The other night I received an email asking me to do something that someone had assumed I’d be up for. It would have involved a 700+ mile round trip, with probably no expenses payable, to do a job that I didn’t need to be there for, followed by another job that would probably take a full working week out of my life, all for free.
What was my immediate response? **** right off!
Of course, that wasn’t what I wrote in my reply; I do have an operational brain-mouth filter, even if it does sometime goes on the blink. My reply was polite, if to the point, and took account of the fact that the request was made in all innocence, with no awareness of my health, geographical or financial circumstances. But my immediate, gut level, outraged response was vitally important.
‘Negative’ feelings and self-knowledge
Our immediate emotional response to situations gives us valuable information, if we learn how to absorb it. My outraged response to the email I received told me that someone else had overstepped a line. Whether or not it was the sender’s intent to do so is irrelevant to my self-protective emotional reflexes – and rightly so.
Anger, like fear, is governed by the amygdala, which responds to immediate threat; it isn’t concerned with how I can navigate a situation maintaining friendly relations, only in flashing a great big red light telling me that something isn’t right, and could be about to go very wrong – for me.
I have learned to listen to and respect my anger. My anger lets me know when I am, or am about to be, taken for a ride, or treated like a doormat. It lets me know that my values or my dignity are about to be, or have already been, breached. In this way, it acts as a signpost to greater self-knowledge, showing where my boundaries are, and guiding me on whether, perhaps, those boundaries need to move.
My anger is not nice or pretty, but it is strong, and it demands that I respect myself.
Anger as information
I have also learned to treat my anger as one piece of information – important information, but only one piece among many – in making decisions and taking action.
Because it’s part of a threat alert system, it’s usually the first piece of information to reach my consciousness, all horns blaring.
When I was a child I would react immediately, not waiting for any further information, and as a result had the most spectacular temper. Any slight to my dignity, real or imagined, would get the same all out reaction. I was a very satisfying person to play practical jokes on.
As I grew up a little and realised that this kind of temper reaction was counter-productive, I took to sitting on my anger, squashing it so effectively that I would even deny having any. This fitted well with my ‘spiritual’ self-image, but did me absolutely no favours in terms of emotional and psychological health.
Now, finally, I’ve begun to learn to treat anger as what it is – neither a good basis on its own for action, nor a ‘bad’ or ‘unspiritual’ emotion, but part of my body’s survival system. As such, it is neither good nor bad, but simply is. It’s what I do with it, or because of it, that matters.
“Let fury have the hour, anger can be power; D’you know that you can use it?” – Clampdown by The Clash
Anger can be powerful fuel for action. It points to areas that are out of kilter, whether within ourselves, in a relationship or in a society, and drives us to do something to put things back in order. But anger only gives us power if we give it space, and use it wisely – neither acting on it rashly and selfishly, in only our own narrow interests, nor squashing it down and denying it.
Like fire, anger can be dangerous – it can hurt or even kill if used carelessly or without skill, or left to its own devices. But it can also enhance life, even make life possible. Like fire, anger must be smoored – raked, banked up and covered over so that it does not burn out, nor die out, but retains its core of heat – to be fanned into life when it is needed, as fuel for action.
Fire, managed in this way, is always available to be used to cook a meal, heat water, give light, or scare away wild animals. It becomes the hearth, the centre of the home. Anger managed in this way can transform into focus, drive and energy for action and needed change. It can become a pathway to awareness of our deep connection with one another and with all of Life – a pathway to the heart.
I’d love to know your thoughts. What have your experiences been with skillful – and unskillful – anger and its effects?