If variety is the spice of life, frustration is the spice of depression. While variety offers new experience and sensation; an epicurean promise of a greater self, frustration allows the depressed person to get up and do what they need to. It is equally myopic as depression, but allows one to live with just a little bit more verve. This is not really a good thing, but in the maw of depression it’s not always bad.
In terms of gender identity and emotion, our socially constructed expectations for “man” or “woman”[i], it’s common knowledge that the acceptable masculine emotion is anger. In fact the first time I can remember feeling proud of myself was as an eight year old soccer player (I’d never really tasted pride as a demonstration of desirable social traits in a social environment until then. I was not aware I was filling a gender role. I was, until that point, only aware of the social world insomuch as someone was nice or funny or mean or an adult [and thus wielded a kind of primordial authority]). I was a gawky little kid that had a gait similar to a spider monkey and the best I could do for the team was run fast and try to kick the ball towards the other goal. No sports IQ (still no sports IQ). During one practice my coach had yelled at the team about our lack of hustle and lack of toughness. He yelled at a couple kids that started crying. I got scared and mad. In one drill, snorting in and out like a crazed horse, I slide tackled a friend and he fell over. He was dazed and bleeding as my coach looked at me and told me that that was a good job and I wanted to see a lot more of it.[ii]
But in terms of messages that one was much more overt than other ways the rules of gender are passed on. Usually it’s by role modelling. For years I never saw my father cry. A basic and important method of grieving and I did not see him cry. Even when he lost his father I didn’t see my dad cry. I think that if he did, he hid it from me because he didn’t want to scare me. His desires were noble but they were perverted by notions like sadness scares kids and has to be hidden from them (some kids get scared, but others are innately caring and empathic and wish to sooth anyone that’s upset. What is this invisible wall that leaves us mourning in separate cubicles?).
Unfortunately, there’s a great circular logic that underlies men and anger. Anger, more than sadness, seeks to act. Anger simply wants to get angrier until one acts. Anger is also a drive that tricks us into thinking we’re holding the wheel. Action is the province of masculinity (just see what a big deal people make out of women heading action movies. Is it seriously that difficult to imagine a woman being decisive that it’s a big shock that has to be rabidly covered and commented on? I know plenty of decisive women. There are no “strong women,” there are women who, due to their character make tough decision with integrity. Just because your genitalia lives inside you or hangs outside or something between says nothing of how “strong” you might be. This might have something to do with violence being equivocated with strength, but it’s so silly to be shocked by a woman portrayed as strong that frustrates the hell out of me) Anger in action falsely sooths and covers an insecurities. Action and decisiveness are the provence of men. Why? Because not acting is for girls and pussies (just look at Hamlet). Why? Because men get angry.
There’s a hidden trap here: emotions need practice to stay immediate and vital. The more someone shuts of their desire to weep or laugh or feel, the less these things live in them. The person’s capacity is reduced. It can get to the point that someone becomes unknowingly dysthymic. They can laugh without feeling the joy of humor, cry without feeling true sorrow. This is what men do to men when anger is the pinnacle of masculinity: we rob each other of simple humanities.
But depression, as usual, turns the tables. One of the easiest ways to get a depressed person out of bed is to make them mad. In fact, in Freud’s famous paper “Mourning and Melancholia” he sees anger as the vital difference between the two states. Anger is turned toward the ego (or inward) during Melancholia. Even in depressions most sluggish moments, the moments where someone can’t get out of bed/off the couch/out of the chair there’s a low fever of anger (along with a slew of other unpleasant emotions). In an “activated” major depression the depressed person is anxious and irritable. It’s also in this state that the depressed person is most likely to commit suicide (or self-murder).
I could tell you that it feels better to be in emotional pain and mobile rather than emotional pain and bedridden, but that’s not entirely true. While we tend to talk about people being “overcome” or “overwhelmed” by anger most of the time angry people[iii] are aware they are angry and may fight desperately with their angry urges. I’ve been in that place. It might go something like this:
I’m getting in the card to drive to work and a can feel a thrumming in my chest that’s tight and energizing and wants someone to hurt. I’ve gotta buckle my seatbelt but I hate the fucking zipping sound it makes and who the fuck is anyone to tell me when to buckle my fucking seat belt? I start the car up and the radio doesn’t work and any little corner that can catch me up now gets all of my attention instead of 10% of it. And who broke my fucking radio. Some schmoe walks by and I wish it was that dirty piece of shit. And another lighter voice asks: why am I so mad? And I feel a little ashamed and then fuck that I’ll fucking feel how I’ll feel and then there’s an automatic and involuntary picture of me sinking my thumbs into that guy’s eye sockets and I feel revulsion and release and some part of me is saying I need to stop while the other part starts driving me forward. And after a few hours of this I’m terrified of myself and just want to be alone so I don’t hurt anyone (but I know if I’m alone too long this might all turn on me and anger is okay with that; it just wants to devour) but I’m eating dinner with my family and my dad starts talking about Ted Cruz and that thrumming erupts inside and I snort and try to hold it back but it feels so right so fuck this “Ted Cruz is a piece of shit” and now I’ve offended my dad but who cares, I said my truth and Cruz is an asshole and so on and so on until the mood ebbs on its own and I sit back and pray I didn’t do anything irreparable.
Anger may bring action, but it’s also a constant cage, and deeply difficult to tame. And remember what’s on the line: suicide, the ultimate endpoint of untreated depression is self-murder. It is anger-run-amok turned inwards. [iv]
You can tell the merit of an emotion by how it ages. Anger does not age well. I mentioned this to a friend/former professor who responded: that’s quite right, whereas some emotions are like wine, breathing, deepening becoming richer anger is like milk; it spoils quickly when left out and becomes hard.
The first step is breathing, the second compassion, the third and fourth and fifth and so forth are time/practice.
Thanks to Gina Barreca and Mark Hengstler for their helpful discussions and wise input.
[i] I am not claiming men or women are the only gender identities. I don’t want to ignore trans either, but I don’t feel confident in my ability to speak to the pains and trials of someone who identifies as trans. I’m sure it must be difficult just trying to be recognized by some, and traumatizing when others act with repulsion. As much as I wish I could write about this, I can’t do it yet. I have no real experience with a trans identity and should not speak for the community.
[ii] But he really was a good person. A few years later I was at a track meet and he was reffing. I was perched on the track line with five other boys ready to run a spirit. I was also jittery and nervous as hell. He blew the whistle for us to run and the five of us took off. Except, I lost my balance and crashed into the track’s grits shoulder first. I got up, and instead of running I just looked around plaintively at the parents on the sidelines. After a few cold moments he blew his whistle again and said there’d been a false start. There hadn’t been a false start. We restarted the race and I came in some position (it doesn’t really matter). The point being, he did not have to do that, but he saved me a whole lot of embarrassment. And even though this seems trivial, a less sensitive person might have ignored it, said tough luck, not even realized they were in a position to save a clumsy kid from some humiliation. He did realize this and he acted on it. It was a thoughtful, generous thing to do. He was just as capable of sincere generosity as he was imposing angry cruelty.
[iii] People who are consistently angry are not always categorically depressed, but they do have what’s called a “mood disorder” in which their basic state has somehow (read somehow as abuse, whether physical or emotional [although all physical abuse is also emotional abuse] and years of others modelling anger as an agent of action etc. everything we’ve talked about so far) has been rooted in a single basic emotion that is limiting to them in some fashion.
[iv] I’m not saying it should be controlled. The way I try and help my anger is to treat it with compassion (as I’ve mentioned in the post “Hot Glued to the Cold Screen.”