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Catching Fire So It Don’t Catch Me

December 25, 2012

My therapist Ron has always been a believer in the usefulness of healthy human aggression. Some of his advice to me  would make your hair stand on end.

But the words of this Brooklyn Italian were designed to blow up my suburban Nice-Jewish-Boy persona that eschewed any aggression as oppressive, immoral… or simply not very nice. For example, at my worst back in the day, before I’d kiss or put my arm around a woman for the first time, I’d ask her for permission. And clearly (judging from the results) this is not how most women want to be treated. If a man lacks the gumption (or aggression) to risk getting rejected, what kind of man could he be?

Truth is, healthy human aggression is the antidote to 80% of neurosis, and skillfully unleashing it would cure many  a depressed soul, as depression is often inverted rage — like becoming engulfed in your own flames.

And by aggression I don’t mean being assertive. If a marauder with a knife breaks into your home in the middle of the night, and you confront him and say, “You have no right to be here; leave immediately!” – that’s assertive.

Hitting him over the head with a baseball bat – that’s aggressive.

Which do you think would be a more effective way of protecting you and your loved ones?

Aggression is also not savagery. Savagery was the line that marauder was crossing. It’s also what we saw happening in Newtown several days ago.

Getting back to me, much of the mild depression or not-so-mild obsession I sometimes experience results from smothering the sparks of my own gut instincts with deep thought.

“How do you get out of bed in the morning?” was one intervention from Ron I never forgot. Sometimes it can take me quite a while. But these days I tend to catch myself, get my ass up,  and work out.

Historically my default position has been to be quiet, reflective, self-examining, dry. I still often rehearse my utterances in my head, taking three or four seconds to quickly run the words through a gamut of editors, before allowing them to pass out my mouth. Like the old seven-second delay on radio. Is what I am about to say appropriate? Is it true? Is it what I honestly think or feel? Am I saying it in a way this person can hear? Will it offend them? (And do I care?) Am I coming from a reactive place? Am I about to start something I’m not prepared to finish?

It’s a long gamut.

The up side of this is I make few messes that need cleaning up or apology. I’m well spoken. People listen…usually. The down side is I too often mince my words and pull my punches, or stay silent altogether when something needs to be said. Often this comes about when I become suddenly hot and inflamed, angry at someone, and about to deliver words designed to blast them out of the water. Then one of the editors censors me, and instead I stuff it. Leaving the anger to bang around my body like a hot spiked pinball. This is invariably followed by hours of obsession, days sometimes. Until I finally call or see the person and let them know how I feel with more reasonable words. But in the meantime the spikes have left me sore and exhausted, like I’ve just been in some kind of purgatory. Further, this energy can also curdle into paranoia, imagining that this other person is angry at me!

So the truth is I’ve come to appreciate the fact that I can, if need be, use words to hurt someone. Having an essentially benevolent nature, I do this very rarely. But I’m sure to keep a few well-sharpened arrows in my quiver should the need arise, and I think we all should.

The first time I discovered this talent was back in the ‘80’s. It  was mid-winter, and my first wife and I were on a plane to Florida. Behind us were two female 20-somethings, hell-bent on letting loose and starting their vacation on the plane. One of them, on her second or third drink, became very friendly, and mildly flirtatious with me. (When picturing this, recall that at the time the backs of airplane seats were lower, and without those TV screens to divert your attention.) At first she was sweet, and my wife didn’t mind. But with each sip this young woman became more sharp-tongued, sarcastic, obnoxious. Her friend just laughed.

I didn’t know what to do. But then, after another one of her jabs, I felt myself catching fire, letting loose with an intuitive two-word blow torch bursting up from my gut.

You’re drunk! ” I said.

She crumbled within seconds.

Next thing I knew she was sobbing behind us, her friend saying, “Don’t let him get to you!” I felt like — Jees, I didn’t know this thing was loaded!

But I also felt great! (And relieved!)

From then on, I realized that when kicked in the ass, I never had to turn the other cheek.

These days I notice within me a growing urge towards serenity, as age leaves me less inclined to do battle. But I sense also that, in my case at least, true serenity (as opposed to capitulation masquerading as a spiritual “surrender”) probably only results from striking a good balance between practicing both peace and aggression. I think the idea is to develop the range to respond appropriately to any situation. This fits into Gestalt Therapy innovator Fritz Perls idea of responsibility…



which he defined as response ability.  

Which means that sometimes it’s right to open my door to a stranger and bid him enter. And sometimes it’s right to slam it in his face.

In my range of responses, I need both abilities.

And you and I, we need our aggression, for the sake of protecting those we love from shitty people; for the sake of protecting our beloved planet from shitty people. And the whole of humanity for that matter. So I want to know why in Jehovah’s name the majority of the most effectively aggressive people in this country are on the wrong side of the divide? How come the Republicans, the militarists, and the polluters (but I repeat myself) are usually the ones who either get things done or keep things from getting done? (If you doubt me, check out the Cliff we’re about to be Fiscally pushed over within the next few days by a gang of House Republicans because they wanted to give the rich a Christmas gift.)

Those of us who are part of the solution had better borrow a trick or two from the “bad guys” and learn how to mobilize our healthy, kick-ass, planet-saving aggression, and fast!

As for me, I’m just trying to utilize all that’s inside me, still trying to catch on to how to live, and how to catch fire without being consumed.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Laurie Yankowitz permalink
    December 25, 2012 2:58 pm

    Intriguing. I think the emotions that provoke aggression do need to be considered carefully – I think that’s an aspect of maturity. But like hot spices, a dash of aggression can ultimately bring about a pleasing result, but woe to the dish with too liberal a sprinkling.

  2. Rob permalink
    December 25, 2012 11:18 pm

    Right on Charley! “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you” has for good reason been the golden rule for many generations. If we just think of what we want without any regard for others we become savages as you wrote. But when the golden rule becomes a compulsion that robs people of their ability to stand up for what they believe in, this compulsive niceness becomes a soul sapper. Standing up for that which we care about, for that which has meaning to us is that which makes our action potent. This is what was meant when Leo Durocher said, “Nice guys finish last.”

    Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela are 3 examples that come to mind that exemplify the ability to powerfully embody both the golden rule while remaining true to their selves. Just don’t take it so far, like they did that it results in either torture or assasination.

  3. December 31, 2012 1:10 pm

    Dalai Lama said one moment of anger will destroy the benefits of lifetimes of good karma. You’re fucked.

    • January 3, 2013 6:23 am

      I doubt he said that at all.

      • January 3, 2013 2:57 pm

        He did, I read it in one of his books. Plus I couldn’t believe how old you look in that picture you posted. It reminded me of how Fritz Perls looked back in the day.

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