The Dance of Anger
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 4, 2007
I don’t wonder why people aren’t mad sometimes; sometimes, I wonder why we’re not all angry all the time. There’s a lot to be angry about in this world of ours. But living all of our days raging against the machine is like trying to subsist on a diet of jalapeno peppers. It won’t feed you very well, and sooner or later, it will probably make you sick.
Now, anger goes way back. Unlike the word “God”, which comes from the Old English word for “good”; or the word “sin” which originated as a term in archery for “missing the mark: or even “love” which goes back in its Indo-European or High German roots to “to be pleasing” or “to desire”— “anger” comes from an old Norse word meaning—anger.
It’s an old word. It’s an old emotion. But does that means we’re stuck with it (or, stuck in it)? Do we have control over our anger? Should we control it? Is it a sin—one of the “Seven Deadly” as medieval Christian theologians averred? Or is it a powerful force within us, which can empower us to change ourselves, change our lives, and change the world?
Some of us have real problems with anger. Some people seem angry all the time. They all but put off a negative force field, so intense and palpable is their rage. There is even a group of people known in popular psychology as “rage addicts”: they can’t seem to get through any kind of human interchange at all without “raging” about something.
Others of us have the opposite problem. We are so averse to being seen as angry at all, that we suppress our anger. We stuff it down inside ourselves. We ignore all hurt, every insult; or, at least, we paint a happy smile over everything, and pretend that the slings and arrows and disappointments of life can’t wound us. No, we say (sometimes a bit self-righteously, perhaps) we’re “above” anger…
But both these approaches, you see, as dissimilar as they might seem, are really but different manifestations of the same disease, and that is an inability to deal with our anger (which is a universal human emotion which we are all going to experience, at one time or another) in a positive, healthy, and productive manner.
There are seeds of anger planted within all of us, the great Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hahn teaches. Other seeds are planted, too: seeds of happiness; seeds of compassion; seeds of peace. But those angry seeds seem to be an especially insidious crop. As one writer has put it: “For many of us, who grew up with anger as a regular unwanted guest in our homes, our instinctive reaction is to avoid anger, to want to push it away.” Or, to push it down—deep down inside ourselves—where those seeds can come to bloom in the most unwelcome ways possible, sometimes. Better, it would seem, to acknowledge that the seeds are there—to acknowledge the anger—and to have a dialogue with it, and exert some control over its cultivation.
Why are we so afraid of anger? Why do some of us go to such extremes to repress it? Maybe because we don’t like who we are when we’re angry; or we don’t recognize ourselves when we’re angry; or, what we do see of ourselves, in anger, veers so far from the idealized image we have of ourselves as fine and decent human beings.
In an essay of anger in the New York Times, the writer Mary Gordon recounts an episode of her own anger which, while extreme, gives many of us something with which to identify:
She recounts how, one very hot August afternoon, she was preparing for a dinner party at her home that evening. She was rushing around, trying to get everything ready, and things weren’t going well. She soon found herself starting to fall further and further behind schedule. At that point, her children, aged 4 and 7 at the time—as well as her 78 year old mother—began hounding her to take them swimming, as Mary had earlier promised them she would-- before she felt so pressed for time. So, the three of them—two children and one mother—got into the car and started blowing the horn incessantly. They just leaned on the horn, to remind Mary that they were there, and wanted to go swimming. Then, Mary Gordon writes:
She then goes on:
Anger becomes a “sin”—a deadly one, even—when it crosses the line from enhancing our humanity to denying or robbing us of our humanity, instead.
It’s not the anger itself that’s the sin—the place where we “miss the mark”. It’s how our anger manifests itself (or not) that makes it detrimental (or positive) to our human be-ing upon this Earth. Anger itself is just a feeling—it just is. It is a reaction caused by certain stimuli within us. Anger—like any of our feelings—is a “warning signal”—a “first alert”—that something in our lives is out of balance, isn’t working right—and needs to be addressed if we are to get back on the road toward health and wholeness.
In her book, The Dance of Anger, Dr. Harriet Lerner writes:
Time and again, anger—over injustice, over wrong, over societies which failed to serve the cause of human need—has been a magnificently positive and productive force in history. Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Vaclav Havel—the list of such blessed souls goes on and on—were all people who, first of all, got angry about something in society that wasn’t right. Then, they were able to give an articulate voice and a coherent strategy to those torrents of anger within them, and so, use them to serve the cause of humankind.
Does anyone really think it would have been better for our nation if someone had said to Susan. B. Anthony: “Oh, Susan, so women don’t have the vote. So what? Don’t get so angry. Go back to your knitting.”
Or to Gandhi, or to Martin Luther King, or to Havel: “So what if your people are oppressed? What are you so mad about? You can still get a good job for yourself. You’re a lawyer—or a minister—or a playwright. Just go along and get along, and you’ll do all right.”
When we turn our backs on something that’s wrong—on something that makes us angry—we not only put the brakes on humanity’s progress—we also wound ourselves, internally; we lessen ourselves as human beings. We sin, too, sometimes, by not getting angry. We “miss the mark” as far as becoming the fully evolved and compassionate men and women we are intended to be.
