Two years ago I met a man. I didn't even particularly like him, but after a few months we began to date on an extremely casual level. Things progressed from extremely casual to extremely confusing. After nearly a year, we were incredibly intertwined. It's been almost two years, and he makes me want to believe in soul mates. Our relationship has been tumultuous, rocky, difficult, wonderful, fulfilling, and everything between these extremes. There have been other people on both sides, breaks, questions. He has given me some of my greatest happiness and some of my most painful moments.
Finally, when it seemed that we were on track, finally freeing ourselves from the tumult of the past, the Army decided it needed him. Duty called, and he was given the opportunity to either return to the Army from the IRR [Individual Ready Reserve] and pick his assignment, or take the chance of not returning immediately and be called up when they saw fit. Naturally, he choose his assignment (one that still places him someplace overseas) and is now gone.
I should have the capacity to understand and accept his decision as the best one, but I can't help being angry. Due to my anger, and his displeasure at that anger (and, of course, the circumstance of his being gone for a long time), we broke up when he left. And I put an ultimatum after the fact: that I was not going to subject myself to this yo-yo of a relationship any longer. I regret saying it, but part of me just wishes I had never met him (although the majority of me doesn't).
I can't help feeling abandoned for a military career. I'm heartbroken, lonely and scared. I can't sleep. I drink too much. But most of all, I am angry at him for leaving me, angry at myself for not being more accepting and supportive, angry at the U.S. government, angry at my friends who seem so happy, angry at my parents who are just trying to help. My anger knows no bounds or reason, and I can't sort it out. How do I get through this? I need to be supportive for him while we are still in contact before he leaves the States next weekend. I'm afraid this is just going to overtake me and cause ruin in my own life.
Dear Furiously Exhausted,
It sounds as if you have acquired a habit of going to emotional extremes and now you're having trouble finding a middle ground. "My anger knows no bounds or reason," you say, "and I can't sort it out."
Perhaps I can help you sort it out by considering the nature of anger, and asking why it can be so troublesome. All our emotions are linked to physical expression, but anger is the one whose physical expression is most likely to land you in jail. If you are elated you can laugh; if you are sad you can weep; if you are worried you can fret. But should you throw an ashtray at the head of a government official or dig your fingernails into the cheeks of your boyfriend, you're in trouble.
So in the interests of an orderly society, we learn to not throw ashtrays or scratch people's faces. That's a good thing. But if in controlling our actions so that we don't harm anyone, we also ignore what the anger is about, or pretend we don't really feel it, we may fail to gain some crucial knowledge about ourselves, things we need to know to get by in life, a vast store of information that has emotional content but also great factual detail, vivid color and spiritual power, historical meaning and physical truth. Underneath anger is the truth about what we care about, what can make us happy, what we want more than anything else in the world, what talents we have, and why we like and dislike certain people, our vision for ourselves. Because anger is about the denial of those things we love.
For instance, behind your anger at the government may be a feeling that the government has harmed you by taking your boyfriend away. But there is probably more to your feelings about the government than that. What else do you feel about the government? Try making a list of what you feel about the government. On that list might be your feeling that the government is powerful and doesn't listen to you, that it's all made up of rich white men, that it wears boring clothes and talks with a Maryland accent, that it protected you when you were a child, but when you saw its name on letters to your parents and your parents reacted with fear you came to think of it as a threat; perhaps the government put an uncle in prison or took your father away; perhaps losing your boyfriend to the Army reminds you of other times, painful times, when men went away because of the government.
Underneath your anger there may be great sadness and loss. Anger is easier than sadness and loss. So go slowly. Feel the sadness and loss. And understand the positive side of the pain. For instance, if you didn't love this guy, you wouldn't care if he was gone. You do love this guy, I think. I think you also love your parents. That is not a trivial matter. It's a remarkable and precious thing, actually. Think about all the other love in your life, love from your parents who are just trying to help, love from your friends. Let them love you. Try to let some of that good feeling in. I know it feels like it's not enough. Perhaps it also feels stupid or useless. Don't worry about that. Just try to let it in. You need it right now. It's not silly or trivial. It's useful. Plus it's free.
Feeling some of these other emotions -- love and sadness -- will help balance out your anger so it doesn't seem so overwhelming.
Part of your anger, too, I suspect, comes from a general feeling about the country today that everything has gone to shit. Some things have gone to shit, it's true. America's image as a just, peace-loving country has gone to shit.
But not everything has gone to shit. It's just that there's a war on, and history is marching over us as it always has, writing its tragedy in three acts with tank treads on our backs, and we are just trying to find a little peace and quiet and not get shot or end up in jail. As always, there are men we will never meet, born and bred to power, who can pick up a phone and send somebody's cousin to Tikrit; but also there are men born and bred to power whom we will never meet who can pick up the telephone and publish a poem in a small literary quarterly out of a town in Iowa or West Virginia, and men who can pick up a telephone and send a tractor to Arizona, send a slab of beef to Ketchikan, cause a ship to turn around in the middle of the ocean and head back to the Azores; it's a vast world of intricate and varied powers exercised by men whose faces we will never see, whose voices we will never hear and whose hands we will never shake. Some of those men may be kind and loving fathers and some may be mostly made of titanium and other exotic alloys. But their existence is a fact about which we can do very little except pray that when they have their phone conversations our names do not come up.
It's a sad, dangerous time we live in. You and me, sweetheart, we're just trying to stay out of the way. So tend to your own little postage stamp of land, and keep your head down. This too will pass.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Want more advice from Cary? Read the Since You Asked directory.