The Alchemy of Anger

Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - 4:37 am

The Alchemy of Anger

Some reflections on anger…
…and I’m not talking about irrational rage. I mean the kind of anger we rightly feel when basic human needs (like food and shelter) are ignored, and basic human rights (like equal opportunity and freedom of speech) are denied. I mean the kind of anger that politics around the world properly evokes in a lot of people.
Many of us are afraid of our own anger. We’ve learned either to sit on it or turn away from whatever makes us mad. But anger in itself is not a bad thing — it’s a form of energy that can be used for good or for ill. Much depends on our ability to harness our anger and deploy it toward creative ends, not allowing it to explode in destructive ways.
The poet Marge Piercy is a long-time social activist who has worked to right grievous wrongs. In this poem — which begins with anger, moves through creativity and humor, and ends with a call to community — she “rides” the energy of anger into life-giving ways of being in the world that ripple out in widening circles. She’s describing the alchemy that has animated all the great nonviolent movements for social change, from the U.S. to South Africa, from Eastern Europe to South Korea.
I love the last stanza of this poem! It reminds me of a wise saying I once heard: “You can learn a lot about a person by figuring out who they mean when they say we.”
I often re-read that stanza and ask myself, “Who do I mean by we, and how can I add at least one more person to that group today?”

The Low Road
by Marge Piercy

What can they do
to you? Whatever they want.
They can set you up, they can
bust you, they can break
your fingers, they can
burn your brain with electricity,
blur you with drugs till you
can’t walk, can’t remember, they can
take your child, wall up
your lover. They can do anything
you can’t stop them
from doing. How can you stop
them? Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.

But two people fighting
back to back can cut through
a mob, a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon, an army
can meet an army.

Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

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