Sorrow: I. Angry
Anger is not always truly transitive, but it should be.
I did not fall ill so much as I learned that I was sick, my whole sense of self reconfigured by a three minute phone call. In the hours immediately after, I allowed myself little conscious emotion. At most, I was distantly aware of a desire for anger – not yet the feeling itself, only the longing to feel. Calling family members, I kept waiting for one of them to slip up, to say something stupid. More than anything, I wanted to be angry and my anger wanted an object. In the end, my loved ones disappointed me: They were unfailingly caring, unfailingly careful.
When I was young, one of my friends would sometimes speak in awestruck tones of his father’s fury. He told me there were places in the plaster walls of his house marred by deep dents and gashes, the ugly signature of misdirected paternal power. Half-conscious of what I was hearing, I watched my friend for signs of more personal violence, but there were none, none that I could see. Did my friend’s father strike the walls to keep himself from harming the children?
In college, angry at my own father, I once lashed out at a dorm room wall. It wasn’t so much a punch – I could hardly muster the force – as a lazy throw, an arm launched in a parabolic arc, a fist inexplicably trailing in advance. Though I managed to do little more than scrape my knuckles, there was a certain satisfaction in the act. In this quartered sting, my flailing frustration at least found a bodily orientation. My anger was directed at the wall now, one ugly feeling supplanted by another more manageable.
I still sometimes worry about my friend, though he is grown now and has a family of his own. Anger doesn’t go away just because we redirect it. No, it lingers miasmically, lulls us into a thrashing sleep. Spinoza claims that anger is a kind of sadness, a kind of sadness caused by something beyond oneself. When we are sad, he says, we feel as if we are restrained, incapable of acting on our own behalf. In anger, we attempt to regain our lost capacity by acting out against that which seems to hold us down. When our fists flash out, when our words cut, we briefly escape sorrow by the very fact of our aggression. Centuries before Freud, Spinoza proposed that we recover from sadness by understanding the forces that render us inactive. Anger, he holds, offers only the illusion of relief, proposing a single cause where a more meditative mind would find many.
I am angry now, angry at my cancer. I tell Kitty that this is strange for me, that I am rarely angry, and she seems puzzled. You are often angry, she says. She is not wrong. Sometimes I am tempestuous: Storms brew and ships sink. What clears the sky? I study how the winds blow. I parlay with the Aeolian kings and we exchange gifts of friendship. Against my anger, I seek to understand the causes of my sorrow. Cancer offers no such recourse. I do not know why I have cancer, so I cannot sail on any more than I can still this unquiet air.
Was I exposed to radiation when I was young? Did something seep out of the bottling plant downtown? I do not know. I cannot know. Absent some clearer cause, my anger falls only on the body in which cancer takes root, the body that cancer reveals, my body. Anger should propel me into action, but it only makes me stiller, makes me stiller because it makes me sadder. Both subject and object of anger, I dwell on the very things that angered me, the very things that are me. As I survey my body with narrowing eyes, it gives me more reason to rage. My anger circulates endlessly, divides endlessly. Directionless, it claws downward, plumbing the limits of my limbs, coiling around my organs. My anger metastasizes. My anger is a kind of cancer.
If I could, I would pull my thyroid from my throat today. But I do not. I cannot. Instead, I wait, watching sorrowful clouds gather overhead.