The Healing Power of Anger

Remind me how to lay my rage at the roots as an offering, in trust that new life will grow.
— Pixie Lighthorse, Prayers of Honoring Voice

It's unnerving to acknowledge the depths of my anger to myself, let alone publicly. Maybe it's even self-indulgent; I know I'm a privileged white woman with a pretty easy life, untouched by the vast array of suffering that so many people deal with every day.

That said, there is something powerful and healing about naming our emotions and experiences, and being willing to drag them out of the shadows and into the light. 

In her book Prayers of Honoring Voice, Pixie Lighthorse acknowledges the sacredness of anger. "Thank you for this day to get it up and out," she begins the prayer titled "Honoring Rage."  

I, too, need to honor rage, because my entire journey toward the DF was initially inspired by deep anger. And my willingness to face that anger head-on, which has not been easy, has propelled me forward in ways I could not have imagined. 

My beautiful, fiery little girl - busting out of her swaddle from the first hour. 

My beautiful, fiery little girl - busting out of her swaddle from the first hour. 

I came to this path thanks to a profoundly female experience: childbirth. My children are the great loves of my life, but my experiences bringing each of them into the world were dramatically different. When my daughter was born, I was wracked with fear, confusion and anxiety. I was given an epidural before my contractions really even began, and I felt numb and bewildered throughout labor and delivery. It is painful to admit, but the only thing I really felt when she was placed into my arms was overwhelming, bone-crushing exhaustion. Thankfully, the bone-crushing love eventually followed, but her arrival was in no way a spiritual experience for me.  

Everything was different with my son. I'd had a spiritual epiphany of sorts while pregnant with him, and I came to feel as if he were guiding me along my path, helping me find my way. It's one of the reasons he is named Brendan, after the Catholic patron saint of navigators.

I've already written about how his arrival was a transcendent experience for me, and about how, after his birth, I went seeking spiritual guidance and came up empty-handed. At first, I was simply confused. Maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough or in the right places. Surely birth should be considered one of the most significant spiritual experiences a human being could have in her lifetime.

Her lifetime. That was when it hit me. Women aren’t the ones telling the spiritual stories. Is it any wonder a uniquely female experience would be overlooked among our major spiritual traditions? 

The search for spiritual meaning is a human experience, one that supersedes biology or gender. Still, the story and context of what it means to be a spiritually seeking woman seems to be subsumed by the assumption of a universal experience, one that encompasses both men and women. And that universal experience is always framed from the perspective of "he." Kind of like “all men are created equal.” Our inclusion is implied. 

It's hard to convey how deeply disappointed I was when I fully grasped this. I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. I’d been a spiritual seeker (albeit a mostly closeted one) my whole life, wandering my way through Christianity, Buddhism and Shamanism. Now I felt betrayed by all of them, as though they were telling me that God didn't care about my story or experiences, and I understood why I’d never been able to fully commit to a particular spiritual path.

The anger didn't come right away. It was a long, slow burn as I began to fully recognize the impact of this one-sided spirituality on our world, and how far back it went. 

“Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestations,” wrote Joseph Campbell. What happens when one-half of humanity is simply not accounted for in the sacred stories and myths that are intended to help us find meaning in our lives?  

Answer: we end up with a deeply imbalanced culture that caters exclusively to the needs and desires of an in-group, with the assumption that this group is the norm and representative of all. We end up with the patriarchal system we have now. 

“Patriarchy means the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society in general,” writes Gerda Lerner.  It is a system that is unquestionably powered by an inherent belief in female inferiority and failings.     

Yeah, I know patriarchy is one of those words that angry feminists love to throw around. Critics can rightfully point out the tremendous progress women have made in the last 100+ years, and argue very persuasively that white, well-educated women like myself aren't exactly suffering in this country. Fair enough.

But here’s the tricky thing about patriarchy: it has shifted and morphed and changed, just as everything else has in the last 2,000 years. That doesn’t mean it has ceased to exist.

Patriarchy “does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence and resources,” writes Lerner. “One of the most challenging tasks of women’s history is to trace with precision the various forms and modes in which patriarchy appears historically, the shifts and changes in its structure and function, and the adaptations it makes to female pressures and demands.”

My initial realization that women’s spiritual stories didn’t exist was just the beginning of a long fall down a rabbit hole of understanding how patriarchy functions. I started connecting the dots and I suddenly saw the non-existent role women have played in shaping the world I now live in.

Our political systems. Our academic institutions. Our economic models. Our business world. And yes, our religious institutions. Even the traditions that I’d been turning to for comfort and insight didn’t have me in mind at all. None of it was created with female participation or perspective. Did it really matter if I now had nearly full and equal rights within all aspects of my society if that society was never designed to support me in the first place?

Nothing to see here - just a bunch of old white dudes making decisions about women's healthcare.

Nothing to see here - just a bunch of old white dudes making decisions about women's healthcare.

Yes, we’ve made tremendous progress. But we’re making progress in a culture that still assumes what currently exists is the norm, that all we women need to do is just lean in, quit complaining and enjoy the seat at the table that we now (supposedly) have, rather than asking what I think are much more interesting questions: What would our society look like now if we hadn’t excluded 50 percent of the population at the outset? And how do we unlearn the cultural conditioning that we’ve all been unknowingly consuming and begin dreaming up a new, more equitable structure? 

We can't answer the first question, of course, although some feminists have argued that the initial subjugation of women, which we know is at least 2,000 years old, made it much easier to divide all of us into "in" and "out" groups and oppress a whole host of other people as well. Would our society be more balanced had women had a say in the beginning? I like to think so, but who the hell knows?  

