Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On anger and grief...

Back when I first came into this life, not my actual birth but my life as a vegan activist, I immersed myself in learning about the various ways in which people torture and kill all those beings unfortunate enough to not have been born in human form. I had to learn about vivisection, of course, in fact, it was the first thing I learned about after becoming a vegetarian by way of a poster up in my school's art building. Just down the pipeline, there was dog-fighting and puppy mills, circuses and zoos. Oh, and then rodeos, horse carriages, canned hunts, petting zoos. There was also that monumental wall I slammed into when I tried to grasp the enormity of factory farming. I read pamphlet after article after book, watched videos until I wanted to remove my own horrified eyes with a grapefruit spoon. Every week, more videos would arrive in the mail. I watched undercover footage of elephant abuse that disturbed me so profoundly - John turned off the TV when I sobbed on the floor more gutturally than either of us ever knew possible - and I truly believe I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from seeing it, a part of my innocence permanently removed like an appendix. I told myself that if the animals had to endure these traumas, I could at least learn about them, bear witness to them, speak about them. Anything that I went through in the process was nothing compared to what they faced.

All around my work office, there were petitions I chased down my coworkers to sign, postcards about the upcoming anti-fur march, assertive buttons in a little silver bowl, books and DVDs lining my shelves, waiting to be lent out. I commandeered the office printer and ran that thing until my corneas felt like they would pop out of my head. I went to meeting after meeting in dark church basements, protest after protest until everything ran together like a single muddy watercolor. My total immersion into the world of brutality against animals understandably threatened my natural optimism. The more I read and saw and protested, the angrier I became. How could people be so stupid, so vain, so selfish? This phase of being very angry about the world didn't last long, maybe a year at most: I find people to be just too interesting to shut them out completely. Plus, the person I was becoming just wasn't me. When I emerged from under this dark cloud, I left my preoccupation behind. I decided that unless I was going to run off and join a separatist vegan commune, for the sake of my sanity and quality of life, I could no longer fill my mind with devastating statistics and a steady diet of so much tragic knowledge. Totally steeping in the misery others create was wrecking my life and counter-productive to me being able to attract more people to cruelty-free living. I still value my knowledge and, yes, my outrage, but I just can't pickle myself in it any longer.

Last week I got a taste of it again after a long time away. I was doing research for an article I'm writing about the fur industry. I felt it burbling up again as I held my hand over the gruesome pictures of bloody, skinned corpses, read about a thousand stomach-clenching paragraphs. That familiar cloud rose again. I felt myself mentally spreading cement between bricks, choking out the rest of the world again. I had the benefit of perspective this time, though. I noticed what was happening and I was able to get a grip. Having the good sense to throw out a few lifelines to my compassionate friends helped quite a lot. At times, it was almost as though I were observing someone else go through it. I am able to see now that this rage people accuse animal advocates of having is real: many of us are incredibly angry and justifiably so. Scratch the surface of that white-hot anger, though, and I bet you more times than not, it is there in order to hold back the ocean of sorrow and grief that threatens to sweep us away. Being angry means that you are still alive, you are still fighting, your fuming little heart is still pumping. Being acutely sad means that you feel as if you swallowed a rain cloud and you are slowly drowning internally. Immersing myself again in the world of violence, that was how I felt: like I was slowly drowning.

This all leads me to a great quote I read last week, the one that really helped to pull me out of the sticky morass. (Sometimes those inspiring quotes really do have legs.) This is from Wayne Dyer: "Everything you are against weakens you. Everything you are for empowers you." I read it and my spirit felt lighter, the wisdom of those words trickled through me and for the first time in days, I smiled again. I released my grip on the pain and the anger I'd been lugging around (because I felt like I needed them, I needed something to hold onto) and I noticed that the sun was out, that the squirrel who visits daily was on our back porch again. Sometimes it's intoxicating, that righteous rage, that forceful rejection: it can be energizing and make you feel all tingly. But it's fleeting and when you are just running on the fumes of it, you feel depleted, lost, hopeless, totally isolated in an increasingly hostile, stupid world. Anger is a step up from depression because it can be motivating and bring some fire back into you. Anger is a natural, utterly sane response to this unhinged world. It simply is. Using that anger, though, as a springboard to catapult me toward the life I want to create - rather than toward the ugliness I abhor so I can continue to fruitlessly pummel my fists against it - is the objective. When I am inspired by and grounded in the passion for what I love, I have endless vitality, the creative flow is so undeniably moving, the pieces just seem to snap into place so effortlessly. Comparing this to when I am solely fueled by anger: well, when I am moving toward and inspired by what I am for, I am in the driver's seat rather than just a passenger. It becomes a reciprocal relationship then, rather than one-sided, when I am both feeding and actually being nourished by the things in life that inspire me. I think this is true for all of us.

