Ramban’s Letter & Virginia Woolf

This is a difficult post to write.

Last week the following post suggested that anger is a terrible trait. They are even suggesting carrying the Ramban’s letter in one’s pocket, to remind you to “remove anger from your heart”.

Anger just is. Everyone gets angry. So if you think you are removing it, most likely you are repressing it. Not healthy at all. Here is my initial post on anger, that gives definitions and suggests that the Hebrew word ‘ka’as’ not only means anger but also ‘rage’. So you could argue that rage is not the optimal way to respond to anger. But, again, not acknowledging anger itself can be detrimental to one’s well-being.

Virginia WoolfAs an example, let’s travel back 100 years to the time of Virginia Woolf. Here’s someone who was not allowed to express herself. In fact, when her mother died, her whole household reflected her father’s grieving. Is it surprising that soon after this she had her first bout of mental illness?

There is a lot more treatment for mental illness now than there was back in the time of Virginia Woolf. Aside from medication for the biological manifestation of the illness, a therapist often works with a patient to allow the person healthy ways of expressing buried feelings, such as anger.

Let’s take a look at the scene of her house at the time of her mother’s death (from Virginia Woolf: A Biography, by Quentin Bell, who was her nephew):

“Her death,” said Virginia, “was the greatest disaster that could happen.”

And yet, if Virginia’s loss had simply been a shattering bereavement the situation would not have been so bad as to be unendurable. The real horror of Julia’s death came in the mourning of her. Naturally, inevitably, the chief mourner was Leslie; he, a man of sixty-three, had every expectation of being nursed out of the world by a wife almost fifteen years his junior (and she would have it so well)…For a long time he abandoned himself to grief; his life, like his writing paper, was confined within a deep black border…

At meals he sat miserable and bewildered, too unhappy and too deaf to know what was being said, until at length, in one scene after another all through that dreadful summer, he broke down utterly, and while his embarrassed children sat in awkward silence, groaned, wept, and wished that he were dead.

In the accounts that Vanessa and Virginia have left of this period in their lives the image that recurs is one of darkness; dark houses, dark walls, darkened rooms, ‘Oriental gloom.’ And by this I think that they meant, not only physical darkness, but a deliberate shutting out of spiritual light. It was, for the children, not only tragic but chaotic and unreal. They were called upon to feel, not simply their natural grief, but a false, a melodramatic, an impossibly histrionic emotion which they could not encompass.

If experiencing her mother’s death and her father’s need to have all the grief be his grief was not enough, it was at this period that she first experienced sexual abuse by her stepbrother. Can you imagine, having all that suffering and not being to express any anger? Is it surprising that during this period she had her first bout with mental illness?

Virginia Woolf’s main outlet in her life was her writing. In fact, her book To the Lighthouse is said to be a fictionalized version of her mother’s death and her father’s grief. Her books were like her babies (she had no children); after a book was published, she would often plunge into deep depression, a kind of post-partum grieving for the child she no longer carried. In the end, she killed herself.

What if she had had an outlet for the anger she must have felt when her stepbrother molested her? Beyond a mood-stabilizing drug that may have treated the biological ailment, a tendency toward depression that she seemed to have inherited from her father, might it have helped if someone had listened to her pain? to her own personal grief, not just her father’s version? If she had been allowed to acknowledge her feelings, including the anger (maybe scream them, shout them, not keep them inward bound), I think the depression might not have felt so deep. If one views depression as “anger turned inward”, then one can understand why finding a healthy way to turn it outward is so important to overall well-being.

Clarification: if one doesn’t know what to do with one’s anger, my suggestion is find a good therapist.

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9 thoughts on “Ramban’s Letter & Virginia Woolf

  • I think there is a difference between getting rid of anger in a healthy, controlled way (e.g. in therapy), and just losing your temper.

    I think there is a strong element of ‘anger turned inwards’ in my own depression, and sometimes it comes out as anger towards other people, but I don’t think that is a particularly healthy way of expressing it, especially as the people to whom I express my anger usually don’t really deserve it. It’s much better to work through it in a controlled way, in therapy, or to displace it into physical exercise or something like that.

  • Yael, first off, thanks for reading and commenting about Beyondbt.com.

    I don’t think the Ramban is suggesting that people don’t get angry. In fact the Mishna and Avos talks about four types of people regarding anger and the highest level is the one who is hard to anger and easy to appease, implying that even a righteous person gets angry.

    I think the Ramban is addressing two things, what to do when you get angry and how to decrease the occurrence of situations that get you angry. The Ramban’s basic answer is humility.

    By the way, have you ever looked at Rabbi Pliskin’s book on anger. He has a very interesting cognitive psychology based approach.

  • Mark, thanks for commenting. I didn’t see anything on the Beyondbt post about the dangers of keeping anger inside. And I have found this to be extremely detrimental to one’s health.
    And I didn’t see any distinction between the feeling of anger and the reaction to anger.

    Often, depressed people are totally unaware of their anger. So if they continue to keep calm, this is not going to help them.

    I’ve looked another book by Rabbi Pliskin, I think Guard Your Tongue. It didn’t work well for me. I feel like I have to undo my guarding of my tongue, and actually work up the guts to say something.

  • Guard your Tongue is about the laws of Loshon Hora (negative speech). The Anger is a different book altogether.

    Rabbi Pliskin makes your point that it is important to recognize your anger and deal with. I think everybody would agree with that including the Ramban although he doesn’t state it explicitly.

  • it is important to recognize your anger and deal with
    Wouldn’t it be nice if someone had said that in the Beyondbt post?

    I find it ironic that the laws of Loshon Hara are meant to prevent people from feeling pain, but the repression that sometimes results can be extremely painful. I think Loshon Hara and anger are related. If someone keeps all their feelings, thoughts inside, including anger, that can be very hurtful.

  • Ilana-Davita, thanks, I haven’t read Joseph Telushkin (except for that book he wrote a long time ago with Dennis Prager).

    I’m most comfortable with Rabbi Abraham Twerski, whom I quoted in my first post on this topic.

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