As for dreaming up a more equitable structure, I don't know how to do that either, but I’m positive it can be done, and I know that women have an incredibly important role to play in doing so. The fact that so many of us have figured out how to not only survive but thrive in a world that was never built for us is a testament to our collective strength and resilience.  And reclaiming a fully empowered spiritual identity is an excellent place to start.

Gloria Steinem supposedly once said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”  For a long time I silently fumed, trying to figure out my next moves. I was afraid to talk about my feelings because I didn't trust myself to articulate them without erupting into unprompted, possibly unwarranted fury.

Eventually, however, my rage became a gateway to the realization of how much power I actually had within me. I kept falling down the rabbit hole. I read and read and read. I wrote and wrote and wrote, mostly for my eyes only. Gradually I found my voice, and with it, I found a way to heal. 

"Be there when my eyes clear, the thunderclouds part, and the layers shed - as I give voice to what I've been holding in for too long. Let me hold the black mass in my gentle hands and weep over it, and give thanks that I have overcome the ordeal of carrying it," writes Lighthorse. 

Seethe first, transmute later. For me, it's a process that works. 

 

 

The Sound of Silence

Women will starve in silence until new stories are created which confer on them the power of naming themselves.
— Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar

I am so damn tired of holding my tongue. It’s an impulse almost as natural as breathing for me, but with the opposite effect. Breathing keeps me alive. Shutting down my own voice is killing my soul.

The sound of silence. That’s what it sounds like on the outside. On the inside, it’s something else entirely. There are ideas, opinions, suggestions floating around, all mixed up with fear and anxiety about whether I’m smart enough or qualified enough to have those ideas, opinions and suggestions – all of it teeming in an unholy pool of frustration and anger at why this is such a common occurrence for me.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. And I offer credit (or blame), at least in part, to my legacy as a woman.

A friend and I recently visited the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco for an exhibit called “Worshipping Women: Power and Devotion in Indian Painting.”

One of a handful of paintings from the "Worshipping Women" exhibit. 

One of a handful of paintings from the "Worshipping Women" exhibit. 

The exhibit turned out to not really be an exhibit at all, only a handful of paintings along one short wall. The gallery surrounding it had a few sculptures of Hindu Goddesses, but overall I was disappointed.  I had expected more.

Museums, by nature, are quiet places. But as we walked from one gallery to the next, echoing in the silence I could hear the noise of men – the men who created the art, the men depicted in the sculptures, the men explaining the significance of the art. The silence of women was deafening.

Of course there are plenty of amazing women curating art collections and creating art today. But walking through the museum reminded me that the world of art, like all other aspects of our culture, is predominantly a world of men – offering us memorials to their ambitions, their faith, their achievements.  And I’m a little tired of hearing from them.

Where are the historical stories of women? I mean the real ones - not the stories told by men about women’s beauty or wickedness, but the stories told by women, about women?

What would Eve say if she could speak for herself?

What would Eve say if she could speak for herself?

History is one long tale of men who have achieved dominion over the earth, other species, and other human beings. History would have us believe that women haven’t done much of anything for the last 2,000 years, or at least nothing that’s worth talking about. I call bullshit.

What history does give us is a long, mostly unspoken story of silencing the voices of women. And what have we, as women, learned from it? How to shut up, look pretty and keep the peace.

A long time ago, this was no joke. Women could and did die for going against the grain. And we're lucky here - in a lot of other places around the world, they still do. But we've also learned our survival strategies. Since women couldn’t own property, get an education or have a job, we linked ourselves with powerful men to keep ourselves and our children alive (those of us who could, anyway, which was mainly white women here in the US). And yes, we learned how to hold our tongues.

The original women's march. 

The original women's march. 

So much has changed in the 100+ years since the women’s suffrage movement first began. And here I still am, agonizing over whether my words might call too much attention, especially the kind I don’t want.

We don’t have to look to ancient history to see the repercussions of women speaking up. We can see plenty of it today. We get insulted. We get mocked. We get formally silenced by the Senate.

At the same time, today we have more freedom and choice than in all of recorded history.  It’s a tricky situation: we’re probably not going to get killed for speaking up, but if we’re loud enough we’ll definitely see consequences. And I’m guessing most women, myself included, don’t want to be labeled an ignorant cunt for sharing our thoughts on the internet.

No one wants to receive this kind of message.

No one wants to receive this kind of message.

In the days leading up to the 2016 election, I was fascinated by Pantsuit Nation. When I joined the group there were already 250,000 members, and by Election Day the number had grown to 3 million people. It was (and still is) made up of mostly female members, and by the looks of the postings I see, the majority of members are white.   

It’s also a private group, and this seemed of utmost importance prior to the election. I saw posts from many, many women in so-called red states who felt that they could not be open about their support of our first major party female presidential candidate. I’m sure they all had reasons, every one of which probably felt incredibly valid. But I do wonder about the power of those voices, all held in check by women themselves. What might have happened if those voices had been heard more broadly? What if my own voice had been louder and more assertive?

Fast forward to today, which is International Women’s Day. We’re 50 percent of the world population and we get a whole day to ourselves – wahoo! Sarcasm aside, the organizers of the Women’s March have called for an international strike to demonstrate the impact women have on the workforce and the economy. They’ve suggested we refrain from work today, paid or unpaid.

We get a whole day just for ourselves! We all look like this in profile, too.

We get a whole day just for ourselves! We all look like this in profile, too.

I suppose my writing could be considered “work.” But given our history, silencing my voice today seems like the wrong thing to do. So I’ll honor all the women around the world who are participating in this strike by speaking up, even when it still feels scary as hell.  

I start by muffling the fears of my female ancestors that hum in my veins, telling me to keep myself small and not attract attention. In my mind, I thank them for their courage and sacrifices, and acknowledge that they’re trying to keep me safe…and then I ignore them and hit “publish” anyway.