Anger is an interesting, curious emotion that most of us experience on some level every day, be it mild frustration or moral outrage or sheer hatred. Most religious traditions have stories full of angry wrath. God destroys individuals and whole civilizations throughout the Old Testament. Jesus, the “Prince of Peace,” unleashes his righteous anger to clear money changers and merchants from the Temple. One Islamic application of the concept of Jihad (a struggle in the way of Allah) is warfare. And even the Dalai Lama, a man who has called for forgiveness for Chinese oppression of his people, says that he gets angry in traffic.
But, in the ethical declarations of these traditions, you also find an understanding of the destructive nature of anger. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught rather than an eye for an eye, one should turn the other cheek. In the Sermon on the Plain, he explicitly said for his followers to love their enemies. Warfare is acceptable in Islam as a form of Jihad, but is considered a “Lesser Jihad.” Mohammad taught that the inner struggle of faith and spiritual purity within the individual is the “Greater Jihad.” And the Dalai Lama teaches that anger is a Klesha, or poison, and is destructive to the process of enlightenment.
For those of us who would like a simple explanation of anger, these contradictions can be confusing. Is anger, as the Dalai Lama describes it, a destructive emotion that is never “good?” Are there good reasons for feeling anger and acting upon it? Based on my experience, and from what I’ve learned from my own teachers, anger is an inevitable consequence of being human. Everyone, no matter how calm or self-aware, gets angry. For some, this can be a practical emotion. Anger can break the paralysis of fear. One of my teachers said that in a self defense situation, if fear grips you, find a reason to get angry at your attacker so that you can fight. Though this can be an effective strategy, it strikes me as a limited one in terms of its ability to generate more than one solution to a problem (responding by counter-attacking). I feel that it would be more powerful to sit with your fear and keep your mind working. I learned from a yogi several years ago the following pearl: “In times of the mind, the heart should lead. In times of the heart, the mind should lead.” It takes discipline and practice to keep one’s head clear and functioning during moments of strong emotion. This is why I give students confusing activities during testing: I want them to practice thinking while nervous and stressed.
Anger can lead to action on a societal level. Civil right legislation in the 1960’s was enacted in large part because of an angry public reaction to seeing images of how blacks were being treated in the South. But in recent years, it has led us as a nation to war without debate or deep discussion.
And this seems to be at the heart of the confusion around anger as a “good” or “bad” emotion. Anger is quick to create action, but the consequences of those actions are mixed. Anger is very efficient at breaking indecision and paralysis. But it is ineffective at promoting good judgment. Anger seems to be an emotional response designed on a primitive level for eliminating threats (like the “fight” in fight or flight). But part of its design is the narrowing of focus. All we see or experience is that which central to our aggravation.
There is a classic story of the American who was living in Japan studying martial arts. He was taught that what he was learning should never be used except in the defense of oneself or others. He took this to heart, even to the point of crossing streets to avoid contact with tough-looking hoodlums, but it was frustrating for him. He knew he was learning some cool moves, and he wanted to see how well they would work. One day, while riding a train, a large drunk man got onto the same car as our hero. The drunk was yelling and cursing at everyone, shoving people out of his way, including a pregnant woman. Our hero felt righteous anger at the drunk’s behavior and rose from his seat, drawing the offender’s attention. The drunk, fuming, started to charge. Our hero, on the opposite side of the train car settled into a stance, prepared to make short work of his attacker. Suddenly, from a seat located between the two angry men, came a thin, high pitched voice. Both men turned to see a very small old man looking right at the drunk with a big grin on his face. The old man invited the drunk to sit with him, the drunk complying out of shear confusion. The old man continued to talk with him and in short order, the drunk was in tears, describing how he had just lost his job and saw no way of keeping his home. He was afraid of telling his wife his terrible news and had gotten drunk in his grief.
Our hero watched the old man stroking the drunk as he sobbed into the old man’s chest, and he began to see what he hadn’t in his anger. There was a bigger picture that the focus of his outrage had prevented him from seeing. Because the old man had viewed the drunk with compassionate eyes, rather than angry ones, he could see the man’s suffering.
When we get angry, our narrowed focus partitions much of a situation’s context from our view. We get angry, we stop seeing someone else as a person and instead see an object of frustration. It is this objectification that makes anger so destructive. I remember seeing a video of a meeting between Jewish and Palestinian leaders. When a member of one group spoke of members of the other group, they looked anywhere but at that person. To me, that showed as much as anything that these were two groups who could not see the humanity in each other and, as a result, could not relate to each other’s position, only their own.
Anger, as I’ve said, is inevitable. But you can limit its destructive power by breaking the narrow focus it creates. This is done through cultivating expansive emotions such as compassion (I know, I’m a broken record on this one) and expansive mental practices such as considering as many points of view as possible before acting. When it is a safe option, engage the target of your anger in dialogue. This last option can be a risky one. If you feel anger towards someone and try to talk to them in an effort to change the situation, your narrowed focus could escalate the conflict. For dialogue to work, it is important to approach it more with an intention to understand things better, rather than to try to change them.
Interestingly, these strategies don’t just help with disarming anger of its destructive consequences. They also help with reducing the frequency and intensity of anger itself. By cultivating more expansive emotional and cognitive habits, you are less inclined to narrow your vision when confronted with difficulty. Additionally, a larger vision can help with seeing sources of conflict before they reach you and can give you insight into how those conflicts can be diffused before they fully form.