I have spent the last semester taking a course in Peace Studies. A frequent topic in this class was what to do with the anger we all feel at one point or another. A conversation with a friend this morning once again brought the concept of anger to mind. What is anger’s purpose? Why have humans, in the process of evolution, still hung on to this emotion that seems to cause us so much trouble? Without anger would there still be family dysfunction, divorce, crime or wars?
My mother has always said that “anger is the flip side of depression.” I can see that very clearly. There were times in my life when clinging to my anger was all that saved me. If it were not for that anger I would have wallowed in hurt feelings and self pity until they overwhelmed and destroyed me. Anger, at least, is productive. Anger keeps you moving forward. Anger gives you strength.
Not that I’m advocating we walk around angry all the time, quite the opposite. Anger, if carried too long, can also weaken us. Anger takes so much out of us. While anger may sometimes be the life raft that keeps us afloat during a personal disaster, you can’t live a productive, fulfilling life forever on that life boat. Eventually, we have to find a bigger ship, or a pleasant island, and start over.
So many times well meaning friends will tell us we must vent our anger. We should hit a pillow or go outside and scream. We need to release that tension. This may work in some instances. However, I really like the approach offered by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh in his book appropriately titled “Anger, Wisdom for Cooling the Flames.” Hanh tells us that our anger serves a purpose. We must not ignore it or vent it in a violent way. We must acknowledge it and then gently tend to it. We must care for it. It is a part of us.
Very often when we are angry we have just cause to be so. Someone has wronged us or harmed us, or someone we love, in a very real way. Anger is not wrong in itself. Anger is what makes us fight back to save ourselves. If you are assaulted in the streets it will be the adrenaline from your anger that will help you fight for your very life. So, even in instances of emotional harm, our anger is trying to help us. We must acknowledge it. We must say “I have a very good reason to be angry here.” However, then what we do with our anger is up to us. Ideally, rather than hunting down the offender as our ancestors may have done, I would hope that we stop, take a breath and find a more intelligent, evolved way to solve the situation.
Obviously, judging by the number of crimes and wars still going on within the human race, we have not yet perfected this. This may be because we are also trying to sort out other emotions that don’t always serves us, such as jealousy and pride. The answer, according to Hanh, is within each of us. We must make peace with ourselves if we are going to be able to be at peace with the rest of the world around us.
What does this mean in practical terms? It means we need to stop, think and decide before we react. While saying the first thing on your mind to someone who has hurt you may certainly serve to hurt them back, is that what you really want to do? If we are honest, sometimes it is. In the long run, however, it may serve us better not to. This is one of my biggest challenges, taking a moment to stop and think before I respond. Will what I say help the situation in any way, or only make things worse? Will it change this person or just give them reason to continue to verbally or emotionally assault me? Can I be an example of a better way? Will saying something different leave me with more peace?
Stop and listen to your heart, for just a moment. It will usually tell you what the best response is. It is okay to tell the other person they have hurt you. It is okay to say you believe they are wrong. Often they are unaware and it serves to open conversation and deepen your relationship. Sometimes they may share facts that you were unaware of as well and the situation can be resolved in that way. Once in awhile, you may have to look more closely at your part in the problem and this can lead to your own growth in an unexpected way. Sometimes they are just wrong and they have hurt you and won’t acknowledge it or try to fix it and you have every reason to strike back. Trying over and over again to convince them of their error serves you no purpose if they are unwilling to look deeply at the situation. In which case, knowing that you have done all that you can do, you may need to just take care of you, and walk away. Sometimes even that is a gift to the other person as it may give them reason to examine their own life and their own motives. Whether or not they accept that gift is out of your hands.
Make peace with your anger. Realize it is just as much a part of you as your feelings of joy and happiness and peace. All these emotions make us uniquely human. All these emotions are part of our rich experience of life. Every situation and every emotion is an opportunity for us to learn and grow. While I am still learning how to always best acknowledge my anger and move on, I have come to understand it and to be grateful for it. It is part of me. It is part of my human experience and so far, my human experience, good and bad, has been incredible!