On Anger

I’ll be honest … I have a bit of an anger problem. I have a very long fuse but when I finally blow my top the results can be devastating. When my stoic Icelandic shell finally cracks, an inner Nordic berserker is released on an unsuspecting world. Far too often, those who bear the brunt of my anger are not the ones that deserve it. There is a lot of collateral damage.

When my mother passed, for example, I found myself consumed with a lot of unresolved anger. It took every ounce of willpower that I had to not lash out at people whose only crime was in expressing their condolences. When someone who had met my mother once would remark, “I am so sorry for your loss. Your mother was such a lovely woman,” it was extremely difficult to smile gracefully and thank them. What I wanted to tell them was, “You have no idea what kind of woman my mother was. If you did, you wouldn’t deign to say that to my face.” So intense was this internal rage that I starting seeing a therapist in the hopes that I could learn to control it, or even to let it go. It was also the reason I re-started my long-forsaken practice of daily meditation. I’ve also been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy, including the works of Thict Nhat Hanh and Jack Kornfield.

What I have found is — while a lot of Buddhist teachings describe anger as a negative and destructive emotion — it can be intelligently controlled and constructively channeled. That is currently what I am trying to do.

For instance, this was a particularly challenging week at work. I was extremely frustrated by the failure of some of my colleagues to meet their professional obligations. When I discovered that the people responsible for administering one of my grants had failed to submit my annual progress report in a timely fashion I was furious, even though this did not have any adverse impact on me or my grant-funded project. When I learned that another of my reports had been lost by the National Institutes of Health because of a computer glitch — costing me, perhaps, an additional four hours of time in reconstructing and resubmitting the report — I was equally enraged.

Similarly, as a political progressive who spends a lot of time teaching, writing and working on issues of social justice, it is difficult not to become extremely angry about the efforts of our current political leaders to repeal the Affordable Care Act, restrict reproductive rights, legalize discrimination against the LGBT community, and stigmatize an entire religion by banning visitors and immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries.

But what working with my therapist, delving into traditional and modern Buddhist texts, and practicing mindfulness daily has taught me is this: anger can be harnessed. Anger can be redirected and used to achieve some good. Anger can strengthen resolve and spur people to engage in positive action.

Rather than lash out at my professional colleagues, I have instead started working with them to establish a clear set of policies and procedures that are meant to ensure timely submission of grant applications, renewals and progress reports. This not only benefits me directly but also helps others at the university who struggle with the same problems. Moreover, in doing so we realized that one of the problems is a systemic one: the lack of institutional resources and support for the Research Office. I am now working with these colleagues collaboratively to come up with a proposal to address this problem by training my assistant in grant management and shifting some of her responsibilities (and salary) from my department to theirs.

My frustration with the current political system in the US has also lead me to take action. I have gotten directly engaged in the political process by calling my local, state and national representatives to express my concerns. I have also begun to look at other ways that I can become more directly involved, be it through participating in protest and demonstrations, attending city council meetings, and even looking at opportunities to run for office.

All of this has taught me not to fear, to suppress or to dismiss my anger. Rather, I am learning to embrace it and turn it into a force for good.



On Absurdity and the Loss of a Parent

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my mother passed away last month. Today is actually the one month anniversary of her death.

My mother and I had a very complex and tumultuous relationship. The same can be said for my sister. Things had improved somewhat in recent years, primarily because both my sister and I had established very clear boundaries — physical, emotion and financial — that my mother largely respected.

To put it another way: I loved my mother, but I didn’t like her very much.

Because my mother had not remarried, despite living off and on with her partner of the last 25 years, when she was admitted to the hospital in severe septic shock I began her de facto health care proxy. I’ve actually

I’ve actually written and spoken about this experience professionally, particularly the challenges of making end-of-life decisions for someone who had never clearly expressed or articulated her wishes on the matter. As tough as it was over the course of two days to make difficult decisions about resuscitation and life support for a dying relative, I am completely at peace with the choices that I made.

