Marjan & Veerle

Ghent, Belgium

Anger and rage, I love it! I am quite extremely convinced of its usefulness, if it can be done justice, precisely because it is loved, cherished, encouraged, sometimes even stirred up. Because I have had the chance to see this for many years now, from the perspective of what we are allowed to do with people at Touché, it no longer feels like a paradox to me, and I am more and more eager to shout this from the rooftops.

Not that I am always and everywhere an example of this. My anger sometimes gets in my way, or sometimes knocks me – or someone else – down. Since I fell in love with a non-Belgian, and a thousand times more by becoming the mother of two half-non-Belgian children, it is no longer possible to become ‘usefully angry’ when confronted with racist (re-)actions. Certainly not if they are half-hidden in apparently innocent statements, genre "Your husband must be happy that he got a job?", as if he hadn't worked 1,000 times harder for it, or as if he had to settle for it and he’s not to aim for what he really wants. In my thoughts afterwards, or in conversations with my friends, I formulate the sweetest, sharp, kindly putting, eye-opening answers, but in reality I’m boiling so much inside that all vocabulary is taken from me, that on the outside I can only not react, freeze and disappear. Unfriending a distant relative on Facebook and talking about it with people I can safely assume will listen, is the most active I've been so far. Or when I was sitting in a meeting, again half-hidden, where one sexist remark followed another derogatory and disqualifying remark, I was so taken aback by my own swirling anger that I didn't think it was better than mumbling that I had to get out for a while, only to burst into tears. Things that feel so fundamental, even existential to me that it seems inconceivable to me that anyone would "sin" against this, especially when it comes to people who or situations we didn't see coming, make me so uncontrollable, churning furious, that my anger gives myself such an unbelievably hard uppercut that I can't help but to go down. This catapults me back to a situation where a colleague with whom I had a very close relationship who, after I applied for a job internally and got it, subsequently interacted with me in such a destructive way and I felt so limited that I could no longer function. Any form of perspective taking, overviewing and putting things into perspective no longer stood a chance against the injustice I felt. The light went out. I blocked, froze and my otherwise eloquent tongue just let out a cry for help. Or that time I saw a colleague publicly fired. This event raged over me like a tsunami that I could only sit there as if pinned to the chair and then in the evening clear up the shards of the image of the otherwise affable director and glue those of the colleague together. I drew a line under that too.

Fortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. And I have already come a long way in this, in liking it – and therefore also in being able to make good use of my anger. Starting up Touché brought about an important change in this. I felt firsthand how my anger at what I had experienced about injustice, inefficiency, gagging systems, ..., both within the care and in the prison system, could go both ways and how this would determine who I would become as a person: I could choose powerlessness, polarization, bitterness, pointing the finger, indifference, self-protection, … Or I could choose to act and do something about it, and really listen to what my anger was telling me. And so, it happened.

