There is no path to change that doesn’t come through some form of anger. Despite its taboo perception as a ‘negative’ emotion, anger is a fire that, when wielded correctly, will spark change.
At the heart of anger is longstanding hurt, and, often, oppression. From Martin Luther King to #meToo to Parkland, the oppressed find that anger with the status quo is what leads them to resistance.
To write through anger, you have to navigate layers of fear and trauma. Not easy. The sound of anger on paper can be bitter, sarcastic, closed off and inflexible.
To use anger in writing, you must engage readers with your stories. It’s in allowing the reader to empathise that you find the crack where the light gets in.
Using Your Peeves for an Advantage
I have been angry since I can remember. In an effort to use my anger for good, I studied rhetoric in college: the art of the argument. It worked! Can you turn your pulsing rage into something more useful than foaming gibberish? You can! At the heart of anger is a kind of passion. That passion is necessary for change. If you don’t care about your cause, you won’t ever see it through.
Listen, you don’t have to start with solving climate change. Let’s practice getting riled up in print over some minor peeve. I’ll walk you through it.
For me it’s shopping carts. People who leave them all over the parking lot. It drives me up a tree.
Recently, one windy day I visited the grocery store. As I climbed out of my car, I watched as unattended carts sailed about the lot, stopped only by the first vehicle they smacked against. I seethed as I ran about the lot, correcting what I saw as people’s outward expression of selfishness.
Step one: Know thyself.
Let’s start with a little self-examination. Why do wayward shopping carts drive me insane? Like anything that pushes my buttons, I needed to understand how it “triggered” me.
In this case, I just could not understand it. If you HAD a shopping cart and walked ALLLLL around the store for an hour with it, why could you *not* walk 10 more meters to return it to the cart corral?
OK. Here’s the crux of my anger: I didn’t understand the logic of the cart abandoner. Let’s keep going.
Step two: Examine assumptions.
Assumptions are what they are because we don’t tend to look at them. Therein lies the hiccup. What do I know about these morons who leave their carts around?
Now I am sure you are not one of those jerkwads. Of course not. But what I do know, after asking, is that people who do abandon shopping carts have all sorts of “reasons” for doing it.
Because I couldn’t fathom what those would be, I had to ASK and then, also, listen. I assumed people were lazy selfish bastards. That assumption had to be put to the side as I listened:
“There aren’t enough cart corrals”
“Old people appreciate it if you leave carts nearby for them.”
“I can’t leave my kids alone in the car while I return it! It’s too dangerous.”
“If I return the carts, then the guy who collects the carts will be out of a job.”
Mmm hmmm. Mmm hmmm.
Now what I “hear” is still a bunch of excuses. I’m still triggered. And yet.
What they are actually telling me is: “I have a legitimate (in my mind) reason to leave that cart there.”
Interesting. Even if I don’t agree, in order to effect change, I have to be armed with this information. I don’t agree and I’d like them to change. I can’t do it without listening.
Step Three: Creating Empathy by Acknowledging I have Issues
How do I move change? Start with asking for help, through creating empathy.
Friend, I have to admit to you, now: I’ve got a problem. I need your help. Now I see I can be unreasonable. My anger blinds me! When I see carts about in the lot, I go bonkers. You are sensible and cool and collected. Can you help me?
As an angry chicken, what I really want to do is yell my face off. What I am going to do, however, is remind my new friends how I believe it improves the life of everyone when they cease taking the action I wish to stop.
Talking about my struggle forces a self-awareness in the human brain, without blame. My goal is to make my listeners hyper-aware of shopping carts, and their actions with them. Their future interactions with carts may or not be visibly altered, but their thinking should be.
Empathy creates relationships. Raising awareness of an issue is important, but simultaneously important is gaining allies among your so-called opponents. We are usually closer together in our ideas than we think, and more likely to be influenced by those who we have relationships with.
Step Four: Using Details to Influence Memory
Not everyone is convinced in the same way. Some people need to have their Smartcar dented by a wayward hunk of metal before they become “woke.” Telling detailed stories and using imagery creates emotional impact that influences memory.
After a rather large snowstorm, I went to the grocery store per usual. The plows had done their work, having made 20-foot piles of snow toward the back of the lot.
What was so special about these snow piles? They were modern-day art sculptures of ice and twisted cart parts. Wheels and metal jutted out from all sides of the snow banks. It was an October storm. The carts remained frozen in view there until May for all to enjoy.
When I retell that story, I describe the piles in detail. I wonder out loud how much it costs to replace a shopping cart. Does that cost impact how much I pay for milk and bread? I feel sorry for the plow driver who had to decide: do I get out and move all these dozens of carts, or do I destroy them and stay on schedule?
Telling a detailed story takes the listener down a new road of thought about the issue. Think about those vivid commercials featuring Sarah McLachlan and the emaciated dogs. Using powerful imagery triggers emotional response.
Step Five: Write on, With Lowered Expectations
Mother Teresa said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
I once wrote an impassioned post on my blog about how I wished parents would include themselves in their holiday family photo cards (I told you, my peeves are many!). Did I change the world with my rant?
Of course not. But at least a couple of friends started putting themselves back in their cards – regardless of thickened hips or receding hairline – an action I saw as not only sweet, but revolutionary.
Lowering expectations doesn’t mean giving up. It means understanding how to live a self-compassionate life while working for change to happen.
You aren’t going to solve the problem that’s pissing you off with one story. But in identifying your anger as a tool and motivator – not as a deterrent – you can write your way through personal resistance to change.