To my mind, wrath has always had a connotation of either revenge or justice. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear about the “Wrath of God”, usually in reference to someone paying for some horrible wickedness. As appealing as the notion of an emotion of justice is, it isn’t actually true.
Wrath is really just a typical irrational emotion, and like most emotions it is prone to misfiring. As people, we direct wrath often not at those deserving of it, but at whoever happens to be standing there, whoever we disagree with - especially if we suspect that they may be right, or whoever we decide we don’t like at that moment regardless of the reason. We have all done it, even if only to a small degree, and we have all hurt someone who didn’t deserve to be hurt as a result.
I have an older relative on my mother’s side, who he is exactly isn’t important but suffice to say that most people would expect that he and I would have a close relationship. We don’t, and the reason is a mutual vindictive anger – in other words, wrath.
This relative and I differ on a few points. First off, while he claims to be Christian, the reality is that he is a follower of the creed “there is but one god, and his name is Reagan, and Limbaugh is his prophet.” Second, he has a very macho outlook – there are MANLY things (sports, joining the military, sex with any available woman, voting Republican) and then there are those things not worth of a truly manly man (everything that he doesn’t personally like or do). Third, he seems to believe that anyone who disagrees with him is a threat, so it’s not enough for him to disagree with you, he has to try to crush you so that you will bow to his alleged wisdom.
But, Dr. Jekyll-like, he has another side as well. He has shown himself to be concerned about maintaining family ties, planning gatherings and trips, often generously putting forth money from his own pocket in order to ensure that others may participate. He has shown a concern about the community around him, and worked for some time professionally to try to improve things.
As a kid, I was often the target of both sides.
He did take an interest in me, and often seemed to seek me out for company. However, as I was a bright but sensitive kid, lousy at sports, and with broad intellectual interests that didn’t intersect with his rather narrower ones, I was also often the target of absurd amounts of ridicule and verbal abuse. One of my sisters recalls him going out of his way at times to pick on or belittle me – though I don’t personally recall if I received this treatment more than my sisters did.
As I became a teenager, and began to form my own opinions on a variety of issues, the abuse really picked up. I took an interest in science, which meant that I disagreed with him on almost every subject contained within science. I read books on philosophy, and began to question the rigid moral code that he claimed (but didn’t tend to follow). I read a lot of history (still do), and as such didn’t agree with him on many of his cherished myths (really, you should have seen him explode when I mentioned that Columbus was, in fact, not the first person to think that the world was round). Oddly, I was usually able to keep calm and collected when talking to him – figuring that the best way to counter his bursts of, frankly rather bizarre, anger was to keep calm and try to talk like two rational people.
A typical conversation from this time period went something like this:
Him: Evolution? You believe that shit? You believe that people came from monkeys? God, you are stupid!
Me: Evolution is about genetic change over time, not “people coming from monkeys” – and if you really look into it, it makes a lot of sense.
Him: Oh, I see, you think you’re so fucking smart!
Me: Look, genes replicate at such a high rate that errors in replication are inevitable. It’s also inevitable that sometimes these errors will actually have beneficial…
Him: That’s stupid, and you’re an idiot and a loony if you believe that crap!
Me: Look, you don’t know what it’s even about, if you’d let me just say something…
Him: Why should I listen to you? You’re just believing everything that you’ve been spoon-fed, and not thinking about any of it. You idiot!
No, I’m no exaggerating, that’s really the way he talks to, or rather shouts at, people. The very definition of wrath – a vindictive anger directed at someone who is to be punished – even if their only crime is disagreeing on a subject of which the dispenser of wrath has no real knowledge.
As you can imagine, being steam-rolled over like that gets old, as does having someone insist that you’re the one accepting whatever you’re spoon-fed when, in fact, you’re the only one who’s actually basing their opinions on evidence. However, I managed to keep contact with him through my teens and early 20’s, managing to visit him and his wife at least once a week when I was in town, sometimes more often – each time having to gird myself and prepare myself to keep cool under what was promised to be a verbal beating for no reason other than that I didn’t take his word as gospel.
But by my mid-20’s I had begun to have enough of it.
By this time, I had grown quite tired of being informed that I was immoral because I was not Christian (despite the fact that I led a far more moral life than he), that my opinions didn’t matter because I didn’t have the “decency” and “moral fortitude” to be a party-line Republican, that my education was clearly inferior and nothing but brainwashing because I didn’t accept Rush Limbaugh as a reliable source of information (no joke, I have actually been told this). In short, I had grown tired of being a punching bag for someone who seemed to simply want to have a victim to smack around.
