An Ode to Being Yelled At

Everyone, now and then, needs a good and thorough denouncing.

A face with one eye wide, the other closed, a nose, and grimacing teeth, all drawn with wavy lines on a red background
Tim Lahan

To start with, you probably deserve it.

Not for this—not for whatever it is you’re being yelled at about—but for the other stuff. You know what I’m talking about. The innumerable tiny offenses. All the evasions, hedgings, dodgings, half-assings, bloodless ill-doings, accumulated in darkness. In the present moment, the present state of yelled-at-ness, you may be the victim of a misunderstanding. An injustice, even. But in general, yes, you should be denounced. By the blow of a ram’s horn in a beam of biblical light. Gongs of judgment should clash around you, even if they’re the wrong gongs. Everybody, now and then, needs to be yelled at.

Let’s go beyond morals. What about the rush? The eventful physiology of being yelled at? Your skin prickles; your armpits fizz. The lights in your limbic system are blinking on and off. Your amygdala is squawking like a car alarm. You’re in a fascinating place. Look around: There might be treasures here, undiscovered images, poems wrapped glittering around the brain stem.

Then there’s the yeller, the source of the noise. Can you appreciate their transformation, the changes they are going through? Before your eyes, a person is being magnified—rhetorically and physically inflated, pulsing with a wrathful radiance. You are seeing this person at twice their normal size. You are seeing them, in a way, in their splendor.

And also their vulnerability. Their preposterousness. Look at them, quivering away. You’ve really set them off. Do they even know what they’re saying?

In my other gig, as an editor, I get yelled at by writers. Generally with complete justification. So I nod, I absorb, I mollify, etc. I try to follow the program of Adam Yauch—MCA from the Beastie Boys—a witty and ironical hooligan who in his later years became a wonderfully earnest Buddhist: “If others disrespect me or give me flak / I’ll stop and think before I react / Knowing that they’re going through insecure stages / I’ll take the opportunity to exercise patience.”

On one occasion, however, the yelling overwhelmed me. I took a slurp from the goblet of chaos and started yelling back. And like magic, it stopped. The universe of yelling was abruptly quieted. Some kind of elemental equalization had taken place. I felt like the great firefighter Red Adair, who used to extinguish flaming oil wells by literally blowing them out with a blast of high explosives.

And then, post-yell, the world is altered. As in Ted Hughes’s “Wind,” after a stormy night “the hills had new places.” You and the yeller may never forgive each other. But you know each other a little better. Next time, with luck and skill, you’ll find a way not just to survive it, but to relish it. Is it difficult? Are you difficult? What if they’re right? Open your ears, yellee, and take it.

This article appears in the November 2021 print edition with the headline “Ode to Being Yelled At.”