It feels stupid to say I lost my cool because of a throw pillow, but as any parent knows, it’s the accumulation of little things that can send you over the edge. I was bending to shove a sneaker onto the foot of my son, who was refusing to do it himself. His older brother caught me in the back of the head with the pillow, swinging it with surprising force. Neither of them liked how I was rushing them around. The pillow didn’t hurt so much as startle, and I swore, loudly, as both kids ran from the room.
I was trying to herd them out the door for an hour of recess while Hannah, my wife, tried to complete a full day’s work in half a day. The plan was to switch at lunchtime, so I could attempt the same, both of us finishing our work at night. Our eight-year-old had had no in-person school since last March, so we are trying to make the best of virtual school. That morning, I scanned through a poorly designed learning app on his school-issued Chromebook, sifting through unfinished assignments for a link so he could join his small group for twenty minutes of reading instruction, half of which we missed searching for the link. Meanwhile his brother had turned the kitchen floor into a confetti shower of construction paper. I supervised the cleanup and thumbed through news on my phone, too tired to read anything substantial and too anxious to leave it alone.
What I felt that morning was the tedium of pandemic life’s patterns, of days at home without end, and what I saw in my screen was another kind of tedium, the unrelenting reports of lies and contagion, of the politicians and the powerful throwing weddings for their children while denying relief to those who need it. Hospitals are filling, food pantry lines are lengthening, and we are learning of how senators sold their stock last winter to profit from the pandemic instead of addressing it. As the months go by, I’ve felt a rising anger that I increasingly struggle to manage. I’m angry that then-president Donald Trump and his enablers failed the country in a thousand ways. At his smug defenders online. At the MAGA signs along my running route. At Christian leaders denying science and calling for dangerous gatherings. At the funding structures that mean private and suburban schools are open while our city district remains closed.
Like everyone I know, I’m weary of this political toxicity and the damage it inflicts on all of us. And I know there are Americans with vastly different beliefs than mine who are furious too. Whatever we shout online, whatever the cause or rationale of our anger, the aftereffects settle in our homes, falling like so much spittle on those closest to us. My kids don’t see the reasons for my political anger, however righteous they are. They see how I react. I find myself blowing up when they refuse to put on their shoes or brush their teeth, when I do so much for them and just need the slightest bit of help. I am angry at myself for swearing at them so often, meeting their pleas for attention with ugly eruptions.
More and more I go running to try to sweat out the bad energy. After the pillow explosion, I give up on recess, turn on Netflix for the boys, and head outside. In truth it is a gorgeous early-winter morning, sunlight blazing through bare branches. Even the dead leaves and empty porches glow in the light. I run toward a nearby lake. But the route takes me past a wealthy suburban school, where kids are outside at recess, reminding me that my kids are home without friends, alone on screens. This, more than the missed vacations or concerts or family gatherings, is the hardest loss to accept. We moved to Grand Rapids less than a year before the pandemic began, and we hadn’t quite found social routines, church community, or friends for our kids before everything shut down. I always knew that my boys would face challenges in life, but I never imagined our society would be too dysfunctional for them to go to school, to play with other children in the neighborhood where we live.
While we stayed home trying to be responsible, white supremacists with assault rifles held antilockdown rallies at our state capitol. A few of them plotted, in the basement of a vacuum store just a few miles from here, to kidnap our governor. Even after Joe Biden won our state decisively, Republican lawmakers invited Rudy Giuliani to the statehouse to testify about nonsensical fraud claims, leaving a trail of infections before he jetted back to Washington, DC, where he tested positive for the virus and received VIP medical treatment unavailable to most Americans.
My pulse races from thinking about it all. I fantasize about confronting a white supremacist or throwing a brick through the window of one of the houses with MAGA signs by the lake. I’m pissed off at all the unnecessary deaths, at the lack of shared sacrifice, at everything, and there is a rush in these juvenile fantasies. But there is danger too, because they don’t lead anywhere helpful. They build upon themselves, becoming rabbit holes of resentment, and I don’t want to end up in a vacuum-store basement, plotting a delusional scheme with delusional friends. I’m not going to tell off a Proud Boy or throw a brick, mostly because I don’t want to deal with the consequences—the bruises or worse, the fines or court dates, the fear and stress it would inflict on Hannah and our kids.
