Someone yelled at me the other day. I don’t mean a shout to alert me to danger or even a short string of expletives. I mean someone spent several minutes of their precious life screaming at me on the phone while shifting with whiplash speed between potentially legitimate complaints, baseless ad hominem attacks, and plenty of stuff that was clearly about someone other than me. The details are neither important nor am I at liberty to share them. Getting yelled at seems to be sort of an occupational hazard: People apparently yell at their rabbis. I’ve asked around and, yes, it’s a thing.
So, of course, I’ve been telling myself all sorts of stories about this: replaying the “conversation;” imagining how I am supposed to interact with this person when next we meet; telling myself there must be things I am supposed to learn from this and supposing that the diatribe included kernels of truth if only I could sift them from the bitter chaff. None of this has helped.
What did help was this line from Cheryl Strayed’s storehouse of goodness, Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar:
“I never believed the boys were angry,” she writes of young men she was working with as a youth advocate, “I believed they were hurt, and anger was the safest manifestation of their sorrow. It was the channel down which their impotent male rivers could rage.”
I heard these sentences and felt something release in my chest. Are there things I could still learn from the screamer (including how to excuse myself until they could talk to me more reasonably)? Yes. Are there grains of truth in the substance of the yelled words? Quite possibly. But Sugar’s story brought me round again to the base of compassion, the stronghold of love, from which I try to run this whole operation of my life. This person who yelled at me was in pain, and for them, too, “anger was the safest manifestation of their sorrow.”
Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice columns written for therumpus.net. I listened to the audio version of the book, which had the added advantage of letting me hear Strayed give voice to her own words. But the book is so well written that I’m sure the words would dance off the page and into your heart in any format.
In it, people write to Sugar for advice about relationships and art, drug abuse and their urges to hurt their children. And Strayed, as Sugar, weaves her advice to them with stories of her own life, experiences, poems, mantras that arise for her in response to the letters.
Sugar isn’t exclusively about loving people up no matter what, she also tells it like it is. Urging all of us darlings to take a good look at our words and our actions and from that vantage point to take responsibility for our part in our hardships and for our potential to live better lives and to be better people. And she does it all from a place of acknowledging that none of us is called upon to be super-human, but that all of us are called upon to be our truest selves.
This is also, as Strayed makes clear, where art comes from. She writes of a memoir-writing class she taught where she asked students to answer two deceptively similar questions about their own and their fellow students’ work: “What happened in this story?” and “What is this story about?” The raw materials, the facts, the eclectic inheritances of our lives are the starting point, but only the starting point, for the hard and wonderful task of making our work, our relationships, our whole lives meaningful. The willingness to distinguish between these two basic questions is the difference between making art and making a life or failing to do either.
Even facing this blank page, I was afraid that I would not find a way to do Sugar justice, to share with you a glimpse of what her work is truly about. But I was heartened, as I know you will be, by her voice of unending compassion and unflinching honesty. Go and listen, sweet peas.