…and as you can see, this behavior of his colored my view more than it should. I say all of this, and all of it is true, and yet he still would demonstrate that he could be a gracious host, a generous person, and a concerned family member. By this time, his outbursts of wrath had begun to spark a gnawing worm of anger inside of me, and that worm began to color my every interaction with him.
And this is where the real problem with wrath comes in. It doesn’t remain one-sided. The subject will eventually become resentful, and then begin reflecting the initial hostility back at its origin. And that is exactly what happened here.
Beginning when I was around 22 or 23, I began to be less civil when he would pick fights with me. I was more likely to shout back and talk over him, just as he did to me and everyone else. Rather than walking away feeling frustrated, I walked away feeling righteous indignation followed by a sense of rage. Eventually, it was difficult for me to think of him without becoming angry. I still tried to maintain a relationship, and still managed to start every visit in a civil manner, though he would invariably pick a topic where he knew we disagreed and began hammering at me until I bit back. All the while, my visits were becoming less and less frequent.
On Fathers Day, 2005* I paid my last visit to his home. At this point, I had not seen him in nearly a year. I had gotten word that his wife, to whom I had been close when I was a kid, had been diagnosed with Alzheimers. I decided that I needed to go and visit, and that I should make a point of trying to rebuild our relationship – he was going to need everyone he could get on his side.
The visit started pleasantly enough, and he asked me about where my career was headed. I told him that I was headed into environmental consulting, and explained a bit about the laws that I would be working with, and how the laws had been made intentionally flexible to allow them to be adapted broadly to a wide variety of circumstances.
He then brought up a local issue, where a developer had stopped working on a project. Generally it had been blamed on environmental concerns (or “fucking environmental extremists” according to this relative), but the situation was, in fact, considerably more complicated and the environmental issues were only a small part of the cause. I tried to explain this, and he would have none of it, and began his usual thing – screaming about my alleged immorality, telling me that I was a traitor to my country for being part of “the environmental movement that is trying to destroy America”, and insisting that I had said that environmental law “doesn’t hold water (in fact, completely different from what I had said). I began by calmly asking him to tone down, and trying to say that he had (I think knowingly) misquoted what I had said. His response – to tell me to shut up, that I had no right to ask him to calm down, and that I was a traitorous liberal who didn’t have a right to speak.
I had had it. I began screaming right back at him, letting thirty years of pent up rage come out in my words and tone. I told him that he was a hypocrite, that he knew that he was wrong and that was why he was afraid of letting me get a word in, and that I wasn’t going to let him push me around.
At this point, over the objections of his wife, he pointed at the door and told me to get out. I yelled “fine, I’m gone” and headed out the door. His last words as the door closed behind me were “your kind makes me sick!”
I was livid, and took much longer to drive back home to Santa Barbara (where I was living at the time) because I kept having to stop along the road, being so enraged that I would have been a menace to other drivers if I didn’t stop to cool down.
And that was it. The relationship, long eroding, now completely destroyed. I saw him once at his wife’s funeral, where I tried to mend fences (and he was quite calm and kind, to his credit), and once afterwards, where he was much calmer even when discussing potentially inflammatory topics. But I can’t bring myself to try again. I know I should, I know I should forgive him, and I know I should let the past go. But, for some reason, I can’t. I feel like I had taken his misplaced wrath for three decades, and I am now somewhat ashamed of myself for allowing that to happen, for not having stood up to him more forcefully sooner. I’m also disappointed with myself for allowing him to provoke me – yet it was not allowing myself to be provoked that led to me feeling like I’d allowed myself to be used as a doormat.
I know I should put the past behind me and forgive him, but I can’t, and I don’t know why. Even writing this essay has been difficult – I have often had to get up and do something else to prevent myself from becoming enraged. Nothing else does this to me, nothing else gets me so irrationally angry and bitter. I find it difficult to think of his good qualities, they seem like a dream that you can’t quite recall after waking up, this anger at him for his abusive behavior is too over-powering, when it really shouldn’t be.
I feel like I could let the whole thing go if only he would apologize, if only he’d admit that he has done wrong and show a willingness to make amends. He won’t, that sort of introspection is beyond him. When I have tried to talk to him since that Fathers Day, I have managed to remain pleasant
And so there it is – I spent several decades as the target of someone else’s wrath, and now I have a storehouse of my own that I cannot let go of, cannot direct at anyone else, and yet must express, and that poisons me to this day.
*No, this relative is not my father. I was at visiting my father in Modesto, and that’s why I was in town to drop in on this relative.