I am not a generally happy person. This is not a new revelation (nor is it news, I’m sure, to any of my friends), but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I like to say that my “resting emotion” is anger. That is, the emotion I default to when nothing else is immediately present. I used to take pride in this: “anger is a really productive emotion for me” is a sentence that I’ve said more times than I can count. And it’s true. Anger is inspirational for me; it drives me to create positive change; it pushes me out of laziness and into action. I have a permanent mental image of myself with a fire burning in my chest that powers me like an engine, and it gets stronger the angrier I get—the more fuel I can find to burn.
I use anger in my essays and short stories. I have centered my honors project on the value that I see in feminine anger, in exploring what it means to allow women to be unrestrictedly furious and full of range and vengeance. Other people who aren’t as angry just aren’t seeing the world clearly.
Over break, I was riding the New York City subway when a man got on the train and calmly told us his life story: he was a former music teacher who became homeless and had a daughter he was trying to feed. Then, he got down on his knees and literally begged for help. I had a million excuses not to give him money: I was in a hurry; I needed my money; he could find help elsewhere. I got off the train without giving him anything.
My immediate reaction was to search for something to be angry about, and I found easy targets: the man, for making me feel guilty; the older, wealthier people on the train, for not helping so that I wouldn’t have had to consider it; America, for not supporting its citizens better. There were too many potential targets, but I realized that none of them presented a course of action for me to take, so I tried to just shrug the encounter off. But as I walked out of the subway station, I realized something else: anger often leads me to apathy. Anger, more often than not, is overwhelming and exhausting, and it fosters disconnect and dissatisfaction.
Just outside the station, a homeless woman sat in a chair, holding out a bucket for change. She met my gaze. “I like your haircut,” she said. I approached her. Wrapped in a blanket at her feet was one of the tiniest, cutest dogs I’d ever seen. I asked her about it, and she told me she’d saved the dog from a flood in her hometown in Florida. “He almost died,” she said, “but now we’ve got each other.” I gave the woman a few dollars.
When I headed back home, the woman was still sitting there, shaking her bucket. She saw me approach and started to ask for change until she recognized me. “Oh, hello again!” she said, and I don’t think I will ever forget the grin she gave me. Quite honestly, it was one of the most genuine smiles I’ve ever seen. I smiled back, waved and went down into the subway. I was happier than I have been in quite a while, and I was in awe of that woman. She had hundreds of reasons to be angry, and yet, she seemed more at peace with her life than I was with mine. She wasn’t blind to the realities of the world; she just appeared to be choosing to prioritize a different emotion.
Anger makes me feel good because it’s a balm for my fears about the world and my insecurities about myself. It lets me focus on being right, in so many different ways. But it isn’t something I want to continue to cling to. Happiness is an emotion I have wildly underrated in my life, and it stems from vulnerability, from compassion and from connection. And the fire in my chest, it turns out, is not just there to burn and destroy, but to keep me warm.
Syd Benjamin is a member of the Class of 2019.