This post is the last part of a four-part series on my song, “could be,” from my album my anxious age. You can read part one here, on the importance of knowing and honoring the stories of the ones we love in order to know them fully, read part two here, on the hard and necessary process of letting ghosts go in order to live whole, and read part three here, on valuing the moments that make us who we are.
I’ve written at length on this song and how I attempted to reflect my growth over the past year(s). When I arrived at this final verse, I first wrote from a place of anger shortly after the election. Anger, when used productively, can accomplish wonders. In Audre Lorde’s excellent speech on the uses of anger, she writes, “When we turn from anger, we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already known, deadly and safely familiar. I have tried to learn my anger’s usefulness to me, as well as its limitations.” This is a powerful reminder in the face of an oppressive administration where all too many well-intentioned people first encouraged people to “give him a chance” and now, upon his many destructive actions to date, just throw their hands up and say “try to be positive.”
The limitations of anger, in my view, occur when anger turns to bitterness, as it quickly becomes a self-annihilating poison. If we are angry about the current and historical state of affairs in America, we can work to change what is going on through calls and emails to our legislators, protests, institutional power where we work, and internal reflection and change toward growth. We should also never police the way someone else expresses anger, especially marginalized and oppressed people who carry a righteous anger throughout their lives (Lorde’s speech is the most powerful statement I’ve seen on why anger against racism and other forms of oppression should be accepted with an open mind and heart). Instead, let us only reflect on our own anger and how we use it to bring about change.
In this final verse, I admit that “I wrote this verse different/it was angry and full of pride.” And true, in my mind this verse is still full of anger, which can be used for good, but I sought to remove the pride, which always precedes the fall. I walked away from teaching, and spent a long semester being bitter, at the school, at myself, and at the world. My bitterness all but silenced me, as I entered into a season of crippling depression and anxiety, where I wrote almost no words, read almost no books, and had almost zero fulfilling conversations, all three of which are signs to me that I am doing well and am my best self.
Until I went through counseling, I could not see the other side of bitterness. Bitterness is a weed that infiltrates the healthy plant of anger, which could have borne fruit, and instead kills whatever good may have come from it. This happens in relationships, in our pursuit of justice, and in our own spirits. Where I could have spent my anger on influencing the people I love to see the evil that now holds the highest office, bitterness wasted those opportunities by turning them into my own self-doubt and mental health issues. I say bitterness did these things, because when people are experiencing depression, our lives feel out of our control, as if we are grasping for a ledge we cannot reach. If more people understood this, we would not offer empty platitudes to those experiencing emotional and mental trauma, but rather give them space and time to heal, and offer love, support, and resources where helpful.
When my season finally shifted, and I could see the other side of my depression, I remembered my purpose: to be an educator, and to work with children who need good teachers in this world. I show this shift in perspective in this verse, by first stating my anger (“I had a nightmare that a monster was in office”), allowing bitterness to creep in (“and when I woke up, I realized anything is possible/long as you fit the type though/otherwise set your sights low”), and finally seeing another way (“nah, you gotta give the kids something to hope”). For me, my anger is best used when I enter a classroom with students who are not responsible for the broken world they’re a part of, but who have the potential to change it for the better. When I am bitter, I am unable to learn, and therefore unable to teach. I am not purposeless, but I am blocked from fulfilling my purpose.
It took me a month to write this final entry for this series because I didn’t know exactly what I want the reader to get out of this. I finally understand that, as with all writing, it should mean different things for different people. Perhaps you are angry, and others are telling you not to be, and you need to be affirmed in your righteous anger in the pursuit of justice. To you, I would say that if someone is not angry with the world we are in, it is because they are not paying attention, or know they are the beneficiaries of this system and thus have no desire to change it. They are not your concern. Look for the ones who affirm your anger, and push you to use it for good.
Perhaps your anger has turned to bitterness, and you need help getting back to that healthy place of useful anger. It took a semester of counseling for me, and not only that, but people who loved me deeply and supported me endlessly through my season of depression. It also took me being pushed into situations where my best self was called to the floor, which in my case was being invited to teach at a friend’s school for a day and remembering through my interactions with them the blessing that young people are to this world. Find your help, find your people, and find your purpose. Go to those places, and allow them to shape you into your whole self.
Finally, you might be the person who has scoffed at the anger of others, who has offered empty words when our world is calling for fuller expressions of humanity. To you, I hope that you might reflect on these words I have offered and begin to enter into deeper relationships with your “angry” friends, to really listen to them and begin to make their cause your concern. Our world needs more people who are willing to engage with the issues of others and grow into ourselves. I know it isn’t easy. I am a white male who is seeking to be an antiracist advocate, which means that I often embarrass myself and must work every day to dismantle my own internalized racism. It is the work required of me in order to bring about a better world with real change that our nation has yet to see.
The hook of this song is an unfinished statement: “You could be who you…/if only, if only, if only, if only.” When I wrote this line, I wanted to convey the way we remain unfinished as humans, how so often we remain the potential of whole persons instead of fully realized selves. Some of our “if onlys” are self-inflicted, those all-too-human excuses that block our way. So many more are systemic, or others-inflicted, and require other people to root out their “if onlys” so that many can bring their whole selves into being, or at least bring their whole selves without undue obstacles. We all deserve to be whole, to be who we really want to be in this world. What are we doing to prevent ourselves and others from getting there, and how do we begin taking the steps to a fuller humanity for all?
You can listen to “could be” here. You can purchase my anxious age here, which includes “could be” and ten other songs, along with a 24-page full color zine, featuring lyrics, stories, and poetry. Follow my blog to receive updates on future posts. As always, thanks for reading.