Monday, January 31, 2011


L.G.C. Smith

Unlike all the nice Pens, I was born with ready access to fury. Anger, too, its more selfish cousin, but injustice has always brought me roaring to my feet with fire shooting from my eyes as I wield my tongue like a blade. Fortunately, I was born into a family of yellers, somewhat anomalous amongst the ethnically British, so furious self-expression, if not precisely encouraged, wasn’t actively discouraged, either.

Thus it took me longer than most to understand that channeling the Furies wasn’t going to win me any popularity points with my peers. I was taught that an open and straightforward statement of anything was the most respectful way of dealing with conflict negotiation and emotional complication. Communicate clearly. Treat people with respect. It’s okay to be furious if the situation warrants it, such as on behalf of underdogs or the downtrodden.

Fits of temper were not okay. Being mean to people because I was mad was not okay. Being selfish was not okay. But if there was bullying? It was okay, possibly even required, to defend the bullied, even against adults. Injustice was to be pointed out with the assumption that it was clear to all. Once identified, it could be stamped out.

It’s not always obvious, but fury can be idealistic. Even naïve. Ever notice the purity of a five-year-old’s fury? There are no shadows for a furious child, no grey corners where one interrogates ambiguity or other people’s perspectives. If she is betrayed, if she or someone she loves is wronged…fury flies.

It can be difficult to distinguish between anger and fury so most people never try. Anger is so strongly stigmatized, and so threatening to most of us that we don’t cope well with it in many ways. We’ve turned the responsibilities personified by the Furies of old, justice, judgment, and punishment, over to the state, which puts individual expressions of fury in potentially murky legal waters. That’s not a bad thing. But it shifts defining fury into the realms of personality and away from any sense of it as having social or communal relevance.

This is hard because fury is personal and visceral. It demands action from us. From our bodies, hearts, minds, and spirits. Western cultures fear furious individuals for good reasons, and most of the time, we tamp down fury and move on. But sometimes, as Sophie so articulately showed us in her post last week, we use that force in constructive ways. We see clearly. We up our commitment. We don’t give up.

Maybe, as a society, we need to be talking more about how fury might not be synonymous with anger, perhaps starting with our five-year-olds. We might seek to come to better terms with the consequences and uses of judgment, generally considered the opposite of tolerance, when sometimes, that may not quite be true. Can we make tolerant and compassionate judgments? Can we be furious in tolerant and compassionate ways?

Culturally, we have, for the most part, abandoned fury to cranks and abusers. To the unstable and the unwell. To high histrionics and inappropriate expression. To hormonal shifts and futile rage. It is then left to us as individuals to cope with figuring out what constructive purposes fury might serve in our own lives, and that is no small challenge.


Sophie Littlefield said...

hey you, as you know i think you're brilliant on this subject. i would love to see you work this into a longer about fifteen years when you are caught up on everything else including furious neices :) I have always thought - though you don't mention it here and maybe it's not an exact fit - that Aethelfrith's rage makes him quite compelling in a way unique among heroes.

Juliet Blackwell said...

"Fury is personal and visceral." Ain't that the truth? I have to say that I'd never really thought much about this subject, but I'm glad that we chose the topic because the distinction between anger and fury (which goes so well with "righteous", doesn't it?) is important and too often underplayed.
Maybe we need bumper stickers: "Get Furious, and Do Something About It."

L.G.C. Smith said...

It's funny, I didn't even think about him when I was writing this. That may be because the historical Æthelfrith seems to have been more your run-of-the-mill tyrant. I think he probably twisted the roles of the Furies in those all too common, self-interested ways. He doesn't seem to have been big on righteous anger. I think his forte was brutally efficient command. As a king, he would have served as judge at times but I wouldn't have trusted his judgment if I'd been living in Northumbria in 610 AD.

Of course, that's part of what drew me to using him as a basis for my fictional time-traveling warlord. There's a lot of ambiguity in him. A lot of strength, and a lot of violence. How much rage or fury? Hard to tell. One of my Big Themes is violence and anger and how we reconcile those with the demands we face for action in a world that largely condemns violence. I personally hate it. Yet we live in the midst of it, so it behooves us to come to terms with it. Some people do that more easily than I do. I have to write books about it to sort out my thoughts and feelings.

L.G.C. Smith said...

Julie, I like that bumper sticker.:)

Rachael Herron said...

Really, really well said. I agree that I'd love to see even more, and longer, from you about this. The whole impropriety of fury is fascinating to me.

Unknown said...

I'll take one of those bumper stickers too. :)

L-as always thought provoking and smart. xo

Mysti said...

Just saw Paul Scofield's performance in A Man For All Seasons. That last part of the last speech. holy cow. that's FURY.

sometimes a culture needs it to evolve.