The Word Rabbit

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This article was written on 22 Feb 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

The angry Quaker

On my shelves, I have a copy of the ‘Beezer’ book from sometime in the early sixties. In amongst the cartoons about Ginger, the young tearaway, Kup, the young man from the flying saucer and the Banana Bunch, there is an illustrated story of Samson, from the Bible. It’s arresting in its beauty but also completely incongruous, sandwiched between two comedic cartoons and flanked, not by speech bubbles but by dense passages of text.

The final page of the story has the blinded Samson led to the pillars of the arena and, in the final climactic scene, using his great and terrible strength to bring down the roof and end the lives of the Philistines who mocked him. I think I first saw this image when I was very, very young and it’s stayed with me into my adult life as a strange vision that won’t attach to anything but that seems incredibly brilliant and vivid.

Whoever drew it must be dead by now and the people who held the meeting at which the running order was decided must be similarly in their graves, leaving it as a piece of publishing curiosity that would change hands in a secondhand bookshop for no more than two pounds a pop. For me, though, it’s part of the fabric of my childhood and I wonder if the image doesn’t touch me in another, equally powerful way.

For my whole adult life, I’ve struggled with a terrible, impotent anger. I find it easy to slip smoothly from placid to livid, with a kind of terrible rapidity, and for all the remorse that I feel afterwards, at the time, I’m energised, alive and awake in a way that I never seem to manage at other times. This means that it’s a seductive state that seems to whisper to me that, for the duration of the time that the adrenaline is coursing through my veins, I am vital and empowered.

But I also know that this is wrong. I default to anger precisely because I want to believe that it empowers me, but the truth is that it’s merely the first raft I swim to when I’m drowning in a sea of more difficult emotions that it would take time and insight to own up to. When I was caring for someone who is bipolar, I not only flipped out at the person who is bipolar, which shames and tears at me now, but everyone in my circle, from friends to people I would pass regularly on the street was hated with a quiet and frenzied intensity.

My breakdown came shortly after the anger had eaten away at me for years, like acid, gone through the casing that I put on every day and finally started attacking the machinery of what made me who I was. On the walk to work from the station, a man who drove the minibus that ferried people to a nearby conference centre cut across a side road in front of me. I decided, against all evidence to the contrary, that he’d nearly run me over through sheer inattention and started a single man hate campaign against him, walking into him when I saw him in the street and angrily gesticulating at his people-mover whenever I saw it go past. In the end, I must have kept up this testament to perverse hatred for over a year.

And then, crossing the road, I saw him reading a paper and waiting for his passengers to get off the train. I crossed back over the road, presumably intent on walking into him as if by accident, but I didn’t. Without me knowing much about it, I went up to him and apologised. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but there were two things that I can still recall. I said that, even if he didn’t accept the apology, and I saw no reason at all why he should, he should know that I was sorry and also that my wife at the time had tried to commit suicide, which was true.

I was aware of no desire to say either of these things when I approached him, but I found them coming out of my mouth all the same. Afterwards, I thought that mentioning suicide was a sneaky way to get myself off the hook, but I don’t think it was. It was a rare moment of emotional honesty and, more importantly, I wasn’t rebuffed for it. The person I’d been angry with was lovely. Not only did he accept my apology, but he was kind enough, was good enough, to sympathise with me and offer me a lift if I ever needed one and he had space.

If this was Hollywood, that’d be it. My life, ever afterwards, would be one of unalloyed joy and beauty. But this isn’t Hollywood. A few months later, a few months of waving cheerily to each other as our paths crossed, I had the breakdown that had probably been coming for years. I self-harmed, thought about suicide and all of the anger that I had felt towards other people came back at me with almost hurricane force that blew every part of me to the winds.

That was just over four years ago. Since then, I’ve clattered clumsily through evangelical Christianity and out of the other side, finding the Quakers again after a hiatus that lasted much longer than it should have done. And I’ve found that anger is still there, is still my default emotion. I can get so angry with politicians, it feels as though I could do them physical harm and I’ve sworn more violently and expended more vitriol on Twitter than any sane person should do. Is this consistent with Quaker worship?

The answer is that I don’t know. But if only people who were perfect walked through the doors of any place proper, as Larkin said, to grow wise in, they’d be empty. If only people who had done their spiritual growing sought out God, then the line of seekers would not exist. For all that my thoughts and too often, deed, fall short of the ideals that I aspire to, I am getting better, albeit in increments so small that they might appear invisible to the naked eye.

If I catch the eye of someone my head tells me I should hate, I smile. I let them off the train, the bus or the tram first. When I find myself talking to people, I try to be kind and generally am, far more than I’m caustic or sarcastic. And when I feel that anger in me rise, I know that it’s probably fear, which is what it always was. Fear of people, fear of the unknown, fear of uncertainty or fear that I will, in some great and unknown way, be found wanting when people unseen need to call on me.

I’m thrown back on the image of Samson, whose desperate and inarticulate anger serves to destroy and bring down the roof on him and the people who mock him, the images so carefully and delicately drawn by some unknown artist to such powerful effect. It’s too much to suggest that this flabby white body is that of Samson, but in his manacles I see something of my own bondage to an emotion that serves nobody, least of all me, and in his bulging muscles, straining against the pillars of the arena, I see a strength that is pushed against that which will benefit nobody. In short, I see an avatar of me and my own folly, which is perhaps what I didn’t know when I first saw it.

Either way, I have, for the time being, found in the Quakers where I can articulate sentiments like this and have a time and space to connect with things that had previously eluded me. I might not be the stuff of which George Fox and Margaret Fell would most readily identify with their emergent faith, but the Quakers believe that there is that of God in everyone, and that tells me that, however buried beneath the hurt and the anger, there is that of God in me, too.

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