Plenty of religions (and Yoda) discourage anger, but we don’t talk much beyond vague ‘bad karma’ and ‘god doesn’t like it’ ideas about the consequences of anger. There are times when rage is a good and needful thing, enabling us to change perceptions, change our lives and so forth. There are times when dramatic upheavals and huge responses are called for. The trouble is that the anger lingers on long after the moment has passed. The echoes of historical injustice, the memory of pain, can keep us trapped in a moment that has actually gone. I know because I’ve done it. Then there are the smaller things that people let themselves get angry about, and can still be bringing up years after they happened. I don’t think I do that much, but I’ve been on the receiving end of it, and yes, that makes me angry. It’s so easy to get angry with someone else’s anger, too, and escalate the thing up into something truly hideous.
I feel anger as a physical tension in my body, and there’s a definite relationship between it, and anxiety. A lot of my anxiety has to do with the things I am also angry about. I don’t want them to happen to me again. I don’t want to be a victim. I’m angry because I am afraid, and afraid because I am angry and round it goes. Live there and it will make you very, very ill. My experience of angry people suggests that a significant number (but not all) are angry defensively, trying to protect themselves from wrongs and threats, real and imagined. When the threats are real, the anger can be useful. When the threats are imagined, the anger is as dangerous to the person holding it as to anyone else. Someone who has got into the habit of feeling afraid may no longer be able to tell the difference. There are people who are determined to cast themselves in the victim role so as to justify lashing out in anger against others as well.
There are people who seem to enjoy being angry. It can, after all, feel powerful. And yes, the righteous anger that throws off the chains of slaves and brings down tyrannies is a good kind of power, but that can get addictive. Of course when we are angry we want to believe that we have the moral high ground and are entitled to hit out, with words or fists. We want to feel good about manifesting our rage. Movies are full of examples of ‘heroes’ who do just this, reinforcing our beliefs about how good it is to crush the opposition. Only it isn’t good. It leads to retaliation and feuds. It leads to broken relationships that cannot be fixed. As soon as you get into win/lose scenarios, everyone loses.
It’s not easy stepping away from what you firmly believe to be righteous indignation. That hunger for justice, that need to have your pain recognised, the desire that other people should do something about it… I’ve seen what it does. I’ve yet to see someone come out of the angry place actually happy with the outcome. It’s not about the winning, it’s about what the being angry does to you. It robs you of peace. It keeps you revisiting all the things that hurt. There comes a time to put it behind you, learn what you can and move on. Where that place is will vary depending on person and circumstance of course, it’s not for anyone else to dictate who should be ‘over it’ by now.
I’m alert to signs that people are angry because they are afraid. Sometimes those can be eased with a gentler, more careful approach. I’m not going to be angry with someone because they need me to be more careful with them – that would be pointless, and would entrench the fear. I’ve had people get angry with me on those terms, it achieves nothing good, and creates more misery. If I think someone just enjoys being angry, I’ve learned not to argue because there’s no point, it just makes them worse. Better to walk away and come back if they calm down. I’m not interested in being a whipping post.
My own anger, I am trying to turn into something else. I’m not prepared to let it keep me in an afraid place. Anger can also feed courage. It can be the motivation to stand up and say or do what is necessary – not to strike back, not to lash out or to hurt but to calmly face down and try to fix. The kind of anger that would enable me to calmly support other people who need help, and calmly not escalate things when other people are being bloody stupid. It’s not about supressing the feelings, or not experiencing anger, it’s not letting it run on and not wilfully feeding it to get to some dramatic shouty place, and not enabling the people around me to go their either. Not that I live with anyone shouty anymore, but there’s a whole world out there…