The out of sync guitars stumbling around each other tell you right away that things aren’t good around here. The tempo drags like someone pulling corpse. The drums beat out a simple, steady march/dirge. The bass sinks beneath the earth and buzzes somewhere below your feet.
The vocals are pushed out, just louder than a whisper. You can hear the breath as the sound is forced out of a tightened throat. The music drones through the verse. Then we hear that tortured lead guitar; that aching tone is so muffled that it sounds like it is underneath something.
The song continues, tired and heavy, through another verse and chorus. The lead guitar carves its way to the forefront as the second chorus extends into the outro. A new guitar is added into the mix here, with its waves of high-pitched feedback (which sounds similar to the feedback at the end of “Too Much Fun”). Each bar in the outro gets more intense.
Next time around.
The pressure builds with each slow beat. The drum and bass hold the song together as two high-pitched lead guitars phase in and out of each other and two rhythm guitars trip on alternating lines. The vocals become a chant.
Next time around.
Feedback swells in the back of the mix, filling the sound with vibration so deep it could be your own heart beating.
Next time around.
And just like that, the tension cracks. Something gives somewhere and the aching winds down. One by one, the instruments and vocals withdraw until we are left with those two rhythm guitars toppling over their unplanned mess.
Next time around.
The lyrics tell of a lover’s betrayal and how the pain of that is multiplied by gossip and drama seeking. The singer wants justice, some sign of reciprocity that will balance the scales. Will you feel the same way I feel next time around? The question says what the singer cannot admit directly – he is angry.
He wants those who hurt him to feel pain. He wants them to hurt the way he has been hurt. Seeing them get what is coming to them will balance the scales.
Instant karma. You reap what you sow. We crave it so much, this retribution, that we’ve come up with so many cliches for describing it.
Right now you might be expecting a well-meaning sermon from me about the virtues of forgiveness, a passionate testimony about how forgiveness severs you from the chains binding you to pain but seeking retribution pulls the chains tighter so that their shape is imprinted in your skin. I could give that sermon, but it would just be me trying to repeat what others have lived and said (for the best example of this type of sermon, search on YouTube for “Forgiving Assholes” by Nadia Bolz-Weber).
This is not the lesson experience has taught me. What I know from my own experience is darker stuff. I can tell you why someone would refuse to recognize that they are angry at all. And I can tell you why someone would hold on to anger long past its expiration date. I know the ugly, messy stuff.
It might seem incredulous to claim that someone can be angry and not even recognize it, but as a culture, we are adept at finding ways to stuff our emotions down to the threshold of non-existence. Anger is one of those emotions that can sneak up on us, particularly if we are preoccupied with thoughts of retribution – retribution is so close to justice that it makes it almost respectable. That’s how it gets you.
The boundary between righteous anger and self-interested malice is no wider than a hair pulled from your head. And nobody wants to admit that we feel malice. The world tells us the story over and over again about how only the bad guys have anger. People with good hearts don’t let anger get the best of them. We could be drowning in a flash flood of anger and deny that it is even there because we want to be one of the good people.
This is particularly true for those of us who grew up in the Christian church (or grew up watching Star Wars). We are told from birth that we are to turn the other cheek, forgive as we have been forgiven and pay attention to our own eye motes, fine thank you. If you don’t get it that way, you’ll get the other way from all the messages that we are supposed to be grateful to God for all that we have and focus our energy on our blessings. This cocktail of well-meaning but potentially harmful Christian advice is enough to make it so that you cannot acknowledge or even feel your own rage.
The danger here is that if you do not acknowledge your anger or allow it to pass through you, it will come out in other ways later – first through apathy, then through violence. So I want to take my time and say this slowly:
It is alright to feel anger about what is happening right now.
We all have reasons to be pissed with the way the world has been forcibly changed in the wake of COVID-19. Some of us have lost jobs and don’t know how the bills will get paid. We’ve been separated from people we love. We can’t control our lives right now. There’s too much anxiety and fear and not enough supplies and groceries. All of this is unfair. We crave some way to restore the balance but there is no clear way to do that. And it is okay to be angry about that.
It’s okay to be angry even if there are other people who have it worse off than you. You see, this is a trick we use (or others may use on us) to convince ourselves that we don’t have a legitimate reason to be angry. Don’t fall for it. Just because someone may have it worse than you doesn’t mean that what you are going through doesn’t suck. Even if you are safe, comfortable, can work remotely and have all the supplies you need during this quarantine, you still have a right to feel angry. Even if your biggest complaint right now is that you miss going into the office and goofing off with your favorite coworker, you still have a right to feel angry.
Now I’m not saying to pack up a U-Haul and move into your anger. And I’m not saying to storm your state capital building with assault rifles (because all that does is display your weakness to the whole world). Acknowledge that the anger is there, then let the feeling pass through you. Work it out in whatever way works for you (and doesn’t hurt anyone else). Maybe it’s exercise, good conversations or belly laughs. I’ve been working mine out on my guitar playing David Bazan’s “Eating Paper”; it’s anti-corporate, anti-greed message says what I need to say (plus it is one of the sassiest JM guitar riffs this side of I Am the Portuguese Blues – convince me I’m wrong). Maybe it will take a long time to work through it. It depends on how deep the anger goes in you. But commit to it. Spend time with it everyday so it doesn’t fester and turn into something inhumane.
This is not easy work. It is hard to know the difference allowing your anger to be what it is and clinging to it past its expiration date. Anger has a way of seducing you into keeping it around for longer than it is useful. It can give you power and energy and that is certainly tempting. Anger excels at illusions too and that can keep you trapped. One of these illusions is particularly devastating, but we will talk about that more the next time.