Wednesday, March 13, 2013
The Upside of Anger
“Just like our organs, our anger is part of us. When we are angry, we have to go back to ourselves and take good care of our anger. We cannot say, ‘Go away, anger, I don’t want you.’ When you have a stomachache, you don’t say, ‘I don’t want you stomach, go away.’ No, you take care of it. In the same way, we have to embrace and take good care of our anger.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Most of us have a problem with accepting anger. This is completely understandable: anger fuels hatred and war. It harms and destroys. Anger has brought a lot of fear to many lives, including my own. Anger kills.
We associate anger with violence, destruction and a whole host of frightening things and it’s for good reason. I will come out and admit it, though: I am, at times, angry. Very, very much so. Living in a world where billions of sensitive beings are brutalized and slaughtered, where girls in India are sold by their parents as terrified young brides, where West African children are kept as slaves in order for corporations to sell cheap candy bars at convenience stores: why on earth wouldn’t I be angry? The things that anger me are a truly renewable resource: dead zones in the oceans, demeaning billboards, the culture that drives so many teen girls to self-loathing and eating disorders. Every day, I add something new or sharply underline an item on the list that already loops around the moon and back. I’m not ashamed to admit this.
At my core, though, I am essentially a happy person. Years ago, I made promise to myself that I would be happy and I am fortunate enough to have a particular predisposition that allows me to make good on that promise. The people who know me in person know that I love to laugh and have fun. If I had a dollar, though, for each time someone who does not know me called me angry based on my responses to the things that chip away at my heart, I could buy an island off Tahiti and fill it with my own private army of people who wave their angry fists at the sky all day long. What fun would that be, though?
How do I explain this seeming incongruity between the very real anger and equally real joy that I feel? I think that it comes down to how the anger is worked through: is it allowed to fester and warp us, forcing us to bend to it, or can we consciously work it out of ourselves, and, in the process, create something that makes the world just a little bit, or even a lot, better? Channeling anger into something that is productive - in other words, something that I consider necessary, expansive, helpful and worthwhile - makes me very happy; it’s almost a process of wizardry. I swear, I see sparks sometimes. At its best, anger gives those of us who possess it access to a potentially transformative experience.
Almost all of the projects I’ve worked on that I am most proud of have germinated from that seed of anger, no matter how positive they become in the nurturing process. That seed of anger is rooted in a deep desire for creating something different, and that is how it flowers. Without the seed of anger, though, I don’t know that I would have that initial drive to create change. Anger provides the fuel that I first need to get out of the inertia that despondency and helplessness fosters. Here is an example of my process: after seeing the success of a “humane meat” festival, and seeing it become less and less friendly toward vegans, I thought, “Why on earth don’t we have a vegan festival in Chicago? There are lots of us! It’s ridiculous that we don’t have our own festival. That really ticks me off. Stupid happy meat! What could I do? What could I do? Damn it, I could help to start a vegan festival.” It was with this initial flash of discontent and anger that Chicago VeganMania, our region’s largest free festival of its kind, was born almost five years ago.
The downside of anger, I think, comes from misdirection, stagnation, or turning anger into violence against another or oneself. Stewing in anger without transforming it into conscious and productive creative action is what is destructive and where we go backwards. The time we need to feel that anger and find our pathways to transformation is essential to the process, though, and I fear that with society’s negative messaging about anger, many will deny themselves the profound metamorphosis it offers us. Sitting with and simply allowing our anger, accepting it, is how we begin to harness and transform it. Where would we be as a society without the fury of Stonewall, without the white-hot gall of the Suffragettes, without the moral outrage of the Abolitionists? They weren’t just screaming in the streets: they created newspapers, art and music. They influenced culture and helped nudge society toward progress. Yes, peace and rainbows have their place but so does discontent and we need to honor that. Maybe we would be where we are now, maybe those in power would have willingly ceded their privileges if given enough time. Should those who are oppressed and killed, though, be asked to wait while polite requests are considered? Should the dysfunctional power dynamic inherent in making such requests be reinforced?
What really transforms the world? Love. But to get to love, we need to start somewhere, and sometimes, it is in the bright, hot embers of anger where we find the spark that we need to turn despair into positive action. Don’t be afraid of it. Cultivating a joyful life is the biggest way that we can influence others but a little anger has its place in getting us there.