In our modern world, people seek to rid themselves of all anger, yet, they haven’t realized that anger can’t be disposed of. Similar to the broad spectrum of human emotions, anger is part of our human experience. However, through reflecting on this human emotion, we can gain perspective on how anger has a role in shifting our consciousness. Couldn’t we shift our outlook on anger as an experience that we have some level of control over, much like a flame that depends on the fuel it is fed?
Ben Mikaelsen’s book, Touching Spirit Bear, follows 15-year-old Cole Matthews's journey, as he learns to gain the upper hand over his anger. After viciously smashing Peter Driscal’s skull into a sidewalk, Cole is given the choice to serve a year of restorative justice on a remote Alaskan island. When Cole arrives on the island, he immediately burns down his shelter in an act of anger and soon after, he is mauled to “an inch of life” by the mysterious Spirit Bear. Although he is immobilized, Cole is determined to survive. In his emotionally vulnerable state, Cole demonstrates care for other creatures, and he begins to reform with the help of Garvey, his Minneapolis parole officer, and Edwin, a Tlingit Indian elder. Even though Cole has gained the upper hand over his anger, he is unable to truly reform until he has made amends with Peter, who attempted to commit suicide. When Cole invites Peter to the island, he mentors him, teaching him about healing and strategies to control his anger, and Peter eventually reforms too. Two valuable takeaways from Touching Spirit Bear are that anger is one of many human emotions and by itself doesn’t define us, and that second, anger can be rechanneled and repurposed to produce a positive outcome.
Anger is just one emotion in the mixed bag of human feelings, and it would be unreasonable to label someone as angry simply because they are experiencing that emotion. We are more than our emotions. Society struggles to see beyond these exhibited emotions; it takes seeing through them to get a true glimpse of someone. For example, when a parent calls out their child as “selfish” or “rude” for how they behave, the child is being superficially labeled for what they did in the moment. In Touching Spirit Bear, Cole Matthews is driven by rage when he viciously attacks his classmate Peter Driscal, burns down his cabin on the island he was banished to, and attacks the Spirit Bear. While Cole’s attack on Peter may be seen as an act of anger, if we look deeper, Cole’s true motive was to make him care in ways that Cole was never cared for. Growing up as a neglected child, Cole was never cared for and even as a teenager, he still feels that others don’t care about his feelings. As a result, Cole turns to anger and violence because that was what he was taught. His very own father beat him to make him care and respect his word. Similarly, although Cole’s act of burning down his shelter was done out of anger, we must understand his past and the context in which he was raised.
In the same way, when Cole attacks the Spirit Bear, he is angry that the bear doesn’t fear him, but on a deeper level, wanted to make him care about his presence. Eventually, Cole arrives at the conclusion that he is not defined by his anger and says, “I just realized that I’m not a bad person. Nobody is... People are just scared and do bad things. Sometimes people hurt each other trying to figure things out” (168). When Cole comes to this self-realization, he looks beyond the surface of his emotions, realizing he is processing his neglected and abusive upbringing. It was in this self-realization that Cole was able to forgive himself and move beyond labeling himself as angry. There is so much more than what meets the eye when it comes to our emotions, which are so often fueled by one’s past experiences, unprocessed grief and trauma. Therefore, it is too simplistic to label someone as the emotion they exhibit.
On a subconscious level, anger can be one’s greatest teacher as it offers insight which can lead to change. Through reliving anger and experiencing the consequences of acting out in anger, one may process what led them to anger. When Cole attacks the Spirit Bear in an outburst of rage, the animal mauls him to a state of near-death. It is through reliving the mauling several times in his mind that he can process his anger and the motive behind his attack. Cole’s pride is tested when the bear isn't afraid of him. Realizing his own pride and desire to be seen, Cole is able to understand his abusive father on a deeper level. He learns that his father was abused as a child and held on to his unprocessed grief and anger, which carried over into his relationship with his son. With this perspective, Cole is able to forgive his father’s countless acts of neglect, assault and abuse. With the help of Edwin, a Tlingit Indian elder, and Garvey, his Minneapolis parole officer, Cole sets out on a healing journey and a path of reform. Cole soaks in a frigid pond and rolls away the “ancestor rock” to let off steam, yet the most significant step to his reform is showing compassion to his victim. In the aftermath of Cole’s attack, Peter attempts to commit suicide twice. Feeling compassion, Cole invites Peter to the island. He hopes to gain back Peter’s trust and make amends for assaulting him. Cole is profoundly aware of his change of heart and tells Peter, “‘I’m part of some big circle that I don’t understand. And so are you. Life, death, good and bad, everything is part of that circle. When I hurt you, I hurt myself, too. I don’t think I’ll ever heal from what I did to you, but I’m sorry, Peter. I really am sorry’” (237). In this way, anger is Cole’s greatest teacher.
In this moment, Cole’s anger rechannels into compassion, reaching the ultimate turning point in his journey. Cole demonstrates the cycle of repurposing anger and teaches us that anger can be the biggest driver to change. As the novel progresses, Cole gets into the rhythm of releasing his anger by soaking in frigid pond water every morning and rolling the “ancestor rock” down a hill. These practices exemplify how Cole repurposes his anger. By processing and repurposing anger, one can experience a more fulfilling and enlightened life path.
As with Cole and his father, there is always a story behind somebody's anger. It is through understanding this story that we can see people more clearly. Rather than labeling them as angry, we can see them as hurt, neglected, or having suffered. In this way, anger acts as a teacher because it gives us the perspective we need to gain deeper understanding and make transformations in our lives. The author, Ben Mikaelsen, speaks of this cycle as “making full circles” and how Cole’s full circle was “both a beginning and an end” to his transformation (240). Touching Spirit Bear teaches us that anger doesn’t just come from nowhere and that there’s a process to working through our emotions. Anger is a superficial label.
Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen. HarperCollins, 2005. Buy the book here and help support Stone Soup in the process!