $200 so her heat wouldn't be turned off. I run into her about once a year, and I can't help but think something along the lines of "If you didn't owe me money I'd forgive you and we could hang out again." This is exacerbated by the fact that I know she's quite well off now and I'm still in graduate school and struggling financially. Maybe that particular anger should go at the top of my list of things to let go of.

anne nahm said...

Thank you for the link. I've been reading your post and the comments with interest.

Sheri said...

I briefly shared an apartment with another college student. She stiffed me with a utility bill and did it in a mean spirited way. There is no way I would expect her to email me back 25 years later, as I believe in my heart she is so nasty it would never occur to her to try and make ammends with me.

I think it is wonderful that your old roomate did this. Great story.

Artemisia said...

I made some monumentally bad decisions and hurt other people at the same age because I was angry at being an emotional orphan and wanted someone to take care of me. I've felt kind of alone in that. So to your old roommate, thanks.

snozma said...

I am finally getting it, oh wise one!

I got the running. Not that I always did the running. But I did get it.

Now I get the lack of anger thing. I don't always do it. But I try and I understand so very, very deeply why it is something worth wanting.

I don't have very many angers I'm hanging onto any more.

College was awful for me as well.

I almost cannot believe this story is true. It makes me so EXTREMELY happy. Redemption! The screwed up person remembered and tried to make amends. I do not believe it. My greatest wish is for every person who has ever sucked to get a do-over and fix their suckiness. And how I wish I could fix mine. I love that you've given us evidence how it can happen. People can get unstuck, they can become their better selves.

This is already the best story of 2012, for me.

The very same thing happened to me, but she was so very, very damaged I don't think my anger lasted for too long. I can't think of anyone I want to hear from--what I want is for every person who was ever a jerk to me to be happy. That sounds mighty ridiculous but it is true.

Finally, there are the people in my family, which is a longer project since it requires a kind of full acceptance of other people and their stuckness and the past that it's going to take a much longer time. Or maybe some day it will just happen, I don't know.

DoctorMama said...

Ah, family. Why is family so. much. harder? I struggle much more with this.

zb said...

Wonderful that she wrote and she's thriving and that there was an explanation for why she had been so mean.

Like Anne Frank (maybe, though I've always thought that maybe she didn't write that, and that she indeed might be the exception) that people are generally good at heart. So, it's nice to see evidence in favor. I also believe in virtuous circles. Who knows, this email might have initiated a chain that will leave another room mate with a friend and partner in surviving college instead of two girls being sad and angry next to each other?

For a more over-hyped heartwarming (a documentary film resulted, hence the hype) read the story of Chris Mburu and Hilde Back and a circle that includes the nazis, swedes, kenya, the united states, and the UN.

Anonymous said...

Almost thirty years ago my husband and I had a small electrical contracting business. We were doing a lot of subcontracting for a contractor neighbor of ours --- he ended up filing for bankruptcy, moving across the country, and stiffing us for a couple thousand dollars. At the time that was a lot of money.

At first we were really angry, and it hurt even more because we'd considered him a friend. But as time went on it just became a minor sad event in our otherwise remarkably fortunate lives.

A few years ago we had occasion to visit friends who live a couple hours away from where this fellow moved. We found him in the phone book and called him --- he invited us to stop by, which we did. We had a nice visit --- he apologized for his behavior, explained a bit about why he'd felt trapped by the situation, and we said hey, no hard feelings.

At Christmas that same year we got a card from him and his wife. How nice, we thought, and then as we opened the card a check fell out. It was made out for the same amount by which we'd been stiffed, plus interest for all those years. Needless to say, we were stunned. Would he have sent it if we hadn't made the effort to connect with him, if he hadn't had the chance to ask for forgiveness? I don't know, but I do know that I felt better depositing the check knowing that we'd already forgiven him.

Happy New Year to all,

Anonymous said...

Dr. Mama, You talk about how people can be "damaged" by ambition.

I think this observation is interesting, smart, true, and a little subversive.

Can you link to the spot where you talk about college? I remember the post about your dealer boyfriend but no others about your college experience.


E. said...

I love your response. Great idea. Such a wonderful story. Sometimes the bad wrinkles in the universe get smoothed out, and when they do, it's a beautiful thing.

Sheila Callahan said...

I wrote a comment but I think I lost it because I couldn't read the words to type in the box to prove I wasn't a robot. I hate those boxes!

Anyway, a friend sent me the link to this post, which I absolutely love, especially having just returned and just posted about my own 30th college reunion at a place where I was quite miserable as a student.

Thank you for this wonderful story.