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In Praise of Rage

On welcoming the most unlikely of muses

Prone to inertia, like other bodies moving through space, I find rage a loyal spur. As a writer, nothing drives me to the page as reliably as rage and its offshoots: annoyance, irritation, frustration, indignation, anger, and outrage—an interesting, late development that is etymologically distinct. From the French outr-, its original meaning was an act that went beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior. Now we also use it to name the emotion those very acts arouse: we are outraged against the outrages perpetuated against us and other, undeserving beings.

How seductive is the pleasure of being right, righteous, wronged. The heart is aflame, the muscles coiled, ready to strike. Deep in the brain, twin almonds called the amygdalae—dubbed the “fight cells” by neurobiologist David J. Anderson—spark into action. (In Anderson’s lab, male mice whose amygdalae were hyperstimulated by lasers attacked each other, their females, and even a rubber glove.)

In the human body, as adrenaline surges through our cells, it activates whatever rage patterns we have put into place: making art, weeping to a friend, binge eating, hitting a pillow or a pet or a spouse. Ethically, adrenaline is neutral: it wants a fight, or at least some kind of action (flight?). It is our great big ethical frontal lobes that must choose the right path.

As a thinker, I am inclined to hem and haw: doesn’t rage cause harm? But rage writing for me is effortless, flashing out pure as fire, uncomplicated by doubts. I have come to understand rage as existing at the far end of a spectrum that begins, typically, with frustration—a state of angry helplessness—and progresses through irritation, hurt, blame. Rage is the peak, the full-bodied wine of this spectrum, the deep red saturation. When you reach rage, there is nowhere left to go. You explode; you come down. As terrifying as rage sometimes is, if we cut it short, we may branch off into even more difficult territory. Frustration ripens into burnout and despair. Hurt can be nursed into shame. Anger, turned over for years by an obsessive mind, darkens into hate or paranoia.

There are also beautiful side lanes: Hurt can open up into empathy for others who have suffered like us. Compassion and peace lurk somewhere in the trees. Curiosity is ever ready to pick up, investigate, and defuse the tension. We find these sun-washed groves not by fleeing rage, but by entering it, perhaps through meditation, various therapies, making art, grappling with our anger through intimacy, and love.

I had a friend once who was deeply depressed, so I took her to a meditation exercise focused on depression. The teacher offered a scenario: “If you were walking down the street, and someone you knew passed by without acknowledging you, what thoughts would arise?”

I was surprised to hear people diminish themselves in explanation: maybe they’d offended the person, or the acquaintance was mad at them for reasons unknown, or perhaps they looked horrible that day so the person decided to ignore them, and so on.

Later, I told my friend that my instinctive response would have been, “Fuck you, I didn’t want to talk to you, anyway!”

And my friend said to me, “That’s why you’re not depressed.”

If my rage is a defense against debilitating depression, I bow to it deeply. If it is my moral compass—something is wrong, wrong, wrong—I honor it as a guide.

One morning after that, something woke me far earlier than I intended. I was angry, for those women who apologized about their own existence. I groaned, rolled over to my notebook and scrawled: Your rage is pomegranates spilling open on ice, is the flute’s thin silver seam, is a volcano spitting rivulets of fire to wash clean these corrupt lands, is women’s oars slicing the sea to steer your gorgeous fucking hot mess goddamn revolution.

I didn’t know if this line would become a story or a poem or remain in that notebook forever, but I had shifted from rage to something else: curiosity, language, image. Rage is a muse, and I welcome it like a divine guest—burning too bright, far beyond my powers of perception, to be sure, but never to be rejected. In its hot, purifying embrace, I know who I am.

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