As a child I became very mesmerized by human traffic. I ate, as it were, my portion of cinema every day, gazing at how people interacted, how people reacted to difficult or very nice things, what was not told and yet said, how a family system functioned (and by extension groups) and what gave people the urge to move forward. A gigantic variety where I tried to put order in my child's head or my hormone-filled teenage body for the purpose of understanding better. My imaginary encyclopedia of human interactions was invariably and effortlessly, like something that just happened, accompanied by a sensitivity that I was given as a gift and, it turned out later, works like a compass. Once that system (which is still in service today, much loved and looked after) is in motion, it is impossible to ignore it. Stimuli which, upon detection, are thrown into the heap labeled 'warning', blare like sirens through my head and heart, blood pulsating with the force of 8 on Richter through my veins, sharpening everything like a beast of prey just before the attack. I have experimented quite a bit in handling my anger. I evolved from a child with a head full of questions with a well-developed observation system to a colorful activist where I wanted to leave that safe and at the same time too restrictive (home) harbor to get to know other perspectives on the world. I became enraged at that seemingly pure and beautiful world that felt scary and narrow-minded and was not exemplary of the world we lived in. The need and conviction to befriend everything and everyone who deviated from the norm arose from this. I made a pact with myself to equate 'being different', contrary to what I was taught in that safe village, 'interesting' and 'worth exploring'. I went into battle. At the same time, I also noticed, thanks to that built-in power of observation that zooms out when I got too caught up in it, that the angry activist didn't always achieve his goal. My anger was too hot, too sharp and too overwhelming. And so, I continued my experiment, because in the end, a better world lay at the horizon of my activist dreams. And so, I stripped my coat of its extroverted coat and traded it for a stint playing the intrepid introverted hoarder who still perceived tension and frustration with the greatest sensitivity, internally watched and accommodated but the verbal acuity, noise and tumult. I gave up for a while to then turn myself into a calm, convinced activist who, thanks to the experiment, has mastered the anger better. This was reinforced by a conversation with my grandfather about how he had experienced the war as a young man. He told me that he had been executed, managed to escape this in a masterly way and afterwards took up arms out of self-preservation and then years later lived on the same street with people who were involved in this incident from the opposite angle. Besides the fact that this felt like a superhuman achievement, to this day I am very grateful for the insight he gave me: aggression is there, it is human and comes from a desire for change. After many detours, he managed to combine all those different positions and to include peace and tranquility in this, also with the people who caused him pain and suffering.

Better or worse, higher or lower, richer or poorer, more beautiful or uglier, smarter or dumber, thinner or fatter. Rank or pecking orders, you'd almost think they're so deep in our human fibers that we can't live without them, because they're ubiquitous. We have already tried to set a limit, by criminalizing discrimination or by creating social security. But the idea underlying it, that one person is or deserves to be better than another, or if they are ranked higher or lower, is not tackled or is tackled very carefully. Or really thinking about the scope of the consequences of that thinking, we don't like to do that either. Because competition makes us all better, doesn't it? Hierarchy has always been like a red flag to a bull for me. When asked whether we have provided chairs for the dignitaries at an event that we organize with Touché, I am able to swing those chairs ostentatiously at the back door. If a director of anything takes a stand based on that directorship, I'm going to color outside the lines a little more or even taunt. I refuse to remember how the organizational charts of government services work. When other services willfully try to detect and introduce a hierarchy in Touché, my mind immediately produces a whole host of funny, sharp, jerky abbreviations that serve as antidotes. What seems equal, but in reality is driven by inequality or power, evokes skepticism when it happens at a distance from me, and blind anger when I suddenly find myself in it. I don't trust 'self-managing teams' in larger organizations, because in my opinion they only exist through the grace of a boss who allows them to be 'self-managing' – and therefore are anything but that. Likewise, the hip term 'intrapreneurship' suffers the same fate. In my opinion, 'participatory processes' often suffer from the same flaw, as they continue to start from someone who gives someone else permission – and at other times just as well doesn't give permission to play along. Speaking about "the young people we must not forget" in the Corona debate, but actually only meaning the middle and upper class, while at the same time ignoring the rebellious, misguided, angry group of young people or calling them marginal and label and judge them as unacceptable. Or by “the elderly” only the people who have the means to stay in a residential care center. And so, I get really furious when I suddenly find myself in it. In any position. Noticing that someone else has set me up or seduced me into getting involved, or as long as I'm laying low or not really wanting to participate in the decision-making process, is what pissed me off the first time. As an employee in a large welfare organization, we were asked to indicate what people asking for help needed in guidance time, only to find that our answers had become ammunition in a savings plan. Raising this question did not provoke any reaction, confirmation or denial, defense or indignation. I also remember the introduction of ‘envelope financing’ in Flemish youth care. Where freedom and autonomy were put forward as motivators for this process, a saving idea turned out to be the driving force behind it. A poisoned gift. Ultimately, it led to ever-increasing distance and alienation. And to allergies to these kinds of conditions. Or maybe it was already there, and it's only gotten bigger since then.

