It is misleading to think that anger can only end in loathing or forgiveness, writes Eleanor Gordon-Smith, when anger can be used productively too
My husband and I are retired teachers. He is 81. He had a devastating stroke four years ago, and I have been his 24/7 caretaker ever since. (He also has diabetes, cancer, epilepsy and pulmonary fibrosis.)
His illnesses have destroyed our life savings, and we are running out of money. His two adult children, both very well off, have abandoned him. His sister has $60m in the bank, and will not lift a finger to help. My question, and it’s a serious one: how do I not hate them?
Eleanor says: You’re allowed to hate these people. This is a terrible abandonment.
People say hatred is a destructive emotion, “like drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die”. I know they’re right, sometimes – I know mentally litigating the same argument in the shower persuades no one, that picking at the same memory means it’ll never heal.
But I also know there are ways to hate that don’t erode your character – there are forms of hatred that insist on it, affirm it, defend it.
Hatred can make us feel powerful when everything else wants us to feel small. Contempt lights a fire inside us – when we hold on to that fire, refusing to extinguish it, knowing what we could burn down if we chose to – that can make us feel like a decider again, instead of someone who gets buffeted around and has to say “thank you”.
Think about your situation: you chose to be merciful to these relatives. You didn’t have to. At any point you could have hurled your molten fury at them, but you didn’t.
The fact that you feel hatred towards them reveals what exceptional self-control it required to choose mercy instead; that would have been easy, if you’d felt nothing but love. Feeling the fire of hatred and knowing we can control it sometimes restores a sense of power and dignity, when other people would like us to feel neither.
Hatred can also be a way of forging self-esteem. You might not be the perfect this, or the best possible that, but anger can buy us a blistering kind of self-confidence: at least you’re not them.
I think one way we get misled is by thinking the emotional pendulum of anger has only two resting places: loathing (self-defeating, tiring, preoccupying) and forgiving (beatific, peaceful, unburdened). As long as we think those are our only options, we’ll deny ourselves those more productive kinds of hatred. We’ll bounce between two ways of being unhappy: feeling the hate but being consumed by it, or trying to quell it and feeling walked on.
There is a place to rest between these positions – something I think of as “disinterested dislike”. In it, you don’t think about these people, but what you think of them is roughly “yeuch”. You usher thoughts of them and their vices out of your mind, the way you’d reach to mute the TV when a politician whose voice you don’t want in the living room comes on air.
Aiming at a more detached disliking is a less Herculean emotional feat. You will let yourself preserve the parts of your emotion that just feel true; these people aren’t helping. You won’t ask yourself to change your mind about them – you’ll ask yourself to change how much of your mind you give them.
I find the key here is to do something that rules the matter “proved”, so you can stop spending your energy re-proving it. Pronounce these people contemptible so resolutely that you don’t need to think about it any more; make it part of the historical record, a testimony that lives outside you. Ceremonies really help, even if they feel silly at first. Write down everything they haven’t done and set that list on fire. Walk up to a tree and tell one of its knots who you hate. Etch your loathing onto a stone and leave it somewhere beautiful. Externalise the record, then walk away.
You don’t need to walk to a place unmarred by hatred. You just need to be sure it’s peripheral to your view.
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