A few years ago my elderly aunt had to move. She looked in the yellow pages and found what looked like a small, friendly, family-owned moving company. She called and booked them. They turned out to be neither friendly nor family-owned. They were a bunch of thuggish lowlifes. They were rude, they didn't properly pack anything, they threatened to leave the job unfinished if she didn't give them more money right away, and then they left furniture on the sidewalk overnight. It rained and my aunt had to rush to cover her possessions. She called me the next morning, afraid and in tears. My aunt is the sweetest, kindest woman imaginable. I hurried over and found only one guy, the boss, sitting on my aunt's porch, sipping a beer. The other men had driven their truck to the new place, with my aunt following them in her car. I confronted the boss right away. He laughed.
That's when I lost it. I was wearing leather gloves on account of the cool weather, and they proved to be the perfect boxing gloves, hard on his face but soft on my knuckles. Soon the guy was on the floor, one arm twisted behind his back and pulled out of its socket, one swollen eye looking like a prune, and his mouth a mash of dangling teeth and shredded lips. Nothing like a few old karate lessons to make you efficient. I remember contemplating ripping off one of his ears and stuffing it in his mouth, but I didn't do that. The gurgling sound coming from his throat, the blood and spit bubbling up, was enough. He'd learned his lesson.
Welcome to the world of my anger fantasies. I actually just glared at the guy a bit. He was big. Then I called two friends and they came over. With the three of us around, the boss and his fellow thugs, when they returned, were tamer. They finished their lousy job and left. My aunt was relieved.
Ideally, anger arises in a comfortable, local situation and is vented right away. Voices are raised, sharp words are exchanged, and then some resolution is achieved; and with time the incident is forgotten. If remembered, it can be the subject of laughter. But we live in a complicated, overwhelming world that feels so out of control. Read the paper, watch TV — there's a lot out there to make us angry.
What to do with all that anger? Yeah, yeah, we should turn the other cheek, but there's only so many times we can turn it before we want to stare straight ahead and shout, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."
Here's my argument for the positive effects of the anger fantasy. An anger fantasy is that process whereby I grow really angry about somebody and I work it out in my head by verbally lashing that person and then beating him to a pulp, all so that he might learn the important lesson: You Should Always Be Considerate. In my anger fantasies, I shout and I beat and I kick until I'm satisfied that the jerk who brought it on himself is deeply sorry and won't ever do it again.
Is this a terrible thing to imagine?
It strikes me as easier to manage than the more usual fantasy, the sexual fantasy. A recurring sexual fantasy often hides a nagging issue. If, for example, you persistently fantasize about sleeping with your neighbor's wife (or with the neighbor himself), then it's possible you'd be happier actually sleeping with your neighbor's wife (or with him), and your fantasy is a hollow reminder of how unhappy you are. All you can do is pathetically stew and be miserable.
An anger fantasy doesn't work that way. Some guy may have pissed me off today, and I was too inarticulate to put him in his place verbally and not psycho enough to get into a fight. But in contrast to the presumed genuine relief of sleeping with the aforementioned neighbor's wife, if I actually did upbraid and physically beat the crap out of the guy, I'd very probably not feel relief. Good sex is a real pleasure that makes many a man happy, but a violent encounter, in which fists are thrown and blood is poured and pain is felt, is deeply upsetting.
Upside of anger
The essence of an anger fantasy, then, is that it remain a fantasy.
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Let me suggest, from my own personal experience, these few guidelines for a healthy practice of anger fantasies.
Lesson number one: Anger fantasies should involve mostly strangers or people you're no longer close to or you barely know. It's fine to have an anger fantasy about the cop who gave you a ticket or some dictator in a foreign land or some religious freak who killed a doctor and so on, but if your anger fantasies persistently focus on someone you know, say your wife or girlfriend, your boss, or a colleague, then you're perhaps taking the first steps to going postal and should seek professional help.
Lesson number two: Anger fantasies should feature specific strangers. If you're consistently angry at entire groups — say, Jews or Arabs or blacks or women or cops — then you have a problem.
Lesson number three: At the end of an anger fantasy, you should feel better, not worse. The point is to release tension and deal with a perceived injustice over which you have no actual control. In an anger fantasy, you are your own Captain America. You punish a bad guy in your head because he's not being punished in reality, and better a fictitious punishment than no punishment at all. So feel good about that.
Lesson number four: An anger fantasy should be strictly contained within your head. You don't want the anger churning inside your head to spill over onto the waitress who happens to interrupt you, or onto your mother who happens to call. An anger fantasy has no bearing on reality. You are doing in your head what you don't want to be doing in reality — and that's the point. So know what it is and keep it inside.
Other than that, go for it. Shout at, spit at, break with a bat, gouge out with a fork, hack at with a machete, dismember, set fire to, bury alive to your heart's content. I've been doing it for years. Yet you'd meet me and think, What a nice guy. So friendly and genuine. And I am a nice guy. I don't like guns, I've never swung a fist at anyone, I like Gandhi and Mandela as much as anyone, I'm a vegetarian, I'm a liberal. Hell, I'm even Canadian.
Just don't rub me the wrong way. If you do, you'll meet me again in my fantasy — and you'll be sorry about that, motherf--ker.
Yann Martel is the author of “Life of Pi.” His new novel, “Beatrice and Virgil,” came out April 13.
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