Both Jesus and the Buddha taught that the truth could set us free, but for many of us truth is an impossibility forever hidden by the elaborate, subversive arrangements of our own anger. Like the violent waves of a hurricane exploding upon a sandy beach, anger seems to pound upon us almost daily, buffeting us hither and yon in storms of anxiety and rage.
No matter how maturely you vow to approach each day, how carefully you select your home and occupation, or how decent your pursuits, anger still finds you. You are cut off on the highway, bumped out of line at the supermarket, cursed by children, and virtually mugged by salespeople.
While you would love to remember the kindly individual who held the door open for you, more often than not, it is only the jerk who stole your parking spot that you remember at the end of the day. The world is certainly filled with its share of rudeness, pomposity, and downright meanness, and sooner or later we all react the same. Our blood pressure soars, jaws tighten, and our hearts begin to pound. We get angry!
Anger is a natural response. In many situations, that response is justified. Anger in the face of abuse or severe injustice can serve as a catalyst for profound change. At times — as when faced with an enraged or dangerous individual — anger can mitigate a potential attack, or even save a life.
Anger is an intense confluence of one or more negative emotions: confusion, self-righteousness, desire, fear, jealousy, etc. In the least psychologically mature individuals, that confluence can be chaotic, constant, and overwhelming; anger becomes almost a way of life. As we grow, however, we slowly learn to deal with our anger so that it gradually ceases to overwhelm us.
Even the most capable individuals have episodes of anger, but when they occur they are almost always handled with purpose, control, and some degree of skill. Thus, as we develop, anger becomes something we learn to manage. It was Jesus, after all, who ran the moneylenders out of the temple in a table-tossing rage.
So anger, like a knife, is handled mindlessly by immature individuals, slashing and damaging everything around them with no thought as to the consequences, while that same anger in the hands of the more seasoned individual is utilized just as a surgeon handles a scalpel: for healing. Same instrument, very different results.
I recall very well, for instance, a confrontation I witnessed one summer years ago while working my way through college as a labourer. A truckload of steel pulled into the factory where we were putting up a new relay building. The driver of this truck — I’ll call him Ed — was always loud and angry, and on this day he was particularly so. He had nothing good to say, and when he could not immediately pull his truck into the spot he desired, he virtually charged the guard on duty — I’ll call him Frank — spitting, shouting, and cursing at the top of his lungs. Ed was a big man I would have certainly thought twice about confronting in such a situation. Frank, on the other hand, was a small and gentle individual who rarely spoke above a whisper, and “on paper” seemed no match for the enraged driver.
Yet it was Frank who rose from his seat and strode fearlessly across the pavement in front of the guardhouse, marching directly into Ed’s path, where he stopped and planted both feet firmly. Ed stopped in his tracks. Then Frank pointed his finger at the driver’s nose, cursed a blue streak you could hear a quarter of a mile away, and informed Ed in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t move his truck to the proper space, he would have him and his tractor thrown off the lot for good.
It was a sight to behold, yet the truly interesting thing was not the confrontation so much as its aftermath. The truck driver, Ed, returned to his truck, moved it to the proper spot, and then began fretting, cursing, and tossing pieces of steel off the rear with no mind to their direction.
Frank, on the other hand, returned to the guardhouse as if nothing had happened. He picked up his book and began reading where he had left off without the slightest outward sign of his anger or recent tirade. Later, when I went in for a cup of water, I asked him how he managed to stay so cool, and all he did was smile and brush the whole thing off. “That’s the only thing he understands,” is all he said.
It was an interesting study. Frank, a reasonably mature individual, knew instinctively how to handle his anger, and he used it almost like a tool he might employ on the job, say, a spade or pick. He brought it out, did the job, and then let it go once the task was complete.
Ed, on the other hand, did not use anger like Frank at all, but rather was almost consumed by it. It drove him, raged through all aspects of his life, and, like a wildfire, seemed to char every thought he had.
So anger itself really isn’t the problem. Anger that is justified, that is a temporary reaction and is therefore managed (anger like Frank’s), is something we can use and then let go of. But most anger is not managed. Most people do not use anger, but rather are used by it, and the worst form of anger, the most deeply entrenched and therefore the most toxic, is the variety we direct against ourselves, in its entire spectrum of psychopathological forms.
Thus it is important to understand that anger is a natural occurrence, and that managing it is far more important than simply having — or not having — a dose from time to time. Unfortunately, it is very often the spiritual aspirant who denies this reality, and prefers instead to cling to the fantasy that, by good intentions alone, he or she has somehow moved beyond anger. Not only is this delusional, it is downright dangerous, for rather than managing anger, this delusion demands that the spiritual aspirant must now deny, cut off, repress, or project anger or, in short, subconsciously pretend that he or she has none whatsoever. Like hiding a bomb in the closet rather than defusing it, this tactic almost always leads to an explosion of sorts, for anger returns again and again in a host of various symptoms — depression, psychosomatic illness, unexplainable anxiety, accident proneness, guilt, paranoia, etc. — for many of which the spiritual and religious communities are historically famous.
Indeed, stigmata — of which there are many well-documented cases — may well be one of the most extreme forms of self-hatred imaginable, a pathological behavior in which the spiritual aspirant subconsciously apes the death wounds of Jesus in a state of near-hysteria. Michael Murphy points out in The Future of the Body that virtually all the individuals with documented cases of stigmata were known not necessarily for their saintliness but for their hysterical tendencies. Through psychologically crucifying themselves, they were able to manifest their extreme self-hatred through a form of socially acceptable (even esteemed, from the perspective of the traditional church) behavior, no matter how hateful its origin.
While we can never entirely elude anger, we can, of course, become far less susceptible by simply incorporating more wisdom, compassion, and awareness into our lives. These do not function as an antidote so much as they allow us to understand the world from increasingly more sophisticated points of view, which in turn render anger meaningless. As I mature, for instance, I no longer react with anger in many situations — someone’s snide comment, for instance — that might have set me off in my younger days. Then one day we throw our heads back and laugh out loud in a situation that may have infuriated us years before because we have finally managed to see the foolish irony in a situation where before we sensed only wounded pride. This is why I suspect a good sense of humour may well be one of the clearest indicators of psychological and spiritual maturity.
Let us love ourselves enough to accept ourselves as imperfect, anger and all. Once we do that, anger becomes just one more of those things that makes life both interesting and challenging. One day, perhaps we will all awake to a strange, striking, and universal harmony, no longer to endless bickering, bombs, and dissension, but to a world bursting with the joy of laughter. Now, wouldn’t that be a wonderful sound?