Anger is a Gift

Holy Anger, part 2

So – my brothers who are accustomed to using anger to assert and reinforce your power, and my sisters who are newly claiming the power of anger – some things that might be worth keeping in mind.

First, anger is a gift. Anger arises when we feel an injustice. Whether the injustice is that your spouse keeps leaving dirty dishes around under the apparent assumption that you’ll take care of them, or a social systemic injustice against a whole class of people, we get mad. And that anger is the energy to confront and correct the injustice.

Rosa Parks used her anger to bring change. Forget the story you might have heard that she decided not to give up her seat on the bus because she happened to be tired that day. Rosa Parks was angry about the way blacks and women were treated and she used that anger to fuel a life of anti-racist, anti-sexist activism. Her action of staying in her seat was planned, and came out of conversations with organizing groups, as a strategy for getting arrested and having a case to take to court to challenge segregation laws – and for catalyzing what would become the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Before that, the anger of the suffragists fueled the drive that got women the right to vote. It took 72 years from the 1848 Seneca Falls convention to the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment. That’s a lot of energy to sustain a drive – keep it going almost three generations – and anger helped fuel that.

Holy anger is the righteous anger to confront power and push it in the direction of justice. It is the anger of the prophet Amos, when he reproves the powers of Israel:
“because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain,...you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate....Hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate....I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them;...But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Anger is a gift. It arises when we feel an injustice, and gives us the energy to confront and correct the injustice.

Second, watch out for indulging anger. It is not productive but destructive when anger is used as an excuse for abuse, verbal or physical. You might hear: “I was just so angry I couldn’t help myself, and I hit her.” The answer to be very clear on is: No. Anger does not excuse violence. Had there been a police officer standing right there you wouldn’t have hit, even if your anger level was the same, so whatever you need to do to summon an inner officer of the law, that’s what you need to do. I’ll help you in what ways I can, or a counselor can help, but it’s ultimately your responsibility to choose what to do with anger.” Verbal or physical abuse is one form of indulging anger. We indulge anger when we let it be destructive rather than channeling that energy of righteous indignation into action for justice.

Sometimes we can get to a point where some part of us actually enjoys the sensation of anger – and we indulge it just because we like feeling righteous, but we don’t do anything about it.

If we’re getting angry about wrongdoing, but aren’t taking action -- if we just talk and think about how angry we are, how bad people on the other side are – if we only repost slogans on social media, getting angrier and angrier – that’s also a form of indulging anger. It stresses us out, makes it harder to sleep. If it becomes a habit, the energy of anger becomes an obstacle to rather than the energy for positive work for justice. Anger that is doing nothing but making you snarky, mean, and sleep-deprived does not need to be indulged. Watch out for indulging anger.

Third, watch out for repressing anger. My motto is: neither indulge nor repress. This was not an easy motto for me to get to. I grew up – white, educated, middle-class in the 60s and 70s. We didn’t know much about expressing anger except by indulging it – so we repressed it. The only way to not repress it was to indulge it, and the only way not to indulge it was to repress it.

Anger needs to be recognized. Know what anger feels like, and check in with yourself a lot. Is anger there? If so, then you can make a decision about what you want to do with it. You might decide, “I’m going to just set this aside for now because I have these other things to do.” That’s not repressing – it’s not denying that you have anger. If someone were to ask you, “How did you feel about what I just told you?” You can answer, “I have some anger about that. But I don’t see any positive action to take, or I’ll plan to come back to the issue later, so for now I’m just setting that anger aside.” That’s very different from repressing the anger and saying, “I’m not angry.”

If anger is ringing your doorbell, you can say, “Hello, there, Anger. Come on in,” or you can say, “I’m busy right now.” But what isn’t a good idea is pretending you don’t hear the door bell.

Strive to always recognize anger – and sometimes express it. Expressing can turn into indulging if we’re expressing the same anger over and over and not going anywhere with it. But expressing is often a vital element in working out what it means and what to do about it.

Whether you express it in a calm way – “I’m having some anger about that” – or express it in a large and loud way, waving your arms and yelling, “My God, this is messed up!” – is a reflection of how your culture expresses anger. Whatever your culturally preferred mode of expression may be, expressing it can be a helpful stage toward either the anger dissipating or toward focusing the energy on some actions to take.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Holy Anger"
See next: Part 3: Anger's Sacred Place
See also: Part 1: Male Anger Won the Day
Images from Shutterstock, free version by permission

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