What has fascinated me for a long time, and at the same time sets me on fire, is the fact that people also establish an – often unspoken – order, and thus a standard, in what is acceptable and even honored anger. By seeking allies in that norm, power blocs are formed against groups of people who sin against it or do not speak the same aggressive language. The average 'well-educated' employee or manager on the shop floor quickly agrees that the average 'worker' has more 'aggression issues' and could do with some 'improvement' in this regard and could therefore benefit from a training about aggression management', while the same reaction from the CEO is labeled as 'knocking on the table' or 'at least he goes for it!' by the same people. A young boy in an institution who breaks down his room will not score many points with this and runs a high risk of being penalized both directly with a sanction and indirectly by being considered from then on as, for example, 'unpredictable'. A famous musician who does the same with his guitar on stage or his hotel room after the performance, or a tennis player with his racket, thus cements his reputation as a cool, untouchable, half-god to be respected. If the Christmas table is used as bait in Covid times to make people follow the quarantine rules properly while a whole group of people is excluded and forgotten. Detainees who could not and were not allowed to see their families in Covid times and we who do not care about that as a society. When aggression is linked to certain groups of people and certain forms of aggression are more socially accepted than others. When assumptions without any reflection become a generally accepted truth. Public humiliation. When a distinction is made between people and rankings are made or when systems that are separated from their original mission have become unjust mechanisms that are no longer at the service of man. I've never really understood this kind of distinction, and I've always resisted it quite rebelliously, if only by befriending the "wrongest" boys in the class, and not being impressed by displays of power of those who already had the power. Besides the question of whether power in itself is a problem or a useful instrument (which is in itself a debate in which I myself take a rather radical position), this is very fundamentally about the question of how we shape the world. People only get angry about something that is close to their heart and that they want to change. Allowing one person more anger than another says something about how we believe that we can, want and may change the world, and what one person does or does not want to allow the other to do. So that means we give some people more rights than others to mold and change the world as they see it. I refuse to understand, let alone follow. The anger in that refusal meanwhile translates into a curiosity about what the world would look like if everyone could shape it from and according to his/her own anger. That is why, at Touché, we not only give detainees a voice, but also a platform to put together positively aggressive projects.

Not fighting is not an option for me. If I am faced with a situation, especially a system that is not right, that could be better, that is destructive, …, I cannot just sit in or next to it and witness what happens. And once I have seen an injustice, I can no longer 'un-see' it, so from then on, pretending it isn't there is no longer an option. In the meantime, I learned that I don't have to fight every battle equally ("Pick your fights", you know) and that I can't win some fights. I just can't accept that yet. My way of dealing with it is to get out with a message about why I'm leaving, preferably without starting to fight ugly. Then at least I don't feel like a coward. For example, a few times I chose to leave an organization because 'the talk' was far from, or no longer, 'walked'. I tried not to make a fuss about that, because the people who do continue to work there must be able to continue properly, but I always explained as clearly as possible why I chose not to stay. And I use my anger over it to try to do it differently at Touché. Becoming a mother also put a lot of emphasis on this. When my daughters moved to the neonatology ward after birth, without a clear explanation as to why this was necessary, and I was given the message that I had to "make use of the peace that it gave me", I had no choice but to repel like a devil in a holy water font. Thanks to a text message from a friend who advised "probably not the time to fight much", it became clear to me that I wanted to, or had to do that, because for me it was about several vital things together (not only I wanted to be a mother to my newborn child, I also thought that all medical experts should do their best to give me a plausible explanation and consider me a full-fledged discussion partner, and I also wanted to be aware of what was going on medically and would be decided about my child), but perhaps a little less violently. And so I decided to keep on surfing upon my anger, but focused instead of hitting wildly around me. And that worked. I spoke to the nurses and the doctors, who eventually let me spend the night in the neonatology ward and involved me in the decisions they made. Things did not go well with Kind en Gezin tough. There, my increasingly intense anger told me that breaking up would be a better option. A well-known company, where I myself had followed training, and which was happy to show their support for Touché as a charity, turned out at a certain point to have no more intention than to soothe their conscience by committing itself to us. This became apparent when one of our ex-prisoner colleagues also wanted to follow a training course with them, so that he would literally step over the threshold of their front door and become a person of flesh and blood instead of a 'beneficiary of all the beautiful work of a non-profit organization’. Or an “ex-top gangster”, as Google had told them once they knew his name, who suddenly found it ”scary” and “uncomfortable” to receive him, because “we are not used to dealing with detainees”. "Out of respect for our life's work", they wanted to see how they "could inspire him to a new life" (which was not the question, since he was now fully engaged in that new life and now was only looking for professional training to be able to do his job as a coach for young people even better). In the end, doubts about his 'willingness to be open' and 'intellectual abilities' were invoked as reasons for rejecting him. It turned out that there was a condition for supporting what we do at Touché: our clients must remain in need of help, and we must act as a buffer to avoid real contact. No can do. Meanwhile, the friendly relationship has cooled seriously.

