October 26, 2015
There is a strong, and growing, belief in our culture that anger is bad, destructive, and dangerous. There are certainly countless examples supporting this belief, from individual assaults to mass-scale genocides. It is easily understood why this emotion is so feared and there is such a strong movement to fight, deny, or even eliminate it altogether.
But what if this belief is incorrect? What if anger isn’t bad after all?
Anger is an emotion. It is no different from love, hope, fear, or despair. It is a naturally-occurring feeling that has existed as long as there has been mankind. Anger is not inherently bad, nor is it inherently good. What determines whether anger (or any emotion) is dangerous is how it is expressed to the world.
In New England in the summer of 2014, there was a major labor dispute at the grocery chain Market Basket. Without delving into the details of the situation, there was a massive strike and boycott of the stores stemming from the mistreatment and disrespect of both its employees and a member of the family owning the chain.
The strike and associated boycott were rooted in anger. There was a strong and deep sense of “This just is not right.” The daily demonstrations were all peaceful. They were rooted in anger, but this anger was expressed in a healthy way. By the end of the dispute, not one store had been vandalized, not one window broken, and there was not one episode of looting or rioting.
Anger is not an emotion we are typically comfortable with. As a culture, we are not particularly adept at handling any “negative” emotion. Being so unaccustomed to loss and embarrassment, for example, there is rioting when a college or professional sports team loses a championship game.
Without a doubt, anger has left a long history of destruction in its wake. Yet it is not inherently a bad thing. It is okay to be angry. Just as it is okay to be sad. Or happy. Or utterly humiliated. These may not all be particularly fun emotions to sit in, but they are a part of life. As we can gain some familiarity with them, as we can acknowledge their existence, we take away their destructive power.
FDR famously quipped, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear is not a bad thing. We may not like it, but it is an okay emotion to experience. When we work so hard to fight fear, to prevent it from arising, and deny its existence, we only make it stronger. If I am crossing the street and car skids on the ice and is heading straight for me, I will absolutely experience fear. That fear will help me get out of the way.
To transcend the conditioned associations we have with anger (or any “negative” emotion), we must acknowledge its presence. There is tremendous power in that acknowledgment. When we are able to say, to ourselves as well as to the outside world, “I am scared,” or, “Wow, that’s embarrassing,” we are no longer bottling that emotion up inside, hoping no one sees it, hoping it won’t come out in a bad way. The irony is that the more we hold it in, the more likely it is that it will eventually come out in a destructive way.
|Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
-Viktor E. Frankl
Meditation can be a powerful tool to this end. Learning to see things as they are, without the need to do anything in the moment in response to what arises, helps us build that space between stimulus and response.
Take some time to consider the good/bad associations you may have with different emotions. Ask yourself if you can find other ways to respond to these emotions rather than your default. Begin to take ownership of your own response to emotions, and you free yourself from their potential destructive behavior.
Feel free to join us at our weekly meditation groups to practice witnessing without judgment and gaining some healthy separation from stimulus and response.