Moreover, while many might rue the lost opportunity to resolve ancient hurts and redress past offenses, I too am largely at peace with the relationship that my mother had in the final years of her life. It is true that her passing led me to seek professional counseling, but this decision was driven more by my frustration in dealing with the unrealistic public expectations of lamentation and grief that I felt were placed upon me than any unresolved feelings of anger and disappointment with my mother.

My mother also died intestate, leaving my sister and me to deal with the financial and legal ramifications of her passing. She is handling all of the legal issues (she is a lawyer after all), while I am handling the rest. This includes dealing with all of the funerary arrangements, including the disposition of my mother’s ashes following her cremation. And this is where the absurdity comes into play …

My mother lived and died in California, whereas my sister lives in Oregon and I live in New York. Although we were able to attend the memorial service, because of the funeral’s timing neither of us were still in California when my mother’s ashes were available for collection. Apparently, this is not uncommon. Funeral homes regularly send cremated remains to the next-of-kin through the US Postal Service, which provides the only legal method of shipping cremated remains domestically or internationally.

My mother’s ashes were scheduled to arrive this past Thursday morning, and I spent the morning working from home so that I would be present to receive and sign for them. They didn’t arrive. When I called the funeral home that afternoon to express concern, they admitted to me that they’d neglected to send them as promised but that they had shipped out that afternoon for a Friday delivery.

Unfortunately, neither my husband nor I were able to take Friday morning off, so the mailman left us a notice that the ashes could be picked up at our neighborhood post office. But when I went this morning, they were nowhere to be found.

After patiently waiting in line for over fifteen minutes — of the three windows open at the post office this Saturday morning, only one was devoted to the sending and collection of mail, with the other two dealing with the flood of passport requests following Donald Trump’s election — I dutifully presented my delivery notice and driver’s license to the postal worker at the window. She vanished for ten minutes, shamefacedly returning to the window to let me know that the package was missing.

As embarrassing as it is to admit, I found this absurdly funny. Struggling to keep a straight face, I calmly informed the poor woman helping me that the missing package contained my late mother’s ashes and that we definitely needed to find it. The look on her face was priceless … comedic actors would pay huge sums of money to learn how to get that classic ‘deer in the headlights’ look. She quickly retreated and found the station’s postmaster who, after herself looking for the package, avered that it had gone out for delivery again. (At this point, I also texted my sister and husband to let them know that “Mom had gotten lost in the mail.”). In a sense, we lost my mother twice in one month: once to death and once to the US Postal Service.

Returning home, I calmly waited for our local mail carrier. When the mail flap opened, letters and magazines spilling over the floor but with no knock or doorbell announcing the arrival of my mom, I jumped out of my chair and ran to the door. Sprinting down the stairs and across the street to where the mailman was delivering a pile of bills and catalogs to our neighbor, I calmly asked him if he happened to have a package for special delivery.

Thankfully, he did. Apparently, it was little too heavy for him to carry and he’d promised to drop it by after he completed his route. He did so about 45 minutes later, and a cardboard box prominently labeled ‘cremated remains’ is now safely secured on an upper shelf in our walkthrough closet (well out of the reach of curious animals).

While not everyone might find this story amusing, to my sister and I this is one of the funniest things that has happened in a long time. Even in death, my mother continues to vex us. More importantly, I think that she too found find this hysterical.

As Carrie Fisher (who died not long after my mother did) once said, “”If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.” Perhaps this is why Carrie herself was interred in an urn shaped like a Prozac capsule, a posthumous, humorous and bluntly honest reference to her struggle with bipolar disease.

While I do not plan to bury my mother in a pill-shaped urn — a wine bottle-shaped urn would be more appropriate anyway — I do think that Carrie was right … one must always strive to find the humor, absurdity, and joy in life, even in the most troubling of time. Otherwise, life is just unacceptable.

I think my mother would agree. Moreover, I suspect that she and Carrie Fisher are likely hanging out now, getting drunk on cheap wine as my mother unabashedly asks for some money.