The therapist was just starting to dig into my childhood. “Why were you so angry?” he asked.
“No particular reason,” I said blithely. “I was just an angry person.”
“Really?” he asked. “Surely something or someone made you angry.”
I was dumbfounded. How could I have missed that?
When what’s obvious to everyone else strikes you as novel, you know you’re on to something. I didn’t just gain the freedom to stop blaming myself; I also got a rare opportunity to examine an unexamined assumption: that anger is bad.
There are still families today in which children are expected to be seen and not heard. Respect for elders is demanded of many who receive little in return. Caught between a rock and a hard place, they internalize their frustration until sooner or later the dam bursts. This ‘proves’ their lack of control and justifies those who accuse them. The worst of it isn’t just that they’re labeled as angry people, but that those they trust reflect this image back to them relentlessly, until they end up believing it themselves. Without therapy or mindful reflection, they grow into dysfunctional parents themselves, continuing the cycle of disrespect and bottled-up rage.
It’s not anger that’s poisonous; it’s carrying it around
As I untangled my ball of defensive yarn in the weeks following that conversation, I realized I had a right to be angry. It was natural. It’s not anger that’s poisonous; it’s carrying it around. Sometimes, it’s the only appropriate response.
The mind is not a lump of clay. It’s a tumbleweed of interdependent thoughts and feelings interacting with a constantly changing world. We have a say in it — enough to keep up appearances — but if experience is contingent, how can we expect to control our minds? All we can do is manage the way we respond to thoughts and feelings — and even that’s conditioned. Accepting such powerlessness flies in the face of the self-control we expect of ourselves. Meditators especially want that control; if we’re determined we may find peace in retreat, but returning to ordinary life we find ourselves as bound as anyone else.
Turning away from your own negativity is utterly self-centered
Just this week I got angry. First at the Boston Marathon bombing, then at the media frenzy that fed on it. Our local press was at the airport interviewing people returning from Boston as if they were celebrities. It was obnoxious. I was angry.
What? Am I supposed to feel calm and collected?
I’m not afraid of negative truths. I want to know the facts of the world I live in, but I can’t languish in so much tragedy. I have to reserve myself for those in my world. When the news gets too much, I turn it off. On the same day as the Boston bombing fifty people were bombed to death in Iraq, and over a hundred armed conflicts were ongoing around the world. Are we supposed to feel it all?
Meanwhile, the terrorists win whenever we feel terrorized. The only way I know to resist that is by harnessing my anger.
I was reading other news last week. I didn’t realize until I turned the page that I’d scrolled indifferently past the story of a father killing his own children. I turned back and read it, partly out of guilt, partly thinking ‘I shouldn’t ignore this.’ The story was sickening; my seeing it as commonplace was almost as bad. That makes me angry, thank God.
So there. I’ve made my point. But the question remains, can we really change the way we process anger? Is accepting our animal nature incompatible with empathy?
For years I turned the other cheek
thinking I was being morally superior
Not at all. I was never more self-centered than when turning away from my own negativity. Empathy means feeling-into. If we don’t bathe in our own emotions, how can we feel into other people’s? Religious, spiritual and new-age attempts to transcend contingency and remain positive at any cost are not just fantastic; they’re also counter-productive.
Saying that we need to see and feel things as they really are isn’t secret code for some transcendent reality. It means seeing without projection, without yearning for things to be otherwise. That uncontrived perception is peaceful. Clarity and empathy are conjoined twins. One can’t go without the other. To care properly, we must be clear; to be clear we must extend beyond ourselves.
It’s not complicated, but it takes time to change habits of perception. More than anyone else, my wife Caroline has been a role model for me. She’s a particularly honest and forthright person. Disrespect her and it won’t go unremarked, but she’ll tell you what she has to say quietly, directly, without rancor. She has tact. Right there and then she gets it off her chest — literally. There’s very little residue.
This is a successful life strategy; the feedback encourages her and she keeps getting better at it. The way I once saw myself as inherently angry was a very different sort of feedback loop, one that carried me deeper into negativity. Such is the power of habit.
For years I turned the other cheek thinking I was being morally superior. In the name of ‘compassion’ I pretended that ignoring the barbs of my adversaries was a kindness to them. I didn’t speak my mind until I was at boiling point, and you can imagine how much tact went along with that. It was neither courageous nor honest. It certainly wasn’t a kindness.
Every state of mind is contingent. Certain situations will make us angry, but whether they increase or diminish our empathy depends on how we process that anger, not on how we judge it. To the extent that we are unhesitating, clear and frank we grow more stable.
Peace and calm are not the goals of mindful reflection; they’re just tools. What we need to carry into everyday life is the instinct to explore our feelings as they are expressed, to know our underlying motives and to not waste time trying to be good.