Anger

Anger ranks as one of the great delusions of all time. It is also a perfector and a creator. Anger rises from pain, but pays in secret joy. Anger is a kick, not only in the ass, but also for the gleeful, vindictive heart. Anger is the bribe and reward of ignorance, but also the fount of just revolution and a righter of wrongs.

Dignity spurned works for justice, but only if it self-aware, only if it knows its own dignity. Dignity ignorant of itself, when spurned, may instead strike out, or grow cold and silent, fearful, a victim, waiting in revenge. There is, put dubiously simply, a righteous anger, which is both the very worst and the very best sort of anger. It is the worst anger, since it is anger hyped up within itself, anger certain of its right and of the virtue of the destruction it is about to unleash. We live in righteous times.

Yet anger that is truly righteous does not claim righteousness out of hurt or ignorance, but out of a calm awareness that knows what is right. Let us not argue about what is right. I suppose only that you recognize something as right. Let me speak of that. I appeal to some deep central truth of your worldview, something vital and important to your sense of justice, fairness, and self-respect. For there are such “rights,” and they do get wronged. In these cases, anger is indignation, and justly so. There are senseless wrongs in the world, no shortage in fact of great injustices; for the world is unfair, and humanity is not universally led by the pure or the humane. If any such world tragedy should land close to your door, like a plane falling out of the sky, or a plague, then you too may know a rightful anger, a sore outrage grounded in high principle.

Still, a right to feelings (even right feeling) is not a right to act impulsively out of those feelings. The best and noblest motives lie behind many a terrible atrocity. That of course does not make them right, at best only well-intentioned. But let us not argue about what is right. I assure you there are many examples on which we would agree. For all our talk of moral differences, moral commonalities are profound and abound. We are right to rage at indignity; but only right, and not rage, should lead us.

Rage is no guide. Anger is not wisdom. But anger comes. We do well to feel it and to find it. We do better to name it. We each have our triggers that stick us and irritate the craw. A trigger may be as sudden or as simple as a pistol shot, or it may be cumulative, building slowly over time like a slight but steady nagging. Bit by bit the sensitive self is engorged; anger escalates; little digs accumulate until suddenly, like a geyser, a stream of bitterness and invective erupts. In the heat and crisis of this moment, reason and cognition are suppressed. It is no time to think. Reason here has nothing to say, but proves itself in patience. When the worst is over, the adrenaline takes some time to drain; only slowly are energy and balance restored. The next step may be depression, regret, and tears. These too pass, and thus the cycle continues. Thus we roll and roil in anger. But by knowing this, and naming the cycle while it is unravelling, we can, with inner skill, come to stop it.

Anger begins in pain, but pain does not cause anger. Anger is only one option in response to pain. But anger often bursts, and people say they had no choice. Later it subsides, and the explanations of helplessness get constructed. Denial and justification are the typical aftermath. “The god Ares possessed him”, “a natural instinct to survival kicked in”, “the testosterone did it”, “she was asking for it.” Here free will is given a terrific pretext and excuse. Anger overtakes us, overcomes us, and we play passive hostage to our passions. (Here reason disproves itself with impatience, and spins lies whenever self-disapproval grows intolerable).

Anger feels like a triumph and a liberation, but it is a capture. The will feels like it is free, but there is the press of the moment, and reason standing by ready to concoct a self-serving account. Anger is ignorance and unfreedom. But anger is also choice, not in the way that one may choose to raise one hand, then the other; but in the way that education is a choice. The choice, once taken, is followed by all the hard work. It must be made once and for all, but thereafter again and again to advance. Anger is a choice in that there are alternatives to acting out of anger. These opportunities may already be lost when a great swell of anger has arisen. But like the choice for an education, the choice against anger is prospective, with reference to the improvements next time. The hard work begins after the choice, to which one must recommit over and over for success to be assured.

If pain makes us vulnerable, anger provides a shield. While it defends from without, it provides cover for what is within, hiding it from scrutiny and awareness. Under the protection of darkness, the energy circles, waiting, hoping for a moment of release. If it cannot find one, or if it is fearful of finding one (for anger expressed may invite a worse reply, and only the wrathful Lord knows where that will lead...), it can do only one thing, namely find an inner object to abuse, something below the shield, like the self-image. Thus pain leads to anger and anger is thwarted to self-abuse and depression.

Bottling up anger is natural and understandable, but it is folly as well. Breaking the bottle, striking out in anger, is also natural and understandable, but it is equally folly.

I end with the reward of righteousness, false and true. Anger pays. Anger rewards. Know the deep abandon and joy in the centre of your anger. It is your fix, the habit you may only renounce once you admit it. The Germans have a lovely name for it: Schadenfreude - the joy we find in the suffering of others. The honest soul must confess it. Anger exploits this feeling, boosting it with the sadistic pleasure of creating the very suffering that one is gloating over. The moment of righteous rage is its own reward (the costs show up later). Nietzsche, the inflamed philosopher, has charted this ground very well. He quipped that Dante got it wrong in saying Hell was created by the love of God; rather, Heaven, the reward of the righteous, was created by the stifled fury and hatred of...the lovers of God. Inverting the moral dictum that we love those who hate us, he challenged us to conceive a contempt for what we love. Nietzsche reclaimed a conscious righteous anger.

Don’t get mad, get even? I say: don’t get even, get even better.

Reward yourselves. Kick loose. Storm the gates of truth.