What a relief it is to throw off the burden of this pain and to know that dwelling in it is simply not necessary. This releasing of the grief and anger doesn't make us less compassionate, less knowledgeable, less concerned: I think that sometimes we hold onto it because we don't know who we'd be without it, like we'll fly away like dry leaves. In truth, when you move towards what you are for rather than what you are against, you have permission to be wildly, passionately but peacefully you. Living as an example of someone who is moving toward and motivated by what she loves is incredibly inspiring and liberating to others. And this is what is going to change the world.


  1. Oh my Dog, oh my Dog, oh my Dog. This post speaks directly to my heart. Marla, it is like you read my mind. This is absolutely magnificent.

    I, too, drowned in grief when I first went vegan. And just like you I felt that I had to watch every video, read every behind the scenes account of life on factory farms, watch all the undercover investigations of dog fighting rings. If the animals had to live it, the least I could do was bear witness.

    Even before going vegan I was a sensitive person. I have no emotional skin, the smallest thing can send me into a spiral of despair. But after going vegan, it is like my eyesight improved and my heart quadrupled in size. EVERYTHING hurt so much.

    And you are SO RIGHT. The rage, the anger, the fury, is a tool to hold back that sadness. It is much easier to be angry than to be sad. And oh was I angry.

    And then, slowly but surely, I remember that, duh, I wasn't always vegan. I too had contributed to a lot of pain and suffering. I had to learn to live in a world with all kinds of people and I couldn't yell at them all.

    The hardest part was allowing myself to enjoy life, giving myself permission to laugh and to love. I still sometimes struggle with it. How should I be so lucky when billions and billions and billions of other animals, just as worthy as me, will never have one happy or even decent day in their life??? I didn't want to give myself permission to be happy, as if that would lessen my commitment to the cause, somehow.

    But I have learned that a miserable, shell shocked, burned out me, will do no good for the animals. Veganism is about love and I have to love myself too.

    This post was AMAZING and so timely for me right now, Marla. THANK YOU.

  2. Wow, Marla. This takes me back to the last hellaciously angry period of my life, which coincided not with activism but with the end of a relationship that I was willing to fight for. I could feel my depression creeping up again, like a fog, and instinctively the anger beat it back. I'm actually flipping through my journal, reading those passages. All I wanted was a safe space for all that rage. It was narcotic, actually. Entropy. It kept me moving forward.

    There is a line in Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless: "I decided either I can die or I have to refind emotion."

    Then of course I had to learn to control that anger, to direct it constructively. Acker has another line: "Let anger be anger: neither self-hatred nor self-infliction." It's been a long process.

  3. This is a good place to mention Chicago VeganMania, an amazing celebration of Chicago's vegan culture that was initially conceived by, who else(?), Marla Rose. CVM is basically a big all-day party with tons of delicious vegan food, live entertainment, dozens of compassionate and dedicated vendors, and many other wonderful diversions and amusements all designed to show off how we can conquer our anger and depression and channel it into a huge, positive, welcoming event. Last October, about 1,500 people showed up. This October 9th will be even bigger and more fun. You can also get a peek into this lively crowd by coming to our Spring Shindig fundraiser on Saturday, April 10th. Check out for more info.

  4. Thank you, Tasha. I very much related to all that you wrote. I think sometimes we feel that we must suffer because of all the suffering in the world. Who are we to enjoy life? But your suffering does not diminish another's suffering, we know that logically, We can tell ourselves some crazy stories. As you know, by being whole, loving, yes, even happy people, we will do so much more to be a positive influence. You are doing so much good, Tasha.

    Thanks for sharing, VB. It is true: our anger can be inspired by many things, especially those that we care deeply about. I am glad that you found a partner who really deserves you, VB. I will have to read Kathy Acker's book.

    Oh, Johnny, thanks for the plug and reminder...:)

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