But it’s a tricky dance, this dance of anger, isn’t it? The boundary between anger as a productive and life-enhancing force, and anger as a deadly, life-denying force is a difficult one to draw sometimes. There are numerous complications we face if we’re to do that dance of anger with both the outer grace and inner beauty befitting a human being.
What are some of these complications?
For one thing, it’s not always easy to know whether we’re experiencing anger in the first place, or some other (equally valid) emotion. In his book on anger (“the sometimes deadly sin,” as her calls it), an Episcopal priest named Ken Keizer speaks about how society sometimes “scripts” our response to the anger we feel. From an early age, we’re taught, as men and women, to “mask” one feeling with another: Women are taught to convert anger into sadness, Keizer writes; while men are taught to convert sadness into anger! In the traditional mindset, women aren’t “supposed” to be angry—which is (some imagine) a sign of hysteria and imbalance; while men aren’t “supposed” to be sad—which is (some say) a sign of weakness. With all this “masking” of what we’re feeling, no wonder we’re confused. No wonder we’re strangers to ourselves so often. No wonder, I suppose, we’re so angry!
Another problem is that anger has a very long shelf life. Someone may have planted seeds of anger within us years and years ago—seeds which are watered throughout all of our experience—by every slight, every abusive relationship, every disappointment, every time we’ve been misunderstood or under-valued or taken for granted. But if we don’t acknowledge and deal with the seeds when they’re planted they’ll come back to haunt us, sooner or later. A wise person once said, “Hug your demons, or they’ll bite you in the… back…” Or, as Thich Nhat Hahn has put it:
In the New Testament Epistle of James, we read: “Therefore, my people, let everyone be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”
The author of James doesn’t say we should never get angry (any more than he says we should never speak). He just says that we should use a little discernment and a little forbearance when we exercise both of those human powers. We should be “slow to anger”. Or, as Mark Twain said, “When angry, count to 10. When very angry, swear.”
When we feel anger welling up inside of us, we need to step back for a moment, and discern where it’s coming from, and why, and what some of the more productive ways of dealing with it might be. Now, this might seem like a lot to ask in the heat of the moment. But given anger’s potential for hurt—for carving deep psychological (not to mention physical) wounds upon the beings of both sides involved—it’s probably not too much to ask, of ourselves, or of others. If we just lash out at others, we might get that great surge of power and satisfaction that vengeance brings. But vengeance is a notoriously short-lived fruit; it usually leaves pretty bitter taste in our mouths. If we just lash out at others, and let our rage explode, more often we run the risk of being like Mary Gordon on that hot August afternoon, pounding on the windshield, and scaring her kids (and her mother) half to death.
We have to take a least a bit of time, and ask ourselves: “Why am I so angry?” and “Is my anger just?” and, if so, “How can I deal with it in a positive, life-giving way?”
Let me give you an example from my own experience.
Now, some of us may intensely dislike a “certain politician” [no names]. Every time we see this “certain politician” on television, there might well up in us this simmering anger, this bubbling rage. We may want to scream. We may even want to start throwing things across the living room, in the direction of the television set. We don’t like what this “certain politician” stands for. We don’t like where he [or she] is taking us. We don’t like the way this “certain politician” talks. We don’t like his [or her] facial expressions, or smirk. We don’t even like this “certain politicians dog.
So, when we find ourselves feeling this way, we need to stand back for a moment. We need to ask what is it about this person that makes us feel like this. There may well be reasons for feeling the way we do that are, to us, valid and true. Reasons of war and peace; justice and injustice; truth and falsehood. But they have nothing to do with his [or her] dog. Nothing to do with the way he [or she] speaks (or doesn’t). Not even anything to do with that darned smirk.
And screaming across the room isn’t going to deal effectively with those negative feelings we have. Throwing things at the t.v. sure won’t. Nor will retreating into a cocoon of self-righteous and self-satisfied rage.
But speaking to others about the situation might help. Writing a letter to the editor might help. Working to undo those policies I feel so strongly about is a positive way to channel my anger, as is working for the election of someone else to this particular politician’s office. Who knows? That candidate might even win.
So something that was a negative—my anger—can be transformed into something that might well be positive—and good for our country—and good for the world. Anger can even have a positive effect when we take the time to discern—and to cultivate the seeds—seeds of anger, even—that are within us.
“The [one] who gets angry at the right things, and with the right people, and in the right way, and at the right time, and for the right length of time, is [the one to be] commended,” said Aristotle, a long time ago.
That might seem like a tall order, and one where all of us, at some times or others, will certainly miss the mark.
But if we human ones are feeling creatures, then we are choosing ones, as well. We can, then, choose which of those forces within us we will feed, and nurture, and bring to life in our relationships with one another.
Our hearts may well break, time and again, in the struggle. But as Joanna Rogers Macy reminds us: “The heart that breaks open can contain the whole world.”
Even in our anger, there may be the glimmer of compassion for all this world, and all of its creatures.