Acting Out of Anger
For some reason, I’ve never been able to stay angry very long. The energy dissipates, and the resentment fades away. I suspect it’s because my attention span isn’t long enough. I get bored with the same old story, so I’m not likely to keep bitterness alive by rehearsing the injustice of it all. Nor can I convince myself of my own infallibility, so feeling self-righteous and aggrieved doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
That doesn’t mean I don’t get angry, though. Indeed, as recently as fifteen years ago, I liked my aggressive outbursts. Being a shy person, I didn’t act out in public, but at home, where I felt free to express my sensitive, artistic soul, I could be unreasonable and reactive. I thought it made me dramatic and interesting. I also thought it kept me safe, for I only got angry if I felt threatened.
Ironically, though, when we act out of anger, we tend to be less safe.
From Whence Anger Comes
Anger arises when some need or desire we have is unmet. Maybe we long for closeness, respect, or success. We may long a sane and peaceful world in which even the poor and the immigrant, even we and our families, are cared for. Perhaps we just want to stay alive. If it looks as if we won’t get our needs met – our spouse betrays us, our boss belittles us, we don’t get the promotion we expected, and the world seems more dangerous every day – it’s natural for us to feel angry.
But when we’re angry, we don’t think clearly. We do stupid things; we make mistakes. If nothing else, when we yell, scream, bluster, and bully, other people tend to get angry back, so we’re even less likely to get the closeness, respect, or success we want.
That’s why it helps to control our anger. The problem is, when we think of controlling anger, we often think of stuffing it down or ignoring it. That is not helpful. If we do that, the anger will fester. Soon we’ll be taking out our pain on someone who has nothing to do with what we got mad about in the first place. If we lack compassion, we might not mind this, but most of us will feel guilty when our anger dissipates, and we see the harm we’ve done.
So what can we do instead?
We can notice, embrace, and let go.
Noticing means watching without trying to change anything. Thoughts and feelings aren’t good or bad, they just are. They arise without our volition. We can’t control the instinctive squirm in our guts or the flush of pleasure we feel anymore than we can keep ourselves from having the thoughts we were trained by childhood and media to have.
Sure, we don’t always like our thoughts or feelings. Shame, outrage, rejection, loneliness, and disgust don’t feel good. We might feel embarrassed. We resist admitting we’re “weak” or “bad.” Therefore, we pretend we don’t have that thought we dislike, or we dismiss our feelings, thinking this will make them go away. Unfortunately, that to which we don’t attend grows stronger.
That doesn’t mean we have to stay stuck brooding on some slight or cowering with fear. The moment we notice our feeling or our thought, especially if we do so without judgment or shame, its power over us will lessen. It may even go away.
So if we don’t want to be controlled by half-recognized thoughts and unremarked feelings, we must learn to see them. Meditation is a great practice for learning to observe our thoughts and emotions as they arise. As we sustain a gentle awareness on our breath, we can watch the moving and shaking and swirling of our inner being without feeling a need to stop or change what we see.
Noticing Our Anger
Ah, there you are anger, bitterness, judgment, serenity, loneliness, fear. I see you.
Judgments may arise, but we will notice them with detachment. The more we do this, the less we will cling to our thoughts and feelings. We won’t view them as facts, but will understand they are the stories we make up about reality. Then we won’t feel we need push them away, for we will accept them for the meaningless prattle that they are.
Cradling Our Anger
Sometimes such simple recognition is enough to encourage the emotion or thought to go away. If it won’t leave, though, if it feels too deep or empty or powerful, then we can cradle it. By this, I don’t mean hold onto it. I mean, soothe it, comfort it. Seek the hurt beneath the thought or feeling and bring your compassion to bear on it. When we do this, we give our pain or insecurity what it needs: attention and compassion.
After that, we may need to cry, or rock ourselves, or sing. A simple smile might be enough to help us release what is hurting us. Whatever our need, once it is met, the underlying emptiness or insecurity will fade away.
