It might surprise some of you to know that I consider myself to be an angry person, but it’s true. I have a pretty quick temper, and like most idealists there’s a strong sense of order and fairness within me that gets offended often. That sense of fair play isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can lead us to have strong emotions against the people who we think disrespect it on a frequent basis.
A lot of people think that anger is a negative emotion, but it’s not; it’s simply a difficult one to react constructively with. Acting on anger without thought leads us to do terrible things to other people in the name of “justice” or “revenge”, and that doesn’t really solve anything. It just directs pain somewhere else; instead of dissipating or eliminating it, it’s amplified and channeled. Instead of stopping the behavior that caused the anger in the first place, these actions can often harden the targets of our lashing out. It makes them more defensive, less likely to listen.
I’m seeing this play out in activist circles, and it unnerves and exhausts me. Being angry about the problems we face is a completely reasonable reaction; we’ve noticed how unfair our society is, how few times those in power do the “right” thing by us. As idealists, of course living in a world where anti-social behavior is accepted as “normal” drives us crazy. However, I don’t think we’ve learned how to really think about the best uses of our anger. I’ve mentioned before how it can be a catalyzing force for us to change, or a way that we keep ourselves firmly on the path of social justice. But way too often, I see us lashing out, hardening the very people we should hope to change, demonizing and disconnecting an increasingly large set of people. Our anger is beginning to put us into an echo chamber, where we’re only willing to tolerate the people who think exactly the same way we do.
That’s not good for anyone. So in order to find a better way of dealing with those injustices that are everywhere within the modern world, I have to figure out how to have a better relationship with my anger, to really understand and harness it. For me, the best way to do that is fall back on the foundation of my Zen practice and recommit myself to the precepts and Noble Eightfold Path.
The Four Noble Truths tell us that attachment and desire is the root of all suffering, and the elimination of suffering can be achieved by eliminating our attachments. This is often misunderstood as having no emotions on anything, having no likes or dislikes, simply existing in reaction to whatever stimulus comes our way. That’s a mistake; taking such an extreme view of detachment isn’t consistent with the Middle Way, of course. It’s a form of emotional asceticism, another attachment to a bad idea.
I think what’s happening these days in activist spaces is a deep attachment to our anger. Perhaps we’ve spent so long ignoring or repressing our anger that letting it out just feels too good. It’s an empowering thing to express our anger and have other voices rise up in chorus with it. But that attachment is simply preserving the cycle of suffering; we hold on to our anger, use it to lash out regardless of the situation, and the resulting ill will and alienation just creates more anger in others…who then lash out, and pass on this cycle to someone else.
What detachment really means is being able to disconnect ourselves from our anger just enough to figure out the best way to express it. Sometimes that’s organized protest; sometimes that’s respectful debate; sometimes that’s leaving a situation where it’s clear there is simply no way you will be understood or treated fairly. It depends on a multitude of factors that must be considered before action; even though the stimulus is the same (something offensive happened), the things that gave rise to that stimulus are different and have to be examined both on their own and in relation to one another.
Anger is one powerful emotion, but that doesn’t mean there is only one response to it. We must put our anger in perspective to figure out its proper place and usage each time we encounter it. Knowing more about our emotions, when and how they arise, what our instinctive response may be to it, and how people are likely to react to that all help us out with that work. And one of the ways we learn more about our anger is through meditation, self-reflection and listening to the experiences of our fellow human beings.
As someone who struggles to cope with a variety of strong emotions, it’s very important to me that I have multiple tools at my disposal to manage them. Anger, anxiety, despair and boredom are emotions that I’m very sensitive to; that makes it much more difficult for me to put them in their proper places. But hopefully, with a firm commitment towards Zen, I can do just that.