Some days it feels like there is no good side of the bed. I wander into the day with storm clouds surrounding me, and then the day just adds more; I go from grey to absolute darkness. Everything that people say, even people that I love and respect, just strikes me as wrong. Nothing is where I have put it (I work in spaces that I share, so this is—growl—fairly typical). It is too humid. Help that is offered is the wrong help, or worse, unhelpful. My face works itself into a deeply lined scowl. People charitably comment that I look tired. I know the code. I look angry.
In general, I am a happy man. I can find my way to a good feeling by hook and by crook. I take joy from a cup of coffee, and from the sound of my daughter’s voice. I rarely find myself in the place the Violent Femmes describe in “Add It Up”; in fact, just singing along (“Why can’t I get just one fuck…”) makes me laugh. The universe is like a perpetual gift-giving machine designed by the best toymaker ever.
Except. Except when the black clouds of contrariness gather around my head. And then storm. (It’s so bad that I cannot even manage complete sentences to describe the feeling). The first flash of anger brings attendant feelings of self-loathing and despair; I have failed again to keep the thunder at bay. This of course leads to more anger—at myself, and at whatever the temporary cause of it may be. Call worship service boring? Rage. Complain that the smell of cookies in the oven smells like something burning? Rage. The Juniors and Seniors decide to ditch detention on a day I skip an important meeting to sit for two hours with their recalcitrant selves. Rage. I can hear my mother, “I’ll wring your neck.” Thanks mom. Rage.
Anger is my forbidden emotion, and because in the atlas of my brain I have marked it taboo (here there be dragons), I am less familiar with the terrain than I should be. Okay, that’s a lie. I am terrifyingly familiar with anger. I walked over that ground for years as a child and adolescent. The flags of my furies unfurled when something or someone contradicted or existentially threatened the foundations of my moral universe. When I was a boy, those foundations were fairly straightforward and limited, and resulted in squalls of “That’s not fair,” which could pertain to the most trivial (“He has more soda than I do!”), to the substantial (“How can you throw him out of school weeks before graduation?”). The dictates of fairness required an even hand be dealt to all, and later incorporated a sense of esprit de corps (were all in this together). I clove to these rules tightly and took the breaches seriously.
And what isn’t fair to a first born son? We, who stand at the vanguard of the moral universe, who plunge into the morasses that our parents design into swampy labyrinths, who seek strength and consistency and meet frailty and disorganization—or worse hypocrisy. I learned early enough not to get angry when I encounter something that doesn’t simply challenge me (lesson from sailing #37: learn to confront challenges: sea-sickness, rain, rash decisions, doldrums, incapable crew, broken ribs; with aplomb. Because another challenge is coming in 5, 4, 3, 2…), or disagree with me. In fact, I run toward, perhaps too giddily, challenge and disagreement. It wasn’t always so, but learning to be gleefully devastated from time to time helped me become a good student, and (so I hope) a better man.
As I aged, I learned to grasp the essentially contradictory nature of life. I embraced Whitman’s charge: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” On the flip side, I expected others to embrace it as well. I attribute my general buoyancy to the multitudinous sea of possibility in which I swim, but I recognize that others must swim in narrower straits. Must you? Really? On stormy days, I do too. I feel as if I am repudiating myself, reneging on the promises I have made to myself and to the universe, failing at my calling and failing at my life’s sole purpose. I want to run away, and live cabin-bound on the rolling ocean, in the thickest forest, on the side of a stark and forbidding mountain.
On rare occasions, I draw on this narrower, “fatal vision” as Macbeth calls it. When I play poker, for instance, I find it easier to put on the fierce blinders of aggression. Sometimes when I write, I close the larger windows to focus on just this pane or that pane of vision. When I teach, I rein in my big confusing mind so that my students can see what it is like to walk on one path in one direction with singular purpose and clarity; that is the lesson they must learn now. After these experiences, I feel drained, in part because I have intentionally disconnected, and the angry hand is the one that flips that switch.
So, when the grey days come unbidden, from a bad night’s sleep, or illness, or some twist of half remembered dream or memory (do I have to wake up with THAT strange bedfellow today?), I feel less myself, at odds with the world, looking, like Ishmael, for hats to knock off, and eyeing ships bound for sea with untoward desire. But, the day passes. I remain a free man. In the morning to come, every side of the bed glistens with possibility again, and I am once again myself.