Growing up, I went to a dysfunctional parochial school.
The school was characterized by excessive, unfounded and often absurd rules — all alleged to have been formulated in the name of God.
No dancing at any time. Dancing of any kind at any time — even at a wedding — was grounds for punishment or expulsion.
Girls could not wear pants or shorts. Even for sports. In the case of the latter, they were required to wear shin-length polyester culottes. And that was considered a “liberal” concession.
Denim was decried as “the devil’s material” and forbidden to be worn at any time, in or out of school. If someone reported that they’d seen you wearing jeans on a Saturday, you’d be hauled into the principal’s office come Monday morning .
Girls could not color or style their hair according to modern fashions. And boys’ hair was required to be what we called “white-walled”: a half-inch minimum off the ear, shirt collar and eyebrows. In eighth grade, I entered a music competition between like-minded parochial schools. After months of arduous practice, I took the stage and played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 3 No. 2 in C# Minor nearly flawlessly. The judges awarded me an overall score of zero and disqualified me — because my hair touched my eyebrow.
What’s more, parents were required to sign over unrestricted rights of corporal punishment (meaning, teachers had free reign to physically strike students whenever they wanted with no recourse … a situation of which many took full advantage).
The general “rule” of corporal punishment (when teachers abided by one at all) was that the offending party would be brought to the principal’s office to be paddled. The paddle was a square wooden board with a handle, which hung on a hook by the glass-topped desk when not in use, a reminder to all that it could just as easily be taken down at any time. The student was required to assume “the position”: toes and heels together, bent over with hands braced on knees. The adult would then administer 10 strikes with the paddle — hard. If, however, the student at any time broke “the position” by taking a hand off a knee or stepping forward the slightest bit to maintain balance, then the ritual would begin again with the count reset to 1. As you might imagine, most students didn’t escape with the minimum 10.
I’m only able to give you a glimpse of the reality, which was more horrifying than I’m able to capture in short order. Yet this warped and sadistic environment was the norm for us. And within this system, I was a model student.
I was a perfectionist. So getting the highest marks, and remembering and keeping all rules, was no great challenge.
In sixth grade, I received my first and only paddling. The reason was that I had forgotten my lunch at home, and was, therefore, allegedly trying to draw attention to myself, which was prideful (I kid you not).
I did not flinch.
I did not step.
I did not cry.
That teacher could hit me, but she was not going to break me. I was not giving her the satisfaction.
Thirty years later, I ran into that teacher in a store. I had not seen her in the interim. Even three decades later, she sneered at me with derision and said, “Well, well, well … it looks like at least one of the Tyler kids managed to make it to adulthood.”
I turned to look her square in the eye and replied, calling her by her first name (changed here): “Winifred, do you know what I remember about you as my teacher? I don’t remember a single thing you taught me. I only remember that you paddled me when I was 11 … for forgetting my lunch.”
She arched an eyebrow. “I didn’t paddle you for forgetting your lunch.”
“Yes … you did,” I countered, my face a stone. “It was the only time I was ever paddled in that place. I remember it well.”
“Oh, I paddled you,” she retorted smugly. “I remember it just as well. But it wasn’t for forgetting your lunch. That’s just what I told you it was for. I really paddled you because I didn’t want you going around thinking you were so perfect.”
Those of you with empathy intact may have just felt something akin to anger. And that’s merely vicarious. Imagine being me and the other students who attended that school at the time (keeping in mind that I fared much better than most).
Sadly, many of those who attended the school during at that time — all of whom are now approaching 50 — are still angry. For many, their entire lives since then have been tethered to bitterness and anger that accumulated during those years, so many decades ago.
If I’m being honest, that was me until sometime in my early twenties. I was angry. All the time. It wasn’t the kind of anger that flares up when someone cuts you off in traffic. It was a deep anger that crept like briars through my stomach. I often missed consecutive meals without realizing it (once for about 10 days in college, landing me in the hospital in serious condition), because the gnawing pangs of perpetual bitterness overshadowed even the natural feeling of hunger.
I was on the phone with my best friend, Dib, the other day, and she said something that I knew would wind up being the topic of this week’s post as soon as it left her lips:
“Anger is nothing but a big, fat drain.”
She continued, “I could easily allow myself to get wrapped up and angry. But why? It’s like [that person] already caused an upset, and … what? … now I’m going to give them my peace and happiness, too? No way.”
Wise words. Stellar realization and application of the truth that “You always have a choice.”
I remember when that idea — that, in every circumstance, I had a choice — first became real to me. I was 21. It was the middle of the night. I couldn’t sleep. The hooks of anger were pulling taut inside. My mind was doing what it had done so many times before: replaying on loop the ever-lengthening movie of a lifetime of offenses and hurts.
But somewhere in my dark reverie, another “voice” cut in. It almost seemed to be coming from outside of myself, being in such contrast to the seething rancor that held me like a straitjacket:
“Your anger isn’t changing anything. It’s not making anyone pay. It’s not making anyone sorry. They’re sound asleep right now while you lie awake, a wreck. Yes, those people took years of your childhood. That was not your choice. But those years are over. Now, you’re choosing to give them more hours, more nights, more months, more years — beyond the ones they stole. Those people are no longer able to take your peace and happiness. You’re choosing to give it away now.”
And that voice only further fueled my anger. Or was it panic? Hopelessness?
If I didn’t remain angry, I was giving up the fight against people who were 100% in the wrong. And it felt like moving on and choosing to be happy … was letting bad people get away with it.
But somewhere during those next few hours of turmoil, reason won out. I saw it clearly for the first time. My freedom and happiness has been taken from me in the past. But now, I was choosing to continue to give it away.
Anger is nothing but a big, fat drain.
It doesn’t matter what you’re angry about. From a horrible boss to a sexual abuser to a president, you always have a choice. Other people have their choices. And you have yours. Knowing where their choices end and where yours begin is the foundation of peace, of happiness.
Sometimes, you have the choice to remove yourself from the other person’s influence. It might be hard. Really hard. But often, it’s a choice within our power all the same. Find a different job. Move out and get a new roommate. Turn off the TV.
The past and the hurtful people in it hold no power over you. Other than some microscopic neurons in your cerebral cortex, you literally aren’t the same person you were years ago — not even by one cell. So the only power a person from your past has over you is the power you give them in your mind.
Still other things that have the potential to drive us to anger are current and unavoidable to some degree. For these, I often think about something else my friend Dib says: “If I were forced to be in a six-by-six prison with dirt floors, I’d find a way to make it good. I’d wait for the seed to blow in through the window and I’d plant it and water it with my spit and make a garden.” Don’t let the ugly interaction use up even one minute of the next perfectly good one that follows. Close the door. Don’t look back.
There are certainly times when anger can serve to drive specific and empowering action. Outing the perpetrator. Speaking the truth. Becoming politically active. Defending the defenseless.
But where anger does not lead to action, it serves no purpose.
Today, I’m a happy person. My past hasn’t changed, nor can it. The world is, in many ways, much the same as it was, with potential for hurt just as present. Still, I am happy — by choice.
Don’t let another day or hour — or moment — of your happiness go down the drain.
NOTE: For those who are processing current anger due to abuse, mistreatment or sudden loss, please take the time to read this brief comment exchange below; I believe you’ll find it helpful.