It happened so unexpectedly and quickly that I got caught up into it without thinking. I made an innocuous but clumsy remark, someone took offense, I apologized, the other wouldn’t let it go. And that’s when I felt myself getting angry. And, for a brief moment, all I wanted to do was lash out and wound the other. I was able to step back and take a deep breath. But the anger… the sensation of feeling angry… stayed in my body for quite a long time after the incident.
Anger is a primary emotion, one that we need to express in order to stay healthy. It allows us to fiercely defend ourselves and our loved ones when they’re being threatened.
Often we feel called to fiercely defend our own integrity when it is being threatened or maligned, as in my example above. Sometimes the threat is real. But sometimes we’re projecting memories of early childhood wounding on to this “threat” as we perceive it. Our sense of vulnerability creates a deeply felt need to protect ourselves. And so we lash out at our real, or imagined, attacker.
Anger also allows us to defend that which we believe in so deeply that this belief defines us. When I see someone showing cruelty or disrespect towards other humans, animals, or any being in nature, I feel disgust. And disgust, like contempt, is an expression of anger. The anger I feel comes from my deepest belief that all life should be treated with respect and reverence.
And this is where things get tricky. Because anger can prompt us to attack when we want to defend and collective anger, collective indignation, can start riots and wars. And so we have learned to curb our anger, to be polite, and to think before we act. So expressing anger can get complicated. A friend sighed the other day, “I need to express my anger more, I wish I could find a civilized way to do it!”
When we keep anger, especially old anger from early wounding, inside us, it eats away at us like a poison. Bottled-up anger can be the underlying cause of many physical symptoms: high blood pressure, heart disorders, stomach ulcers, sleep disorders, etc. And sometimes we think we’re keeping the anger inside, but our defensive reactions betray our disowned anger.
David Whyte, in one of his recent essays, speaks of the essence of anger:
“ANGER at its heart, is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.” (from his upcoming book of essays, CONSOLATIONS, a book I am very much looking forward to!)
Can we, can I, learn to live with the “internal living flame of anger” in such a way that it burns clean and bright without turning into a dark poison?