Bullish: In Praise of Anger (and How to Use It)

Today was one of those “We just have to make sure you don’t have a brain tumor” kinds of days.

While I plan throughout the week, I usually write my columns the day they’re published. Today, I had an appointment with an audiologist at 11am to look into the cause of a hearing loss I’ve had in one ear (I wrote in Bullish: Preparing for Getting Hit By a Truck about Ménière’s Disease helping me to become more focused and less of an asshole). I brought my laptop, and sat in the waiting room working on a column on a completely different topic as an old man across from me absentmindedly moaned while adjusting his hearing aid. (Waiting rooms full of deaf people can really startle a hearing person).

A video about the services of the Center for Hearing and Communication played on repeat. A young woman, Mariella, had lost her hearing to meningitis at a young age, just after arriving in New York from the Dominican Republic. She got a cochlear implant at the same time she was struggling to learn English, and was doing very poorly in school. At her eighth grade graduation, a teacher was wearing a microphone that was being broadcast to Mariella’s hearing aids, and the teacher neglected to turn off the mic before asking another teacher, “What do you think is going to happen to Mariella?” The teacher replied, “Mariella’s going to end up flipping burgers at McDonald’s.”

I suppose I would have sympathy if Mariella had, sadly, accepted that and lowered her expectations. But it would be the kind of sympathy you have when you’re breaking up with someone who is crying; you feel bad, but you also would strongly prefer to be elsewhere, thinking about something else. Of course, the fact that Mariella is featured in an inspirational video is a good clue that that’s not what happened. She tells us that, after that remark, her life “completely changed,” and that “If I ever, ever have anything to do with McDonald’s, I’m going to own McDonald’s.” Someone pissed her off, and it worked brilliantly.

She’s now at NYU. (It also probably won’t hurt that she’s gorgeous).

I put aside the column I was working on (on pre-Internet productivity tips — that’ll come next week or the week after) and thought about anger.

Nothing makes me angrier than cheaters. And I realize that my idea of “cheating” might not be totally rational, so I restrain my feelings and try to behave appropriately. For instance, I feel that I have worked my entire life to live in a Manhattan apartment with a dishwasher (non-New Yorkers, this is rare, I promise you — some of us have bathtubs in our kitchens). I also like places where the staff learns to pronounce “Ms. Dziura.” So when I saw some just-out-of-college chick getting moved into my building by her parents, who looked wealthy enough to pay her rent, I was ready to cut a bitch.

I kept this to myself at the time. Of course, the young woman could’ve been a successful young entrepreneur who earned everything she had. Or maybe she’s dying of a horrible illness and her parents wanted her to be as comfortable as possible in her final months by getting her a nice apartment and a spray tan. I have no way to know.

But I mention it because, actually, while that girl’s parents may be promoting her health and well-being by moving her into a nice, safe building, I personally have been motivated to succeed — and have gained unusual experiences and certain strongly expressed personality qualities — by having to live in East Harlem and get sexually harassed and deal with rats and auto theft a lot. That happened in 2004. I was new to New York. I was still having a hard time distinguishing office buildings from apartment buildings, so sometimes I’d look up, starry-eyed, and declare that — by dammit — someday I would live in Lincoln Center! Then I would go back to East 117th, stare at a rat, and plot my next move.

Anger is motivating. In college, I was on the boxing team. For a summer, I was even its captain. Now, I do not actually recommend boxing; in fact, I stopped because — like many women — I lack the bony, Neanderthal-style eyebrow ridge that protects (some) men’s eyes from punches. Getting hit in the eyeballs is not a sport.

But there is something truly exhilarating about getting punched in the face. (I tried to find a clip of the rich ladies’ fight club from 30 Rock, but alas!) I’ve written numerous times about cultivating empathy and other productive emotions as part of the product you offer to your company or clients. You can also cultivate anger.