My anger more and more became my ally over time, helping to assess whether it is good to distance ourself from who or what makes me angry (for example, if a difference becomes too great or too obvious, if the water is really too deep), or whether I should just go for figurative 'full contact' (if it's too important, for example). Whichever of the two options I choose, anger is not only my advisor, but also the fuel to be able to do what I choose and the substantive inspiration for what I say. I know few moments so crystal clear than when I am angry. If I also succeed in translating that into what I would like, and if I can also see that as a real possibility, I become a thousand men – or women strong.

That is also the reason why I find it incomprehensible that systems that do or produce just the opposite of what they should do, are not adapted, replaced, thrown overboard for something better. Our penal system currently produces more crime than it solves and could be much more efficient if it started from a different starting question, namely what all people involved in a crime need to progress with dignity. Our education does not provide sufficient problem-solving skills for today's diverse, complex and rapidly changing society, and could be achieved by setting it up and organizing it differently. Hierarchical and institutionalized systems would serve to 'make decisions, because who else decides?', 'Someone has to take responsibility, right?' or 'people need clarity', but above all they create massive amounts of corrupting power, bureaucratic and impenetrable processes, umbrella reactions, rigid and soulless rules from which people derive the mandate to reprimand each other as bad cops, standstill instead of decisions, 'mission drift', people who suddenly seem worth less than institutions and processes, and the reverse of responsible behavior.

As a child and certainly as a teenager, confrontations with such scenarios often led to resistance and struggle, drama-worthy conflicts, battles lost in advance, ... The anger did not deteriorate over the years, but in the meantime it took the form of a calm, persistent, powerful, sober, focused revolution. The knowledge that change is a reality, specific to people and everything that we shape as human beings, such as society, instead of a 'price' to be won, helps to keep the peace and sometimes even just patiently waiting.

And so I find anger, rage and even aggression an incredibly captivating, powerful, energetic, hopeful theme. So hard that I have not only enjoyed forming an organization around it for 15 years, I think this is so worthwhile that I wish everyone the gift of what we can see and experience at Touché every day.

When I ask myself as what kind of cool grandmother I want to leave this world, I see a woman whose eyes sparkle with passion as she talks about power relations that have yet to be rectified. A grandmother who proudly supports her grandchildren who consider social justice to be the most natural thing in the world and who spontaneously do things to make it happen. People who meanwhile manage to no longer choke on their own anger when it touches personal, sensitive strings, but who do 'stand their ground', especially in those situations. A wise woman who still has enough anger inside to feel what still needs to change, and at the same time immediately sees through an inner translation program what the desired change would look like, what difference it would all make, what she can do herself to set the situation on its way and how she can make other people just as crazy to go to battle in an army of 'happy warriors'.

Since it will take some years before I have reached this blessed, happy angry state, I like to call myself a detective for beauty in, out, with, for, through, under anger. Anger often shows itself as a creator of moving beauty. When it finds a link with contentment, joy, pride, hope, love, ... something very beautiful often arises.

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