In a few days, when my five-year-old becomes frustrated, he will shout the profanities he learned from me. Hannah will be gracious enough not to glare at me, but I will feel a surge of guilt. I don’t care much about the swearing—they’ll learn those words soon enough—but I don’t want them to learn that it’s OK for a man to lash out in anger like this. And of course that’s exactly what I’m teaching them. I will apologize to them and Hannah, over and over, but I know what they are seeing. That’s one of the terrifying things about parenting: they’re always watching, and we’re always modeling. How we parent is how we live.
I reach the lake and try to breathe in the open expanse of sky. On the lakeside path, dog-walkers and lunch-daters and other runners give each other wide berths, no one sure quite how far apart to stay. I follow the path, but eventually I want solitude, and I turn toward a small forest nearby. It’s easy to miss, tucked behind a baseball field and a public works garage, its looping trail just a mile long. But it drops into secluded bottomland mostly sheltered from road noise, following a stream where I’ve seen muskrats, opossums, eagles, and hawks. In a few weeks the narrow trail will be too muddy, but today there is a satisfying cushion to it.
I recently listened to the writer and podcaster Debra Rienstra reflecting on the anger so many of us feel of late. She says that focused anger can be effective for driving positive change in the world, as it sharpens emotion into political organizing and mobilizing. But diffuse, scattershot anger is the least useful and the most corrosive for the person stewing in it.1 In truth, I’ve been calling my elected lawmakers nearly every week for the past four years, urging them to fight the most harmful of the Trump administration’s actions. I’ve marched in demonstrations when it seemed right to do so and stayed home when that seemed the more responsible choice, even when I wanted to march. But more often, my anger is utterly disorganized, flying off in a thousand directions depending on what domestic frustration or political outrage floats into my life on that day, doing no good to anyone.
I pause on a small wooden bridge, scanning the stream for waterfowl. From this spot I’ve seen a green heron, a shy little creature, quietly watching the water. I’ve taken my eight-year-old here to look for birds, and he’s spotted a great blue heron, less rare but startling in its gangly proportions. I congratulated him and he shushed me.
“It’s hunting,” he said.
We watched it, motionless, until in a flash it drove its long beak into the water and emerged with a tiny silver fish.
My friend Jonathan, a pastor who walks beside men and women dealing with homelessness in Seattle, talks about metabolizing trauma. For those living on the street and those caring for them, trauma, grief, and anger are unavoidable, he says. The way to avoid burnout is through practices that let harmful emotions pass through—exercise, laughter, music, rest. Find ways to absorb, digest, and get rid of the stuff, he says, because holding on to it becomes toxic.
I suppose that’s why I’m out on this trail—for a metabolizing run. My kids understand this need for physical outlets too. After dinnertime, at the first chance they get, they will pounce on me, and we will wrestle on the living room floor, where there is just enough room between the Christmas tree and the brick fireplace mantle to avoid serious head injury, at least so far. There is much growling and tickling. The younger will take terrifying leaps off the coffee table while I lie below, but, again, no serious head injuries, so far. They will tease me by saying “Dad jokes are the worst” or “The world ran out of coffee,” and I will howl in mock horror. I will pin one down and urge the other to rescue him, training them to be each other’s protectors.
Afterward, we will flop on the couch and watch some annoying gamer on YouTube, and they will cuddle beside me, as close as they can get, acting out some deep mammalian need, their bodies calmed, and mine too. Hannah will join us, and we’ll have a few minutes of relative peace before the next struggle toward toothbrushing and bedtime.
When we first moved to Grand Rapids, I ran in every direction, exploring as much of the city as I could on foot, startled at how quickly neighborhoods moved from poverty to mansions in the course of a few blocks. I worried that when I ran out of new routes, I’d grow bored. But as this forest circuit has become my regular route, I’ve come to enjoy watching it change week to week, the summer greenery turning to spectacular yellows and oranges and now winter browns and grays, which, while muted, offer open sightlines to spot other creatures. On nearly every visit, I’ll spot a woodpecker with its red streaks and conspicuous head bobs, and I’ll feel some kinship with its search for sustenance.
