Anger: A Signal for Change

In the mid 1980’s, I read a novel by May Sarton: Anger. Because her autobiographic work, The Journal of a Solitude, touched me deeply, I hoped her novel exploring expressions of anger would help me sort out my own experience of anger.

Anger is an emotion which has complicated my life. In the 1980’s, my anger grew more pervasive and poignant. At that time, I was extensively involved in community activism and organization for people living with AIDS. The work was very frustrating. The prejudices I encountered while advocating for the proper care of people with AIDS ran very deep in society. Many efforts were stonewalled while countless young people died horrific deaths. I was angry. The anger was taking over my life. I felt like I was losing myself and becoming my anger.

Sarton’s writing helped me to name the anger and identify the many shades of color which were part of its intensity. Through her writing, I came to understand the ways in which anger would seemingly take possession of my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. I didn’t like the anger. Nor did I like the person I was when I was angry. But I came to understand that the anger was an important dimension of my life. I entered a dialogue with my anger and came to understand why it was there. I came to learn that anger wasn’t my enemy but, like a friend who is sometimes too honest, anger made clear that something was not the way it should be in my life. Anger became a warning sign for me that something in my life needed to be approached differently.

Twenty-five years after exploring anger with the help of May Sarton’s writing, I still experience anger. There are times when it continues to take possession of my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. I recognize that anger is an important part of who I am. Anger causes me to pay attention to what’s not right in my life and to see what needs to change. Sometimes the change needs to be inside of me and sometimes there is a need for something outside of me to change.

Today, in the United States, many, many people are very angry. The anger is real. It has taken possession of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of scores of people. It is as though the nation is shouting with one voice, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” The anger is raw and pervasive. It’s also largely unexamined.

As the anger grows and intensifies, it seeks expression. In looking around the country, we see that anger has led to an increased lack of tolerance for those labeled as “different.”. The anger looms so large that civil discourse, critical thought, and reasoned action have become nearly impossible. Because people are angry, they cannot even recognize when their actions are more harmful to themselves than to anyone else. The expressions of anger in the country are much like an angry young man who breaks his hand by punching a brick wall.

The anger is real and should not be discounted. It should get our attention and not be dismissed. Anger may be related to any of a number of causes including the loss of employment, loss of homes, loss of a sense of well-being, loss of …. yes, so many of us have lost or been deprived of a great deal and all we seem to have left is anger. Yet, no matter the cause, we must take care to not loose ourselves in the anger.

In order to prevent oneself from becoming nothing but the anger, some inner reflection is needed. I’ve learned that it’s critical not to just pay attention to the anger but to examine the actual root. Rarely is the cause, the root of the anger what it first appears to be. For example, the driver who cuts me off on the freeway may elicit the burst of anger, but that’s not the real cause of my anger. The cause may be a lack of proper rest, the experience of stress from multiple sources at once, or generalized feelings of helplessness because the situations of life are beyond my control. It seems that the inner work to identify this connection is what escapes most people. Rather than attending to the root cause, which may be something like financial stress, it’s easier to label the driver who cut me off as the cause. Blaming the driver for my anger may lead to yelling, horn blowing, or extending a one-fingered salute. In these displays of aggression, I merely give my anger to another thus continuing the cycle that leads to growing anger in the world. Yet, my problem still remains. I am still angry and the cause of my anger continues to gnaw at me.

As Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, suggests, cooling the flames of anger is the result of mindful living. In his own book on anger, Thich Nhat Hanh explores how he learned to respond to justifiable anger as he witnessed so much of his homeland destroyed by a war in which friends and family were brutally killed. Neither having a good reason to be angry nor wanting to fight back against injustice is sufficient reason to allow anger to take over one’s life. Instead, the spiritual dimension of life challenges us to understand the root of the anger and to make decisions about how to root the cause out of one’s life. Rooting out the cause often requires both calming the inner flames of anger while also working toward a resolution regarding the root cause of the anger.

As I have noted many times, spirituality is about the way we live. When we allow our lives to be characterized by anger, we bring harm to ourselves and others. Living out of anger destroys life. The anger in American society destroys the life of individuals and destroys our live together as a people.

The resolution of the anger in our country will come when enough people cool the flames of anger and begin to explore the roots of the anger. In doing so, an opportunity can be created to create new solutions for the problems which face us. By recognizing that anger works to alert us of something important, we can take the opportunity to reflect on why anger has entered our lives and what changes in life are needed.

© 2010, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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4 Responses to Anger: A Signal for Change

  1. PCBergen says:

    Dear Lou, I received your article on Anger today from a dear friend, (I had already read it) who got connected to you when I sent her news of your book! She has sent it to her large group of active people at Church of the Apostles here in Tucson. I am delighted that finally your work is getting the exposure it deserves!

  2. THMartindale says:

    Dear Lou Kavar,
    I am dismayed by the anger that spews forth from demonstrations, and quoted remarks from all parts of the media. It seems to me that we have reverted to our 2 year old selves, screaming at our parents or caregivers and stamping our feet and holding our breath until we turn blue and it doesn’t solve anything except to encourage others to get angry and repeat the tantrum.
    Thank you for your reflection for today. I’ve pulled weeds and sung to myself and now maybe I can be more patient with the “Angry”.

  3. Lou says:

    I, too, have been concerned about the anger in the country today and the lack of constructive discourse. As a country, there are serious problems to work through. Instead of moving toward resolutions, we seem to entrench in rigid positions which keep us divided.

  4. Kelli Wilson says:

    Lou – great post. I agree that we are angry. I know I have done a lot of work in this area and my level of anger is directly proportionate to my lack of willingness to accept my situation as it is. Much of my anger shows up when I feel like I cannot control my surroundings and the truth is I cannot control my surroundings – people, places and things, that is. When I accept things as they are and change what I can I feel more calm and present.

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