2020 Gave Us One Thing Worth Keeping: Anger

Elizabeth Gulino
·9 min read

It was December 2019. Our resolutions were optimistic. The future seemed brimming with opportunities. Even the number itself had a sparkly, promising feel to it — the repetition of numbers offering a beautiful sense of symmetry. 2020 was going to be our year.

Within days, the mood shifted. Just after midnight on January 3, U.S. drones killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, leading many to fear that we were on the brink of World War III. Around the same time, the Australian bush fires that had been burning for months took a turn for the worse; ultimately, more than 11.3 million Australians were affected by the smoke. Weeks later, Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other passengers tragically died in a helicopter crash. That was all in January. We didn’t know it then, but more was coming.

You’ve lived through it, so you know the rest: The COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic, killing almost two million people worldwide so far, putting millions out of work, and hitting BIPOC communities especially hard. News of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor sparked protests against the widespread racial injustice, systemic racism, and police brutality in the U.S. At least 42 trans and gender non-conforming people were violently killed in the U.S., most of whom were Black and Latinx, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Wildfires on the West Coast caused unprecedented levels of damage. A trying election year shed light on just how divided our country truly is.

It’s no wonder that the vast majority of us are more than ready to leave 2020 behind. But our eagerness to start 2021 with a clean slate carries a big risk: We may forget the lessons we learned last year, and lose the anger that allowed us to begin fighting for necessary change. Yes, we come to 2021 carrying a lot of baggage from 2020 — but some of it is good baggage, full of learnings that will properly motivate, inspire, and protect us as we travel the daunting road ahead.

It shouldn’t have taken so long but, for better or for worse, 2020 was the year that many privileged Americans woke up to just how prevalent and deadly racism and prejudice is in this country, and millions pledged to do the work required to become effective allies. The devastation caused by the natural disasters we experienced prompted us to speak up about climate change with our voices, our votes, and our dollars. The COVID-19 pandemic drew our attention to the deep cracks in the U.S. healthcare system that urgently need mending and the true danger of the economic inequality in our country.

“In essence, 2020 has been an amalgamation of different traumas, and what people tend to do in a very evolutionary way is want to drive away from the threat,” explains Mariel Buquè, PhD, a trauma therapist. “Our unconscious mind, as a part of that evolutionary process, is attempting to step away from what has been so emotionally exhausting and step into a lighter way of being, because that’s how we’re supposed to operate.” It’s called “avoidance coping.”

The passing of the New Year may make people even more likely to “excuse themselves from the movement as a way of beginning a new 2021 journey,” Dr. Buquè notes. The rhetoric around the transition to January 1 (“new year, new you!”) gives people a culturally acceptable reason to stop talking so much about all those heavy things we were focused on last year — and when we stop talking about them, we stop thinking about them, and we begin sliding back toward the violent silence of pre-2020, she says.

Stepping away from what makes us uncomfortable may be natural, but it’s not okay — especially for those in non-marginalized groups who strive to be allies. After all, the people who are the most exhausted by 2020 anger don’t have the option of pretending the issues don’t exist.

So we must bring the activist, burn-this-shit-down spirit of 2020 into 2021. But we can do that without burning ourselves out. In fact, it’s possible to alchemize the anger of 2020 into energy that we can channel into creating meaningful, tangible change in society and in ourselves. “2020 has been a year of profound lessons, and the purpose of learning is to then produce from that learning,” Dr. Buquè says. “Instead of the time to rest and be easy, it’s time to get to work.” Here’s how to start.

Create space to grieve

We’ve all experienced some kind of loss this year — of jobs, opportunities, time, or of loved ones, says Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD, a psychologist, author, and founder of mental health nonprofit the AAKOMA Project. “I think for every single person, something happened in 2020 that wasn’t what they’d hoped for or expected,” she says. And yet, “I don’t think we’ve really had a moment to stop and actually grieve the dramatic ways that our world has changed,” points out Lydia Kelow-Bennett, PhD, assistant professor in the department of Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan. “We will never be the same after this.”

Part of the reason some people are tempted to turn away from 2020’s activism is because they’re exhausted. Taking the time to work through grief can provide an essential reset. Dr. Buquè recommends journaling, using the following prompts that walk you through the five stages of grief: In what ways have I been in a state of denial this year, and how have I felt during that moment? How have I experienced anger around certain issues? In what ways have I experienced depression or a depressive state? How have I been able to abstain or negotiate this year? In which ways have I been able to accept what is?

How you grieve is personal. You may prefer attending talk therapy, working with a grief doula, or simply creating time for your own self-care routine. Physical activities like yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, breathwork, dance therapy, or mindful stretching can also help release trauma from your body, which may ultimately allow you to channel your angry energy more productively, adds Dr. Buquè. “Anger becomes implanted in the body in multiple ways and it can create exhaustion,” she explains.

The important thing is to do something. As Dr. Kelow-Bennett says, “There’s a tremendous amount of courage that comes from being willing to grieve, but also a tremendous amount of bravery that comes from having survived the kinds of things we’re going through right now.”

Channel your anger

“Anger is loaded with information and energy,” activist and writer Audre Lorde once said in her presentation The Uses of Anger. Dr. Kelow-Bennett agrees. “Anger is not the kind of energy that destroys,” she says. “It’s the kind of energy that clarifies.” Your anger can reveal what really matters to you, and can motivate you to do something about it.

So embrace your 2020 anger. Dr. Buquè suggests speaking to it, as if it were a friend. Ask yourself, “Anger, what is it that you need from me right now in this moment? You’re here for a reason, let me understand you better.” Then listen to or journal your internal response. If talking directly to your anger doesn’t feel right to you, Dr. Kelow-Bennett recommends simply asking yourself, “What am I angry about?” and “Why am I so mad?”

The goal of all of this is to nail down the core values that are driving your anger. “When you have that clarity, you get to choose what you’re going to do [with the emotion],” Dr. Kelow-Bennett says. Ask yourself: “Where can I place my efforts in a way that makes me feel like I’m doing something?”

Focus on three to five specific, concrete steps. If you’re channeling your anger around climate change into action, for instance, you might pledge to: (1) Seek out local businesses you can support while breaking your reliance on Amazon, (2) Commit yourself to speaking up every time a friend casually says that climate change may not be real, and (3) Set up a recurring donation to a climate-focused non-profit you believe in, like the N.A.A.C.P. Environmental and Climate Justice Program, an organization that addresses the human and civil rights issues in climate change. That’s a way of seeing action come out of your anger, says Dr. Buquè.

Find your network

There’s a strategic benefit to tapping into a like-minded community, says Keya Chatterjee, executive director of the U.S. Climate Action Network and author of The Zero Footprint Baby. “It’s really hard to know what to do or stay motivated if you’re by yourself,” she says. “Even with a group of three, that’s enough to plan things and do things and get creative and figure out what needs to be done in your community and how your community can influence the broader city or county.”

Having social support is especially crucial for BIPOC Americans, who were disproportionately affected by all of the events of 2020, says Dr. Buquè. “Community is a source of support, enlightenment, and healing, and being able to go back to our roots and experience the liveliness of our people is something that can be incredibly therapeutic,” she says. “You’ve got to find people who understand what it is that you’re going through, and sometimes you do really have to have a space where you’re only with people who understand your experience,” Dr. Breland-Noble adds.

Carve out time for joy

“Part of how we seek justice is we take care of ourselves so we can be a force for justice in the world,” Dr. Breland-Noble points out. “You have to be operating from a healthy place.” Do things that nourish you: Limit your doom-scrolling; spend time in nature; try to sneak in extra sleep where you can; spend time being fully present with your friends and family; celebrate the little joys in your life.

“For BIPOC especially, we have to find moments where we’re just being tender with ourselves and each other and giving ourselves an opportunity to experience that because we’re in a constant state of unrest,” Dr. Buquè says. “We have to offset that with intentional rest and intentional love.”

Self-care and joy will protect us from activism fatigue and burnout. The goal, after all, isn’t to feel angry all the time. Anger is a powerful early motivator for action — but as we continue to listen, learn, challenge ourselves and those around us, and push for change we believe in, we’ll find a more enduring source of fuel: hope.

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