Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Bedsit

Once upon a time I lived in a big room on the second floor (first floor we would say in Europe) of a very big early 20th century house that had been turned into flats. My landlady sold mutual funds; keenly interested in never having to be economically independent on anyone else ever again, I routinely bought mutual funds. I was rather susceptible to sales pitches as I had just done the unthinkable and run away from my then-husband. My landlady was a shark.

The big room came with a chest of drawers/cabinet. I soon added a futon that served as a sofa by day and as a couch by night. There must have been a table, for I remember sitting up at night before the big bay window conjugating verbs. My work ethic was admirable: I reviewed three years of high school Italian, first year university Latin, even first year Greek. I had neither a television nor a computer.

I also got up early every morning and went to the gym. Then I went to work. Then I went home to have supper before going down, three nights a week, to the boxing club. It was open only three nights a week. If it had been open five or six nights a week, I probably would have gone five or six nights a week.

On Sundays I went to Mass. I could go to Mass at only one church--the church of the priest who had said "Honey, get out when you're young"--without feeling like I wanted to kill somebody afterwards. The closest evening Mass was in a low-ceilinged church of astonishing, possibly architectural prize-winning, modernist ugliness and the entire congregation seemed grey, exhausted, and only going through the motions. This was the one period of my life when I sometimes skipped going to Sunday Mass. My justification was there was no point going to Mass if it made me that angry.

In hindsight, evening Mass--so quiet, so dull, so lacking in the great choir and the shining personality of the pastor uptown--was the one place where anger could catch up with me. It was like my very first Christian yoga class in Boston. It was not until I took that class that I realized that there was something  wrong with my foot, and that it was absolutely killing me. I hobbled away and waited for hours and hours in the college clinic (so much for snappy American private health care) to discover I had very slightly fractured it weeks before.

It amazes me that I could not have gotten rid of all that anger just through all the work I was doing. I mean, I was always working. Exercise, detailed-oriented job, exercise, verb conjugation. I ate only 1300 to 1500  low-fat calories a day: I diligently added them all up. (An apple has 90-110 calories!)  No wonder my family began to mutter words like "gaunt" when I came to visit. It amazes me that I didn't simply burn up the anger when I ran out of calories.

Boxing is a traditional Catholic cure for frustration (especially sexual) and anger. It seem like Irish-named priests in the early 20th century were always founding boxing clubs, were always sending boys to square off in the ring. Since I was in a boxing gym for up to nine hours a week, you would have thought my bruises and occasional swollen nose hid the tranquility of a nun, but no. Maybe boxing works like that for guys. (If I had a son, I would encourage him to try it.) It certainly staves off boredom. For adrenaline, there's nothing like getting into the ring and facing another violent member of homo sapiens sapiens for purposes of violence.  But it did not get rid of my anger, the anger of which I was barely conscious. Mostly I thought I was lonely.

The bedsit was heaven compared to what I had left, but some nights the walls just closed in. And this brings me back to the night I was thinking about this morning: the night I went to a dance club by myself.

There are a lot of things you might not want to do by yourself, but are perfectly doable. You can eat in a restaurant by yourself; nobody but the servers will notice. You can go to the cinema by yourself. You can even go on holiday by yourself. But I do not recommend that you leave your bedsit (bachelor apartment) late at night, walk past blocks of empty parking lots in a depressed area of town, go to a noisy dance club where you know no-one, knock back alcopop until you are drunk and then walk back past the empty parking lots at 1 AM. Although nothing bad happened to me, that was a stupid and irresponsible thing for a woman to do. At the time I thought I had been pushed out of the flat by loneliness, but it was probably not wanting to be stuck there with my anger.

I don't remember if this was before or after I finally picked up the phone and called a psychotherapist--a Catholic psychotherapist, one who advertised at the back of my comforting church. But it was in therapy that I was forced to sit still with my anger and at last begin the long task of loosening its hitherto anonymous hold on my life.

"But Marmee," says Jo in Little Women, "you are never angry."

"I am angry almost every day of my life," says Jo's saintly mother, and as a child I thought how wonderful she was to experience daily rage and yet be such a joy to be around. But what Alcott didn't mention, and what I don't want to forget, is what a blessing anger can be.

Sure, anger drove me out into the dangerous night because I couldn't stand to be alone with it. But it also propelled me into good physical health-- when I was 29 the examining nurse told me I had the heart of a 14 year old. It drove me into boxing, an experience I would not have given up for anything. It helped me to reclaim Italian and Latin and to come to grips with that bugaboo of first year uni, Greek. It thus prepared me for three years of solid academic work. Above all, it got me out of a bad marriage sooner rather than later.

So I conclude this morning that there is nothing wrong with anger in itself. (It is certainly superior to depression.) The moral questions are What should you do with it? and How do you make anger your servant, not your master?

Update: Prudence, not anger, drove me back to my computer to mention that your former boxing career is not usually something you want to mention on a first date with an NCB. Believe me on this. Few good and licit things undercut your careful projection of Devout 21st Century Catholic Femininity than your past or present ability to beat the stuffing out of somebody. Meanwhile, the Not Nice Not Catholic Not Really Anything Rats love it because they think this might mean you are kinky.  Again, believe me on this one; don't find out the hard way. Revelations of martial arts prowess should really be left for later.


MaryJane said...

It's the whole idea of "channeling" right? We take an emotion that might be negative and turn it into positive action. My question is: do you think it has to be something physical? Obviously the intense intellectual activity was not enough, despite how difficult it was. (I am so impressed, by the way! All those languages just sitting by yourself!) Do you think the emotion, in this case anger, needs a physical outlet? What might you recommend besides boxing?

Seraphic said...

