It is hard to talk about our anger and the right use of anger. Very few of us have received any instruction or coaching or mentoring on the use of anger. Many of us have felt its explosive qualities and are left ashamed of our capacity for rage. Others of us have suppressed our anger and pushed it down, leaving us to struggle with saying “no” and setting limits and boundaries. And so we pretend we do not have anger or, if we do admit it, we seek ways to “manage” it. Yet rarely do we sit with it and see its value.
I am talking here about anger as an emotion – an e-motion, flowing through us if we allow it to flow and not hold on to it. We seek the full range of motion available to us in our physical body. Would we not want an equivalent range of motion in our emotional life – the full feast that life offers?
I am not talking about an angry disposition, which is long lasting and causes us to feel anger at the slightest provocation or approach the world with a hardened and bitter cynicism. Having an angry disposition would be painful. But feeling and experiencing the emotion of anger need not be painful. We do not need to shun it or augment it but perhaps we can learn from it, if we pay it heed.
One of my beloved teachers, Michael Meade, talks about anger in his audio presentation The Great Dance: Finding One’s Way in Troubled Times (available here). He describes anger as the energy that organizes you and protects you. It stands you up and enables you take a stand. He describes the anger of a screaming baby with a dirty diaper: the anger gives voice to the baby’s desire to return to a healthy state.
I want to say that again. Anger can tell us when we are no longer in a healthy state.
Anger can alert us when someone is disregarding our boundaries, making racial slurs, subtly insulting someone we love, using a passive aggressive behaviour towards us, to name just a few instances. Used this way, anger is like a warning system, causing us to straighten up, become more alert and respond where possible. Even if we cannot respond, we can reflect on the situation and better understand our own values. If we can respond, anger can be helpful there as well. Anger can invigorate our “no,” our stand on an issue or incident. It can clarify for us and for those we are in dialogue with that we do not support what is happening.
Anger is often the catalyst for social justice work, environmental justice work and civic engagement. In these contexts, the anger might best be the instigator for action but not carried forward and concretized into a disposition. Unfortunately this is often the pattern and activists and advocates are at risk of developing angry dispositions. Kept as an emotion flowing through, we could turn instead to our values and commitments, our sense of life purpose to fuel our activism.
Allowing the emotions to flow is never easy but if it might be easier to allow anger to flow through if we can see the gift that it brings.