This worn suburban trail isn’t as wild and expansive as I’d like, but something in me wants to run the same loop endlessly, certain there’s something new to be found if I keep at it. At some foundational level, I believe in obsessive scrutiny, in gnawing a bone until it cracks, as the writer Tobias Wolff puts it.2 I think that’s what I’m trying to do with my anger—to look it square in the eye, examine its contours, bite into its marrow, and achieve, if not mastery over it, some mutual agreement that we can live in the same house, even if we don’t like each other much. And maybe if I can get to know this anger, I can learn who it is and what it wants.
I’ve heard psychologists say that anger is a secondary emotion, with something else at its root, such as shame or fear or grief. Surely those are worthy of scrutiny too, but I struggle to bring curiosity to them now, because there are more than enough reasons for anger in every day’s news. Searching for a deeper reason feels like missing what’s in front of my face.
I would love to make a spiritual turn here and speak of finding comfort and hope in practices of faith. But the spiritual practices that are meaningful to me are mostly collective ones—hymn-singing, communion, potlucks, an hour of childcare on Sunday mornings—and those are shut down now. Offering God as a cheap answer to suffering feels disrespectful to God. I need to use the mind and heart created in me to fume against the suffering God allows. And whatever still small voice I might hear on my own gets lost in the noise of online strife.
I read through the Psalms this summer and fall, a chapter or two a day, at the suggestion of my mother, who is the disciplined Bible reader I’ve always wanted to be. I had hoped that particular verses would lodge in my memory or spark my imagination. But, honestly, very few did. They mostly reminded me how distractible I am. I had hoped to appreciate the elegant poetic structure of individual psalms, but instead I was struck by the opposite: taken together, they form an unruly jumble of praise and fury, of contentment and despair, of calm and desperation. For every image of quiet waters, there is a wish to smash the heads of babies of one’s enemies. That tells me that anger is not secondary but somehow fundamental to our identities as created beings. We are made with not only eyes to see but with blood that can boil in response to what we know to be wrong about the world.
I want to be a father who can deal with his anger, who can accept setbacks and frustrations, even significant ones, who can be tender and patient as well as passionate, who can chill out and laugh and dance with my kids. I want to be a father who can sit with them on a long winter afternoon, drawing and painting, no matter the monumental mess, who can show them how to enjoy life despite the unending river of injustice and stupidity. But I also want to teach them to face the world’s ugliness head on, and that means figuring out how to do so myself.
Maybe the value of introspection depends on whether it ultimately leads inward or outward, toward further self-absorption or toward a deeper engagement with the world. I can circle that loop forever, spiraling further into resentment. Or I can let it sustain me, surprise me, and return me to the pulsing world where I have work to do and kids to teach and links to Zoom school to figure out, a world in which educators have learned their jobs anew so that they can teach from behind those screens, in which a social worker at our son’s school reaches out over text, because she knows families are struggling, in which cafeteria workers hand out drive-up sack lunches, grandparents sew masks, and, just this morning as I write, trucks roll out of a Michigan plant with the first vaccine shipment so we can begin putting this damn virus to rest.
But that means holding on to anger too, because its electrical energy reveals the life in it. Its flip side, I think, is the longing for a world made right, where we can gather without fear, where kids can visit their grandparents and go to summer camp and go to school. This desire feels important. I trust that this too can be an expression of faith and a model for my kids, a psalmic protest and plea. I think we rage because we have hope. We know that virtual school and virtual funerals and selfishness from our leaders are not the way things are supposed to be. They are failures. Examining them closely is unpleasant. But forgetting how to see them is worse.
- See Rienstra, “Love Thy Downstream Neighbor: Tim Van Deelen on Sorrow, Anger, and Conservation Biology,” October 31, 2020, in Refugia, podcast, https://debrarienstra.com/episode-19-love-thy-downstream-neighbor-tim-van-deelen-on-sorrow-anger-and-conservation-biology/.
- See Wolff, Old School (New York, NY: Random House, 2003), 156.