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By Brianna Wiest
“Our emotional life maps our incompleteness,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum once wrote. “A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger.” Twenty five centuries ago, the Buddha realized that one of the three most destructive states of mind was anger. It’s since been analogized to drinking poison in hopes that your enemy will die, a symptom of the unwise. In the words of Marcus Aurelius: “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it?”
It’s interesting how the emotions that we most often ascribe to “negativity” are the ones that most inherently facilitate our survival or well-being. We oppose anxiety, call it an epidemic, yet fail to recognize that it is only induced as a form of motivation. (We suffer when it is misguided, or overused.) Likewise, anger is transformative. When you are angry, you are ready to demand or create change. It seems we only focus on the shadow side of anger, not the productivity it could yield if we only knew how to manage it.
Aristotle knew to ask not whether anger is “good” or “bad” but how it shall be used: directed at whom, manifested how, for how long and to what end. – Maria Popova
We judge anger harshly, and as this is the case, it is one of the emotions we suppress the most. In truth, we fear the power that can be born of anger. Without a clear mind, it can become misguided. The philosophy of anger serves to show us just exactly how we can wield it as a force of good.
Anger is the product of an unmet expectation. It is our aversion to accepting that something is not how we think it should be. It is a burst of energy that is intended to change that thing quickly and swiftly and by any means. However, when it exists in suppression, it only manifests in its shadow form. That is: it seems as though we have no control over how we experience it, or to whom/what we aim it at. We assume that by consciously feeling anger, that loss of control will only become more profound. In reality, it is the opposite.
We are angry even when we are not yelling or throwing a plate across a room. These are just momentary expressions, when the water finally boils over. But to get to that point, it must be heating up for a while. We experience anger as regularly as we do any other feeling, it is only when it goes ignored or silenced that it begins to erupt in such a way.
In the words of Malcolm X, “Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.”
Coping, or healing, from anger has more to do with dismantling attachments than it does learning self-control. It has more to do with learning to direct our desire for change somewhere it can be productive, rather than smash our minds against the proverbial brick wall. It is a message from our most animalistic selves, one that should not be condemned or banished, but trained like the animal itself. As Wendy Mass explains in “Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life,”
“A fight is going on inside me,” said an old man to his son.
“It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf is good. he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you.”
The son thought about it for a minute and then asked, “Which wolf will win?”
The old man replied simply, “The one you feed.”