The Death of Civility
This is not a popular message. We don’t seem to want to soothe anger or soften rage. Today, in The New York Times, I read a commentary by Bret Stephens about an article written by the religious conservative, Sohrab Ahmari. Dismissing what he calls David French-ism, a philosophy named for another conservative author who promotes civility in discourse, Ahmari describes the dangers of the liberal takeover of our country, then writes, “Civility and decency are secondary values.”  The most important thing is winning.
According to Stephens, Ahmari embraces “the kind of sucker punch, smash-mouth form of politics” practiced by our president.  Ahmari, along with our president, is an angry man.
But conservatives are not the only pugilists. Though liberals may be more tolerant of the call for compassion and reason than their conservative counterparts, they have their own angry voices. Nonetheless, conservatives and liberals both were raised with the American myth, one that can be found in nations throughout the world. We learned that winning is indeed everything, that dissenters are our enemies, and that if anger isn’t always productive, it’s better than looking weak. Who cares if your anger distances you from loved ones, from your tender feelings, from your god, from your hope? Who cares if your seething thoughts raise your blood pressure and give you heart disease? If you’re miserable and lonely and sick, at least you feel powerful. At least you have dignity.
Why Don’t We Wake Up?
But is it really dignified to shout, threaten, bully, thrash others, and cheat to get your way? At least from where I sit, such rantings and machinations make one look like a fool. Which is part of the problem with anger. It skews our minds. Unable to think clearly, we see threats where none exist, or we escalate tense situations until there is no peaceful way out. In the heat of our fury, we fight, regardless of the consequences. Only when we wake up do we realize we made a mistake.
Yet some of us never wake up. What keeps us from doing so?
Fear is one thing. To wake up, we have to admit we don’t have all the answers, that sometimes we’re wrong. We have to look at ourselves and be honest about our foibles and our gifts. That’s scary.
We also fear losing social standing, power, and that adrenaline rush. Anger can be addictive. Who doesn’t want to feel invincible?
Besides, sometimes anger works, at least in the short term. When we threaten people, they go away. Intimidation makes them do what we want. In the long run, this leads to isolation and despair, but the need to prove ourselves keeps us from admitting that we need love and companionship. We would rather go to our graves still sleeping.
Anger and Resistance
Some, though, say we need anger to defy the bullies of the world, to protest injustice, to leave abusive relationships, to demand fair wages. Anger, they say, allows us to resist. But if we depend on anger to keep us going throughout that resistance, a group will become a mob and peaceful protest will degenerate into violence.
To stand firm in the face of opposition, to risk our lives to create a better world, we need more than anger. After reading an earlier draft of this message, my husband commented that what helped him sustain action in the face of abusive powers wasn’t anger so much as outrage. That’s an interesting distinction to make. Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language defines outrage as “a powerful feeling of resentment or anger aroused by something perceived as an injury, insult, or injustice.”  The editors don’t distinguish between anger and outrage.
Love and Rebellion
But Maria Harris, a religious educator and author, explores how outrage gives us the courage to take the risks that are part of rebellion and resistance. What good is it, the Bible asks, to gain the world but lose your soul?  Sometimes, we must be willing to give up everything we know. Outrage and anger can motivate us to do this.
I suggest, though, that the courage that sustains us comes less from anger and outrage than from love, whether love of self, of our children, of our planet, our democracy, our god. Harris writes that “the powers of rebellion, resistance, and reform grow out of receptivity,” which is an openness to the other, an openness to hope, creativity, and the divine.  To be receptive, though, we must be strong enough to face loss, for when we touch another’s heart and spirit, when we bond, we have something to lose. Therefore, we must be strong enough to love.
But, as my husband says, “Love is hard work.” It is easier to rally a following around hatred than around love. Hate and anger fuel the vigilante spirit which causes so much pain and destruction.
