More In Sorrow Than In Anger
On what we choose to do when all our sins are remembered.
This is not the piece I had planned on writing this week. While I cannot ignore national politics or world events, the professional community of which I am a part – that of the science fiction and fantasy literary profession – has been imbroiled with a wave of revelations of misconduct by some of the big fish in our small ponds of convention circuits, mentor programs, and what passes for royalty and nobility in our petty fiefdoms.
I do not intend to use this newsletter to editorialize on specific cases or take up for or against particular individuals. I don’t feel it is appropriate for me to use a paid platform for that. I don’t want the appearance or temptation of taking up a particular stance because it may seem more profitable to do so. This is not a pledge of neutrality or an attempt to appear objective. I am neither neutral, nor objective. I have been commenting on my personal Twitter account and will continue to do so.
These first four paragraphs (the two above, this, and the one below here) were added to this essay after I wrote it, when I realized that to someone who doesn’t know the context the words below may appear rather ominous, as though I am doing an essay-length “subtweet” against some person in particular, or am alluding to some harm done to me or some particular harm I have done to another.
This is not the case. If anything, this essay is probably less applicable to the conflicts that inspired it than to more everyday interactions and more incidental harms than those coming to light now. But these thoughts have arisen in me out of watching so many people, both recently and essentially throughout my adult life, react to finding themselves forced to examine their own past or recent actions through the eyes of another person, to finding themselves and their actions cast in a light they did not see and do not wish to see.
At some points in our lives, all of us will find ourselves in a situation where the next thing we do will either make others very sad or very angry.
Sometimes this will be entirely outside your control. Sometimes you are placed in a situation through no fault of your own where nothing you do will make others happy, and in fact anything you do will likely leave them unhappy.
This is not about those times.
This is about the times when you do something, or are party to something, or fail to prevent something that is hurtful and harmful to others. Maybe you didn’t see it that way. Maybe you didn’t intend to do anything wrong.
But it’s true nonetheless that you’ve caused damage and now the question is what to do about it. What to say about it. Where to go next.
This might be something that happens on a small, interpersonal scale between you and one other person. It might involve a group or community. It might be something that started out interpersonal and is now playing out in front of a community.
Regardless of the scale, if your focus in that moment is on winning or on staying ahead of something or staying alive in what is a game to you, then it may seem like the right move is to make people angry. Because if they’re angry, that means you’re in a fight, and you know what to do with a fight. You’ve got moves in a fight, you’re not backed into this corner where you might have to make people sad. A fight, you feel – not even think but feel – can be won.
You can’t win at sadness. No one wins at sadness. If you go with sadness, that means the game is over. Sadness means you’re out of moves. Sadness means there is no convincing the other person or people that you were right all along, that what you did was fine. Sadness means the final death of your last hope of powering through and coming out the other side untouched and unscathed.
In the face of that, anger can be tremendously appealing. You get angry, they get angry, and if there are witnesses or spectators, they all get angry, too. Some of them are angry at you, some of them are angry on your behalf, and this is all so terribly and wonderfully clarifying, isn’t it? To know who is with you and who is against you. To have a side, to have a team, instead of being one person with hat in hand and an open heart hoping to not be judged too harshly.
At forty years of age, I understand too well the clarifying, terrifying power of anger as a response. I understand the urge to get out of a no-win situation by turning it into a fight.
But the promise of anger, or at least this promise of anger, is an illusion.
I should make it understood that I am not against anger. Saint Augustine of Hippo is responsible for many things, and among the better of them is an epigram of which I am particularly fond: “Hope has two beeautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage: Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain so.”
In this moment of history, I would not cast aside anger as useless.
But winning an argument against someone you’ve hurt, whether in their eyes or the eyes of the part of the public that takes up your side, does not undo the hurt. It doesn’t actually resolve the unwinnable situation. When the dust settles and the smoke clears, you will inevitably find that far from saving the Kobayashi Maru from destruction, you have merely added another catastrophe for which you are also responsible alongside it, and now you have the same choice as to what you do about the new one while the old one burns silently in the void beside it.
Sadness does not offer us this false hope. It does not offer us anything nearly as bright and gleaming and attractive as anger does. This is not to say that it offers us nothing. Sadness instead offers us a quieter and more distant hope: the hope of healing. The hope of getting past – working past – the harm we’ve done. The hope of moving on.
And I should stress that as we cannot control how others feel, the choice of causing sadness or anger is not entirely our own. Realistically, the choice is less between making others sad or making others angry and more between doing something that makes us sad versus giving in to our own anger. The sorrow or anger of others merely tends to follow from those things.
We cannot prevent the anger of others. But we can look at two paths and see that one way leads more obviously to ongoing anger, and the other more obviously to sadness, even if anger pops up along the way there.
To put it simply, when we realize that we’ve hurt someone by our actions, we often must decide between confronting ourselves and confronting them.
Confronting yourself, examining your actions and intentions from an outside point of view, and coming clean… it doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with the worst interpretation of yourself. It doesn’t require canonizing as objective factual reality the way that your actions were seen or are remembered by others. In the final accounting, there is no final accounting. Certainly not in this life, if at all.
Lily Tomlin once said, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” I’m not writing about forgiveness here, not exactly. More like resolution. In the moment when you have the choice to confront what you’ve done vs. confronting how others feel about it, between the path of sorrow and the path of anger, only one of them is likely to lead to a resolution, but it means letting go of the hope that you can be proven righteous, if not right, of the hope that you can prove you were better in the past lieu of the hard work of being better in the future.
There is little real solace in righteousness. It’s not a cold comfort, but a searing hot one that lets you cover up the pain at the cost of always keeping the fires of anger stoked and blazing. There is little chance of closure in a fight, more a point where battle lines are drawn so firmly and reinforced so strongly that the battle grinds to a halt and the hot war becomes cold for a time, unless and until something else happens and the whole thing flares up again.
And since I’m talking about hope, I should mention that uncertain hope is the only certain thing any path can offer. We cannot control others and we cannot control events.
Ultimately, the only thing we can control is ourselves, but that is not nothing.