It is a very radical and ancient idea. We can learn to live free from anger. Well, without believing in it and getting caught by it. We will feel it from time to time, but we can loosen its grip and minimize its damage, to ourselves and to those we love.
Anger is a hot ember that will burn down our house, unless we learn to watch it carefully and help it to cool.
The arising of anger is real and valuable. It is our body telling us that we are not okay. But anger in action does nothing good. It never clarifies anything, it never solves a conflict with someone else. It just haunts and torments us, keeping us awake at night and distracting us from our work. We have imaginary conversations in our head about how we will explain to the other person just how awful what they did or said was. And we anyone who will listen because of course they will agree with us about how awful and wrong it was. Can you believe they did that to me?!? It’s like we have a big bruise and we keep pressing on it to demonstrate how much it hurts.
And in our close relationships, the offense is something that has likely happened many times before. So, how is it possible that we are shocked and appalled? Why are we surprised? And why are we keeping score? We react not to the single event, but to the cumulative impact of the entire history of similar events. “You always…” or “You never…” And so our hurt and anger is out of proportion to the event that triggered it.
We feel hurt, disrespected, disregarded. Angry. We stamp our foot and demand that the other person cease and desist. And we are convinced that there is nothing else that we can do. That person is behaving badly. That person is wrong. That person is to blame. That person must change. But this is not correct.
We have control over only one thing in life – our own behavior and understanding. Ironically, unbelievably, this is what needs to change.
We have the option of changing our thinking, our believing, in such a way that we have more peace and happiness. Yes it is natural to respond to anger with anger. But it is not necessary. And it is not helpful.
We can learn to understand that the action or behavior about which we are angry is an event, like a storm, unsettling and beyond our control. And our anger is fueled by our own past experience, our own learned social emotional patterns, our own brain chemistry, our own understanding of what is going on. We can learn to heal this. We can learn to understand that the other person’s thoughtless, hurtful, selfish bad behavior is not about us. It is a product of their pain and their fear, as our own anger is of ours. When we’re happy, when we’re safe, when we have what we need, we are kind and generous. Happy people aren’t mean.
Seneca, the Roman philosopher, proposed the same in his essay On Anger 2000 years ago, as did Jesus and Buddha before him. Peace be with you. Shalom. All spiritual wisdom intersects at this idea, that only through understanding and compassion can we find peace, and anger must be carefully and patiently defused.
We have to first redirect our attention to ourselves, to breathe and not think. We recognize our anger as a physiological event, something we feel in our body – hot and uncomfortable, rather than as a rational assessment of the truth.
So first, we acknowledge our anger, we recognize it and accept it without judgment, and we gather it up in our arms and gently shush it, like the screaming toddler that it is, and right away it quiets a bit. And we ourselves (because we are our anger, at that moment) are comforted just a bit. And if, instead of thinking, obsessing, ranting, we take time to recover, and refrain from doing or saying anything that will cause irrevocable damage, allowing our inner toddler to break things and hurt people, we stay warm and safe and quiet until the storm passes, we can understand things differently in the light of a new day. And we, and the world, will better for it. 🙂