The Dance of Fear and Anger
When I was a kid, I suffered several incidents of bullying, and I can recall each of them like it was yesterday. Each time, I ended up taking it; I didn’t fight back. And these terrifying humiliations have scarred me for what will probably be for life. But I have found ways to grow around the wounds.
At the time, I asked both parents what to do about it. In what must have been the world’s most stereotypically gender-influenced responses, my mother said, “Just avoid them.” (Probably the worst advice anyone has ever given me.) But my dad brought home a pair of boxing gloves to teach me how to fight.
Problem was, however, I never learned too well. Looking back, I believe this was due to one part athletic retardation, and six parts Hey-you-raised-me-to-be-a-nice-Jewish-boy-and-now-I’m-supposed-to-try-to-hurt-someone-don’t-you-know-if-I-ever-let-the-lid-off-my-rage-I’ll-fucking-kill-them-and-maybe-you-along-with-them-dad-for-all-you’ve-done-to-me-as-well!
So I never allowed the lid to come off.
Chickening out of those fights were the worst things I ever did, and what really deepened those scars. Yes, if I fought I probably would have gotten my ass thoroughly kicked, but I entered adolescence with the self-esteem of someone who thought himself a coward and that was much worse.
This was when my lifelong dance with fear began. I entered adulthood with something to prove that went way beyond the willingness to fight when provoked: I had to prove I wasn’t going to chicken out of anything. This, as you can imagine, has sometimes been a problem.
Which brings me to my concurrent dance with anger. Anger and rage have been allies for me. Like mad but loyal dogs, they’ve been troublesome at times for sure, but allies nonetheless. I have a somewhat depressive default setting in my head, and when I find myself there, it’s more often than not suppressed anger about something. Allowing it to emerge has often been like unleashing a thunderstorm of the kind that clears the air on a muggy day.
One problem with this anger dance, however, is it often is at loggerheads with another lifelong inclination, which is my desire to maintain a connection with those who matter to me. I’ve always admired people who are of the “I got something to say and I’ll let the chips fall where they may ’cause I don’t give a fuck” variety. But I often find myself hesitant to completely lay it on the line, for fear of losing the relationship. (Though one can also lose it by letting the anger build, of course). How the hell can I be angry at someone I like or love, and fully let them have it so I can get it off my chest, while also ensuring I won’t blow them, and the friendship, right out of the water? That’s been my conundrum.
Recently I encountered this very problem during our apartment search. An old friend of mine offered to rent us his place – a great apartment in a fabulous neighborhood — at a reduced price. This was very exciting to Shelley and I, as you can imagine. But in the middle of negotiations, it all broke down because he decided to rent it to someone else for more money. I was PISSED! For two days the energy of my rage (and self-righteous anger) was bouncing around my body like it was a pinball machine. But when I finally called him, I began with, “The purpose of this conversation is to get something off my chest so that I can let it go.” I then gave him the words, but not the music, of my anger. At first he was defensive, but I persisted until he got it, and we cleaned it up. Which was great, but the unexpressed pinball of rage kept knocking around in me for another day or two (at least until a man on my men’s team, who knows me well, said, “forgive yourself for not expressing it perfectly.” That helped.) But the point is I preserved the friendship.
Getting back to what I was saying earlier, however, I still have an inner bully to contend with. This is where my critical voice will bully and humiliate me when I’ve chickened out of something. And believe me, that voice is far worse than anything anyone else could ever throw at me. But it has, oddly enough, served me well at times, by refusing to let me wimp out at certain moments.
One of these moments occurred over half my life ago, when I was in the middle of a sexuality crisis. I was going through a period where I was so starved, and yearning, for male affection, I was beginning to wonder what it all really meant. So I decided it would be a useful experiment to go to where gay men hung out, to see how I would respond. I went to a bar and had some conversations, but soon realized the men there were just not the type I could relate to. Then someone suggested I check out the Gay Synagogue in the Village.
Going there for Shabbat one Friday night back in 1979 was one of the scariest things I have ever done. What if someone I know sees me walk in? Or sees me in there? What if I meet a guy I like and go to bed with him? And like it? But I decided I was sick and tired of living in fear about this, so I went. And I was never the same. Not so much because I learned something about my gay side, which is that it’s there but not predominant. But because I learned I wasn’t that one thing that bullies would always torture me and others with, that word that at the time meant not that you were gay, but a coward and chickenshit.
That night, I went to the Gay Synagogue and learned that I was no faggot.