So what do we do? Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to keep peace in our hearts and hold onto love. He writes, “When you feel others trying to destroy you, if you touch the love in yourself, you will not be harmed.” 
To Not Be Harmed
That seems like such a naive statement. Some people will never be convinced, no matter how much Hanh explains what seems true and right and obvious to him. Yet perhaps we can start by considering what he means by “harm.” Does he mean we won’t be shot or tortured or raped or cheated?
Of course not. If a gunman wants to mow us down, he will, no matter how much love we touch in ourselves. But anger won’t keep us safe, either. Nor will walls, whether around our country or our hearts. Behind our barriers, we are still vulnerable, perhaps more so, because by acting out of anger and separating ourselves from our neighbors, we become isolated. Entrenched in our anger, we lose our allies. Besides, no matter what we do, death will find us one day.
Yet anger helps us feel invincible, so we don’t think about death. When angry, we don’t consider the importance of community and collaboration. Seeing ourselves as separate beings, we create enemies.
According to Hanh, however, this separateness is an illusion. The Buddhist teacher often uses the example of a wave on the ocean. Is the wave not part of the ocean that holds it? The wave arises and slips away in the space of a heartbeat. Yet when it falls back into the water, it doesn’t disappear. It changes form, yet remains part of the ocean. Indeed, the wave was never anything but ocean. As ocean, each wave is part of all the other waves. They have the same essence. When the wave exists as the wave, however, it doesn’t realize this.
All Are One
In the same way, when we exist in our particular shape with our particular thoughts and sensations, we don’t realize we are one with the essence of all. We are the wave, the sky, the rock, the bird, the dancer and the musician, the killer and the killed. Inspired and demonic both, we are the rapist, the daydreamer, the harpy, the priest, the lost and the found, the failure and the victor, the prisoner and the president. All of us are one.
If this is true, then harm is an illusion. Like thoughts and emotions, the idea of harm arises and fades away. It’s part of the ebb and flow of reality.
Some people might interpret this teaching to mean that our actions make no difference. If we’re one, if we all fall back into the ocean some day, who cares if our democracy falls apart or global warming destroys life as we know it? Yet slipping into such hopelessness and despair are other ways we try to protect ourselves from loss and suffering. In that way, they’re similar to anger.
On the other hand, some people who think about being one with everything will realize that, though in the greater scheme of things it doesn’t matter if they die at the hands of a gunman, if they can “touch the love in” themselves, they will be safe even if they do die, for their spirit will be whole and their heart free.
The Power of Love
We think anger is strong and love weak, but although love knows death is possible, it nonetheless tries to save a life by stepping into the line of fire. If anger steps into that line, it is with the illusion that it can destroy those who threaten it. Love understands that fighting doesn’t destroy evil, it feeds it. When we fight back with anger, we bring more evil into the world. To undo evil, we must transform it. If we can touch a broken soul with kindness, it might mend. This is what the true warrior does: she mends the heart and soothes the soul. To do this, the warrior needs to act, not out of anger, but out of love.
Buddhists believe that one day all souls will reach enlightenment. This will take a very long time, of course, in part because those who champion war and feed on anger will not be convinced by my talk of suffering and love. Yet perhaps these words will touch one heart, shift it toward compassion. We never know what difference we can make. All we can do is try to bring more love into the world. If enough of us do this, peace will fill our hearts, and “the world live as one.” 
In faith and fondness,
- Ahmari, Sohrab, “Against David French-ism,” First Things, May 29, 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/05/against-david-french-ism, accessed 6/1/19.
- Stephens, Bret, “The Higher Trumpism,” The New York Times, June 1, 2019, A23.
- Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, New York: Random House, 1996, 1376.
- Adapted from Mark 8:36.
- Harris, Maria, Teaching and the Religious Imagination: An Essay in the Theology of Teaching, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1987, 179.
- Nhat, Hanh, Thich. Cultivating the Mind of Love, Parallax Press, 2009, 44.
- Lennon, John, “Imagine.”
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved