How I Keep Calm: Staying Angry

Jewish women have a long and rich history of using our anger as a transformative and healing source.

Everything about the COVID-19 pandemic has made me angry, even before the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery reignited public attention and righteous outrage over centuries of police brutality towards Black Americans.

I was already angry at how slow the United States was to respond to COVID-19. I was already angry at how a company in Chicago, where I currently live, demolished a power plant smokestack in Little Village, releasing a thick cloud of dust across a predominantly Mexican-American community during a pandemic. I was already angry that 83,000 people applied for an emergency housing assistance lottery in Chicago for rental assistance, while only 2,000 of them received help. I was already angry that Mayor Lightfoot seemed more set on settling scores with critical members of Chicago’s City Council and the Chicago Teacher’s Union than addressing inequalities. I was already angry at how COVID-19 starkly exposed the vast cruelties of state and federal social welfare policy — where the worst possible thing isn’t people going without food and shelter, but people possibly getting slightly more assistance than they “deserve.”

I was already angry at cops who harassed, assaulted, and arrested people, primarily people of color, for not wearing masks — or not wearing masks “correctly” — and I was already angry about the conditions in jails and prisons, which were death traps before COVID-19 and are even worse now. I was already angry at the mealy-mouthed statements some advocates made about releasing just “the most vulnerable” and “low risk” inmates from these deathtraps; no one should be locked in cages right now.

This anger has only gotten stronger as images of cops beating protesters, deploying tear gas, and trapping protesters from Minneapolis to New York to Los Angeles to Chicago and everywhere in between have flooded airwaves and screens. In Chicago, city officials have responded by shutting down public transit, imposing curfews, and suspending meal pick-up programs that supported public school students and families who needed food. The abject refusal to respect protester’s constitutionally protected rights to speech and assembly, and the bloodthirsty glee in making things worse by denying basic services just when they are needed more than ever, has transformed my anger into a deep rage.

And that anger is keeping me calm and grounded right now.

American society has an incredibly difficult time handling anger, especially women’s anger. Many times, the immediate impulse is to downplay women’s anger, to sooth and cajole, to try and find a quick fix, or worse, to label angry women in unflattering ways or try and punish them for their feelings. The implication is that angry women are bad, dangerous, and need to be managed and controlled at all cost. Racism magnifies this even more as many Black women have shared for decades.

But not all anger is the same. The anger of white men in positions of power and authority when they aren’t getting their way is truly terrifying, and anger like this can expand and contract to inflict as much damage as possible. We see this in the Bible, from Shechem’s rape of Dinah leading to Shimon and Levi’s violent retribution, to modern day, like the viral picture of a man screaming at police officers in Michigan’s Capitol building to any of the smaller but no less nasty ways men behave when they aren’t getting their way.

But that violent anger is not the only way to be angry. It’s not the way I’m angry, and it is not the way the protesters and community organizers I work with are angry.

Just as fire can destroy, it is also an important source of light and warmth; anger can destroy, but it can also be fuel to do good. We would not have any semblance of long-term survival as a species without it. Jewish women have a long and rich history of using their anger as a transformative and healing source from activist and writer Emma Goldman organizing workers and fighting against oppressive political regimes in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century to community organizer Tamar Manasseh forming a coalition in 2015 to end gun violence on Chicago’s South Side through sharing food and conversation to nurse and public health advocate Blimi Marcus demanding greater accountability in how leadership inside and outside the Jewish community responded to COVID-19.

Fire can destroy police cruisers, but it can also cook the meals being served to protesters and power the cars people drive to help transport protestors away from the danger caused by police.

Not being angry is not an option right now. We should be focusing on how to use our anger to fight for and heal our communities affected by racism, police brutality, and COVID-19 instead of trying to focus on swallowing anger, numbing anger, or trying to use a variety of self-care practices to make anger disappear completely.

My anger is what drives me to keep a semblance of a routine in spite of everything. My anger is what led me to volunteer as a hotline operator for my neighborhood community response team three days a week, and to continue to find ways to support activists on the ground even while I am in self-quarantine.

I’ve created a list of angry affirmations that remind me of why I can’t let the cruelties of our present moment overwhelm me:

None of this is okay.

I can’t singlehandedly fix everything. But I can organize with other people to support people in the community.

No one is going to help us except ourselves.

I will not give people in power the pleasure of me burning myself out or destroying myself.  

These affirmations keep me calm because they recognize “the enormity of the world’s grief” (as Rami Shapiro famously put it in his commentary on Pirkei Avot) without letting me wallow in it. 

My anger keeps me focused on what needs to be done to ensure that all of us will make it to the other side of this mess, God willing. Without it, I would be frozen in a state of panic, grief, and dread and would be unable to function. With it, I am motivated to do the work that needs to be done to “rebuild a new world from the ashes of the old,” where there are no cops or prisons and where we work together to account for an end racism and injustice.

how I keep calm

How I Keep Calm is our series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.

Images of protestors in header by Denise Truscello/Getty Images.

Elena Gormley

Elena Gormley is a religious school teacher, semi-professional beehive kicker, and Masters of Social Work candidate at the University of Illinois-Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work. She is a big fan of cats, destroying systems of oppression, and klezmer mariachi music.

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