I don’t want to write a whole big thing about boxing — the world is all too full of women who do more writing about boxing than actual boxing (we get it, you’re empowered!) — but I remember hitting the heavy bag at practice one day with some guys, one of whom commented that he really needed boxing as an outlet for his aggression. Everyone agreed. I thought to myself, I’m not really surprised. But I had to really work up some aggression just to come here. Sometimes I have to imagine that all of you are really racist before I hit you. I wrote in a column about egg donation that an awful lot of what we think of as our eternal selves is really due to hormones. I’m not too surprised that nature gave most of the loving-adorable-things hormones and the punching-things hormones to mostly different people, thus theoretically cutting down on the punching of babies.

A certain amount of anger is quite healthy. Even in Brave New World, where everyone’s sexy and calm and well-sexed, you have to go get your anger substitute. Anger breeds urgency; we’ve built a society in which urgency is needed to assure the kind of life the
Swedish (I’m obsessed with the Swedish) are guaranteed from birth.

I’m not sure that praise or other stabs at blitheness motivate people so much as righteous anger. I once taught an SAT class in the Bronx. I believe in standardized tests as one of many measures that allow smart and/or hardworking young people to prove themselves against the more privileged. Those tests have their flaws, but they are also quantifiable; it’s easier to learn algebra and vocabulary words from a book than it is to learn the secret handshake and suddenly develop a network of affable, powerful family friends.

The class was free for the kids, who were supposedly the cream of the crop at a school locked down with metal detectors and police-state style security. Now, I galvanize. That is what I am on this earth for. I am not going to cure cancer, but I think there’s a good chance that I will help motivate someone who will do something fucking amazing (if that’s you, um, please email me in ten years). And here, it just didn’t work. It crushed me. Almost the entire class was girls, and they were all African-American. I gave a little speech that I’ve also given at public libraries to great effect — I tell them what I charge the wealthy for tutoring. And then I tell them that my own parents could never have afforded that, and that I did it all myself with books from the library, and they can too. That hard work is free, and 90% of wealthy students can’t bring themselves to do much of it, or else their parents have booked them into so many expensive activities that they simply don’t have the unbroken stretches of time needed for focused, solitary achievement. The girls looked at me as though I had made a truly unreasonable request. I had had a little contact with the teachers who had recommended these students for the program, and I think these girls were getting praised every day just for showing up to that school and staying out of trouble. They were damned by praise. They would have been better served by fury at the situation life had put them in every time someone frisked them for weapons at seven-thirty in the fucking morning.

I talked in some detail about urgency in Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE. If you want kids, your biological clock is a pretty good motivational tool. If you’re still on your parents’ dime at 25, you’re going to have to turn in a superstar performance if other people are going to be able to live on your dime within the next decade or so. You don’t get a lot of time to hover in the self-sufficiency zone before needing to move even beyond that to the part where you pay all of the life expenses of another person who is adorable, but illiterate, incontinent, and unable to even order takeout.

Looking back, I think I was actually pretty strongly affected by, um, the 1992 made-for-TV movie For Richer, For Poorer starring Jack Lemmon. From IMDB: “Fresh out of a college, a young man lazes about his family’s estate, which irritates his father, a self-made millionaire who hatches a bankruptcy plan that he hopes will inspire his son to get a job.” The part that kind of killed me was when Jack Lemon’s CEO character tries to figure out why his son is so lazy. He calls his top employees into his office and asks them if their fathers were great men. To the contrary, they all reply — they were drunk, abusive, nonexistent. So Jack Lemmon liquidates his fortune, hands it out to the homeless in cash, and tells his family that they’re all broke. Spoiler alert: everything turns out pretty well in the end. But more interesting was this review left by “A user from South Africa”:

This movie was very pertinent to me; not because I have bratty kids but because as a man who came from nothing and made a reasonable amount of money, the thought is always in the back of your mind that you could do it again. Easily. Hell, with my experience and brilliance maybe in half the time..

I watched this film in awe. The lack of success in doing it again is truly breathtaking! It honestly made me think long and hard about what I had and what I had achieved, and that my best plan was HOLDING ON TO IT!!!

Yes. Don’t count on getting more than one shot at all of this.

