The story of our anger
I have a new upstairs neighbor. I’ve not yet met him, but I’ve seen him; he’s a big dude. Tall and sturdy. And I could tell the moment he moved in because this big dude also has a big footstep. The stomper, I’ve nicknamed him in my head.
The other morning the general sounds of stomping and thudding that I hear at various times of the day turned obviously different. I could hear things being slammed to the floor and the shouting of expletives. I tried to stay calm as I sipped my coffee in my chair attempting to read, but as he was angrier, so was I beginning to be.
Can’t I just have my morning in peace, I wanted to yell. But I didn’t yell that and I didn’t yell anything else either only because I was putting in effort. Only because I was actively paying attention and actively trying not to react by yelling my own expletives.
Anger is a difficult emotion in this way. It can feel uncomfortable and out of control; certainly even dangerous at times. Most of us want to stop feeling it as quickly as possible.
But I would argue that it’s not really the anger itself that we fear, it’s what we might do with it. It’s when we say something regrettable to someone we care about or maybe we break something dear to us. We feel bad about these things, we wish we could take them back, and so we curse the anger that drove us to behave in this way.
Anger, however, is not in itself inherently bad. It’s biological; it’s there for a reason.
Anger arises when we are thwarted from a goal. This is why most of us get frustrated with traffic. We are trying to get somewhere, we have a purpose, and we can literally do nothing but sit there. That is not our nature. So once the traffic breaks up your lead foot is on the pedal - you are GOING to make that meeting on time.
Our anger in the face of these obstacles, then, keeps us moving.
Anger also alerts us to injustice and drives us to want to act to correct it. Without anger there would be no righteous indignation, there would be no protesting, there would be no uprising, there would be no change.
This, however, is what tends to give anger its bad name. Its very nature pushes us to discharge it - that’s its point - but too often, because we don’t understand it or where its really coming from, we take it out on whatever is closest in proximity. We don’t know how to direct it, we just know we need to get rid of it.
That’s very normal. We seek to rid ourselves of difficult feelings.
But in what may seem like a paradox, the quickest way to do that with anger is to take the time to put it where it really belongs. Just letting it out anywhere may feel better for a moment, but it’s not really going to get the job done. Our anger is pretty smart - it knows when it’s being tricked - and it will bubble back up when we haven’t addressed its true source.
When you’re angry at the guy who cut you off in traffic, for instance, look a little deeper. Maybe what’s really going on is that you’ve been late too often recently and you’re scared that your boss is going to think that you don’t really care about your job. Or maybe you’re upset with your spouse because they used all the gas in your car without telling you so you had to stop, which meant you started out behind.
What does not work is pretending like we aren’t angry. What does not work is telling ourselves - in any way - that we should not be feeling angry. Feelings don’t arise in us because we’re good people or not; feelings arise in us because we are human. And anger, in particular, arises not because we are broken, but as proof that we are not.
So while anger may never be comfortable, it can be a comfort. It’s a warning system of sorts, like a fire alarm there to protect us, acting quickly before even our minds have a chance to catch up.
Realizing all of this doesn’t make anger any easier, but it just might help us to at least relate to it differently and then perhaps, to the benefit of us all, to use it more wisely.