Excess anger needs to be addressed by simply sitting there, feeling it and not running away from it. It is often corroded sadness, so pinpointing why you are so sad is very helpful as is crying. The healthiest thing to do when you are hurt and sad is go to a safe place and cry. Whoever came up with the idea that crying is a shameful giving into weakness should have been shot.

But in terms of channeling energy in physical ways, I imagine anything that is really physically challenging, like rock-climbing, would be helpful. Even if nobody ever throws a punch at you, a boxing workout, overseen by a good instructor, is one of the most physically punishing, yet strength-building, healthy activities there is. But like singing Gregorian chant, anyone can be taught to do it.

Sarah said...

Hm, I pulled a similar stunt when I was 19 and living alone in a beautiful 1920's apartment in the downtown area of my city, and was horribly lonely. I walked to a house concert in the frat neighborhood because I knew the drummer (the *only* person I knew there), got very drunk off $7 vodka and flat grape soda and walked home.

Not very smart, but I think my problems were more depression-related than anger-related.

This post definitely makes me want to find a good boxing place, though.

Maria said...

"Few good and licit things undercut your careful projection of Devout 21st Century Catholic Femininity than your past or present ability to beat the stuffing out of somebody. Meanwhile, the Not Nice Not Catholic Not Really Anything Rats love it because they think this might mean you are kinky."
The same seems to apply to "hard liquor". If a new acquaintance offers to buy you a drink, it appears to be a bad idea to say "straight scotch, please." Again, don't find out the hard way, heartbreaking as it is to turn down free scotch. :(

Jam said...

Not related to anger at all, but here's a Nice Catholic Guy's comment on that New York Times article from... last week? Whenever that was.

Kate P said...

I once read a description of depression as "anger turned inward," so if anyone's feeling like that, I would encourage her (or him) to seek help. I was miserable through my college years until I took an art class and realized what all my works were saying--sat myself down in the student services office.

It doesn't get better overnight--especially as in my case it took longer to diagnose a food allergy that contributed--but at least you're not alone anymore!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Seraphic said...

The deleted brave anonymous comment reminds me of my opposition to people deliberately crying in front of other people as a "Poor me, pity me" power play. Therapeutic crying is best done alone or with a therapist.

I don't like seeing strange men (or other women's boyfriends or indeed, men I dated) cry about their problems not because I think it shows weakness but because it is inappropriate for them to let it all hang out in front of me. Men letting their emotions go amock in public are kind of scary. But men mopping their eyes at a funeral or on Remembrance Sunday or even at a concert is entirely appropriate to my culture and not scary.

Sarah said...

I used to be more or less of your opinion when it came to men crying. However, I think sometimes human connection is what you need most when you're feeling depressed and alone, and for men, too. Granted, this man cried in front of another man, which may make a difference to you.

I don't think a therapist, who ultimately is being PAID to listen to you cry is the only appropriate person to listen. Sometimes you need someone that knows you and loves you to see that you're in pain. I definitely don't think crying alone is always very healthy, either.

Seraphic said...

The activity of crying is healthy in itself. If you find yourself crying all the time, it is a signal that something is wrong and you need help, but it is itself a healthy way of getting pain out, unlike cutting, for example.

Perhaps a nice rule of thumb would be not to cry in front of anyone with whom you do not share an emotional bond, unless they are professional carers, like therapists and nurses.

I hate it when television interviewers try to goad people into crying.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous this time...

Oh yes, I know that kind of anger, too, when you feel like killing someone. I would be glad to learn to channel it somehow. Joining the boxing club and learning several languages sounds really impressive! But in the meantime, the best cure for me is to try to get rid of it entirely. Anger seems to be much more dangerous than depression, at least in my case. There was one situation once when I did give way to it, and it resulted in an extremely stupid and dangerous situation.

You know, that is a really important Single issue, thinking about depression and anger and what it can lead to (or how you can channel/cure it). I really appreciate your openness! I see I'm not the only one with that kind of problem...

Gregaria said...

Your update at the bottom of the post brings up an interesting question: are there other things you shouldn't talk about on a first date? Boxing is one, but what about the fact that you love a good debate or are good at sports? Do those send "kinky" signals, too? Is any show of toughness or defensiveness a bad idea? I know you mentioned past relationship hurts and making yourself seem like a victim, but perhaps making yourself seem too "macho" is bad, too, for a different reason?

Seraphic said...

All things are pure to the pure, so it is only bad men who are going to think martial arts or scotch = kinky.

I can't see anything wrong with saying you love a good debate or are good at sports if debating or sports naturally come into the conversation. One controversy is the question of how much you want to talk about yourself on a first date.

Generally its a good idea not to talk about things most people around think are shocking, violent or divisive. For example, I can't see why a woman in Dallas, Texas might not chat about the new handgun she wants to buy with a fellow Texan. However, I don't think this would be a suitable topic or conversation on a first date in Harvard Square.

Seraphic said...

Oh, so women's boxing (which unfortunately has long been seen as a kind of sexy women's mud-wrestling spectacle) falls into the controversial category (not to mention contradicting most people's ideas about femininity, e.g. feminine women aren't violent). Women's soccer, basketball, volleyball, swimming, etc., etc., do not.

Alisha said...

In acting class, our teacher pointed out that more often than not, in the exercises that we did, anger was usually coming from hurt, and it was frequently easier, less vulnerable to express anger than hurt.
Why would it be inappropriate or scary for a guy to cry in public? I don't think it's fair we give men such a hard time for this. I am much less scared of a man who can cry easily than one who can't.
As for not mentioning boxing on the first date, I think the exception should be if the NCB mentions Theology of the Body ;)

Alisha said...

And I love this blogpost by the way. I suggest something creative - writing, painting, dancing...sometimes I sing to exhaust myself of certain emotions.