As it turns out, my life choices — starting a company at 19, doing great and then doing terribly, failing, moving to New York, failing some more, then figuring out some things — led to my living without health insurance for a decade, and thus hoping that weird “ear pressure” thing I had in 2007 would just go away. It didn’t. Turns out, when that happens, you need to see someone within six weeks to try to stop the damage. I’m off to get checked for brain tumors (if I ever start writing Bullish columns about “manifesting your dreams” through spiritual energy, that is probably a sign of a brain tumor!) Also, fortunately, hearing aids can now look like sexy Bluetooth earpieces.

This makes me angry, but it’s a good angry. I’m sort of angry, in principle, that America doesn’t have national health insurance. But the anger that I’m actually really feeling is the kind of anger that makes rival football teams really play with “a lot of heart” even at something that, in the grand scheme of things, is just a game. The anger I’m feeling is the kind that Dylan Thomas wants us to have against mortality itself. You want that anger. Losing that anger is a living death.

A friend asked on Facebook the other day whether he should accept a friend request from someone who had bullied him in high school. I thought immediately of Shemelissa Shmundershand (let’s go with that, okay?), who pointed out to everyone on my eighth grade orchestra trip that I was wearing clothes from K-Mart. This was true. It also made me practice the viola as much as thirty hours per week to compensate for the fact that she and all the other rich kids in the orchestra had private lessons outside of class. I did accept Shmelissa’s Facebook friend request. Every time she updates her status, I feed my little ball of anger a delicious hard candy. Most people would say that it’s best to be “big” about these things, and forget. Grownups let these things go. Hmmn.

I think that, at some point in your life, you probably want to transition into a state of Zen-like equilibrium, in which all your past resentments float away. You know, when you’re fifty, or when you go into a pupa and wake up as Gwyneth Paltrow. Realistically, though, you might need therapy to help with letting those things go. To pay for therapy, you should probably stay angry now, and use your anger to punch back at whatever’s holding you down.

There is no Zen hustle.

I’m glad everyone liked last week’s unicorn column! Remember, even unicorns have righteous anger. That’s why their horns are so stabby.

Share This Post:
    • SpringChicken

      Love your columns Jen. I recently went freelance and you’re a constant source of inspriation/ tough love. Also, ‘productivity unicorn’ was awesome, it’s so becoming a thing.

      • Jen Dziura

        Thank you!

    • Jen Dziura

      If anyone wants to see Mariella’s video, it’s here:
      http://www.chchearing.org/news-events/events/centennial-gala

      • colette

        That video was amazing. I really really hope that that girl becomes some super-powerful attorney or politician and just STICKS it to that “teacher”

    • MelbaToast

      I knew it. I knew you were a violist. Right on.

    • Nev

      Jen Dziura, I´m so in love with your mindset. I always enjoy your columns very much.

    • ManicD

      It’s wonderful that Mariella didn’t take her teachers’ cruel comment to heart, but unfortunately the schools are FULL of Teachers with the same attitude this one exhibited. I experienced a systematic application of that kind of treatment and sadly didn’t have the confidence or toughness to take it in stride and it became a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. It took me a lifetime to figure out why I was a failure and yet people kept telling me how smart I was. For me, it started in 2nd grade with an incident that at almost 60 remains fresh in my mind, and by High School it was too late. Not that it carried over from Grade School, but looking back by HS the damage was done. I guess the motto to the story, if indeed there is one, would be…”Parents, pay close attention to whom you hand over your children for instruction.”

    • Megan

      Jen, I bookmark a lot of blogs. My Google Reader is a mess. Somehow I haven’t bookmarked Bullish yet, but I never miss one because I always come here on my own, hoping there’s a new one. I agree with Nev — I’m in love with your mindset. You rock!

      Re: anger. I noticed recently that I am angry a lot; I think it’s kind of unhealthy. This article has been really helpful for me, but I’m still not sure where the line is between anger that makes me depressed and anger that lights a fire under my ass. Any general thoughts you have about this would be much appreciated.