Last week during our meditation group as we were reading through our current book, One City, A Declaration of Interdependence by Ethan Nichtern, we read a passage that mentioned the quote in the above picture: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. He went on to say:
“Anger contains a great deal of wisdom, especially the wisdom to know what is wrong, both within us and around us. Anger is also the necessary inspirational fuel for changing any negative situation into a more positive one…Anger is what gets us off our asses and drives us toward transformative action…It can even be helpful to get angry at our own shortcomings if we can do it without falling into that bottomless crater of guilt and inadequacy…Like any power source, it can be deadly if not handled properly, and helpful if used skillfully.”
It gave me pause to hear some of these words spoken aloud during our reading time. “Hmmm…” I thought to myself, “I’m not sure I entirely agree with ol’ Ethan here.” I’m also not sure I agree with the above quote. While I understand what it’s getting at I’m not so sure that outrage is what’s required or should be sought after in regards to being faced with pervasive world issues, such as: poverty, war, injustice, violence, and so on. I’m not so sure that awareness should be equated to “an act of wanton (done, shown or used) cruelty or violence” (as outrage is defined by dictionary.com). And I’m fairly certain that anger is not, in fact, necessary in regards to changing something negative into something positive, as Ethan suggests.
I don’t, however, want to quickly discount what the writer has said though either. He makes some good points for sure. What offers me personal reflection is my own journey with anger and taking action. For many years after encountering Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness tradition I remained conflicted about the anger I felt towards individuals, companies, our government, and western culture in regards to environmental degradation and poor conduct. Not only did I feel my anger was the right way to be but I justified so many of my ill-directed thoughts and actions through this anger as well as a righteous stance in my eco-crusade to save the world. I was in my early 20’s and thought that anger was indeed necessary to affect change, just as Ethan said. When I started cultivating a mindfulness practice I was challenged to approach this matter differently and question my construct of anger = action. As I grappled with this I began seeing more clearly that my anger, while motivating on some level, was quite destructive and inhibitive on another. Anger was ultimately a very toxic emotion for me to be carrying around, period. And while it did cause me to get off my duff and get involved it also caused me to form massive separations between myself and others. It fueled my self-righteousness and caused me to be wildly unhappy and divisive.
Over the span of many years I was eventually able to deepen my practice and come to realize that anger was in fact not a necessary component in the ability to take action. There was a possibility of becoming grounded in compassion and understanding, with genuine concern and care, and acting from that place instead of from anger, malice, and judgement. There are skillful ways to work with anger, absolutely. We should be careful not to stuff it or cover it up or turn a blind eye to it as well. Anger is not an inherently “bad” thing. It’s part of life, part of being human, after all. However, I would venture to say that the chances of our misusing it is very great. It can be dangerous to get caught in the thinking that anger is a justifiable response to something that happens. Anger is not a joining force. It does not create a strong foundation for communication, connection, and mutual understanding to develop. Perhaps anger can get us started in a particular direction but if we hold onto it there’s only so much we’ll be able to accomplish with it riding shotgun (pun intended). With anger as our propellant we’ll eventually run out of steam, becoming exhausted and deflated. Anger does not allow for one to live a happy, healthy life or inspire others to do so.
In the fourth of the Five Mindfulness Trainings it states:
When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person.
In response to Ethan’s suggestion that anger can even be helpful in relation to our shortcomings I’m not so sure this is great advice to doll out. Again, I think the potential for misuse and causing more harm is very high. We tend to give ourselves an incredibly hard time about all kinds of things and I have difficulty in thinking this wouldn’t further fuel our common habit energy for self-ridicule and disgust. It would be extremely challenging to direct anger at what we perceive are our shortcomings and not get sucked down that “bottomless crater of guilt and inadequacy.” I think there is more potency in the quote from Benjamin Franklin than in the first quote at the top of this post. To me, the process of recognizing, accepting, embracing, and letting go is of greater value and benefit than allowing our anger to take hold and run the show as some kind of necessary motivator. I think we affect more lasting change when we can do so not with anger but with the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood. Perhaps, though, anger is sometimes necessary to rattle complacency and inspire transformation to take place. Hmmm… What do you think?