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The Compassion in Anger

Nina Silver

It was a sermon on the futility of anger, and by the time the speaker finished, I was livid. "Paula," a self-proclaimed Buddhist born into a white middle-class Catholic background, had told the Unitarian Universalist congregation how after years of feminist activism and community organizing, she'd finally learned the limitations of using anger as a motivating tool for social change. "We need compassion," she insisted.

I could hardly dispute that--after all, when isn't compassion needed?--but as Paula continued her lecture, the nagging discomfort I had been feeling ballooned into outright aggravation and mistrust. Rather than speaking from personal experience, Paula quoted famous Buddhist masters and cited the increase in their followers, as if to prove the legitimacy of her position. I squirmed in my seat. Philosophy was being converted to doctrine. Not only did I find this a poor way to teach, I was bored to tears.

Looking around, I saw some people were slumped into the pews, eyes averted or closed. After lecturing for 30 minutes, Paula threw us her coup: "I have come to realize that anger is not at all useful. What good does it do to scream and punch pillows?" And I suddenly found myself sitting bolt upright in that hard uncomfortable pew, glaring. I felt like punching Paula in the mouth.

You see, as a bodymind psychotherapist, I sometimes ask my clients to punch pillows and yell. To further help them access their anger, I press in the tense muscles of the neck, jaw, and abdomen, and then they scream. After years' worth of held-in feeling becomes conscious and expressed, the person relaxes, with more room to accommodate and experience pleasure and joy. Almost without exception, the people I work with find these dynamic techniques to be relieving and healing.

As I continued to hear Paula extol the virtues of "self-control" over one's emotions with the fervor of the converted--and see those in the congregation who weren't sleeping nod knowingly in assent--I began to feel sad as well as angry. Angry, because Paula didn't understand either the value of anger in our lives or her need to find converts to dismiss it. Sad, because compassion, which should be as integral a part of us as eating or breathing, had apparently been so absent from her life that Paula had to specifically lecture us on being compassionate and then jockey it against anger, seeing the two as mutually exclusive. Anger was a "negative emotion," she said, and if you're feeling anger there's no room for compassion. Period.

People in our culture, as in so many others, are very confused about anger. The United States, known for its violence in the media and on the streets, glorifies anger, but only in its macho form: coolly and without passion, one step removed--and thus not real. Then we have the so-called spiritual viewpoint that anger is at best limited and at worst, destructive. Another extreme, commonly ascribed to political radicals, holds that whoever is conspiring against our happiness/person/rights/prosperity deserves to have the shit kicked out of them before they do more damage. Given Paula's so-called Buddhist perspective, one might conclude that those maintaining a "spiritual" belief have compassion, while the unruly radicals whom Paula skewered, do not. But the world does not run simply, nor does it follow an either/or system. To plow through this muddle, we need a good working definition of anger and its related emotions. As you read the definitions below, remember that there is a world of difference between focused intent and undifferentiated wrath.

Anger is the emotion I feel when you do or say something that encroaches on my boundaries--where I don't feel respected because you have hurt my feelings, disregarded my wishes, or inconvenienced my way of doing things.
If my anger substantially intensifies, but I remain aware of the source of the violation, I may feel rage.
Resentment is the unexpressed anger that I have allowed to simmer because I failed to confront you at the time of transgression, and instead, held my anger in.
Hostility is resentment that has built up over an even longer period of time. By now, the anger has been repressed and the original source of the hurt has been ignored, denied, or forgotten. Because I have stuffed down the memory of the action but been unable to eliminate the feeling, I must create substitute reasons as to why I am experiencing the hurt. As long as the reason for the original hurt is not addressed, the anger cannot be satisfactorily discharged, and I'll continue to feel injured and frustrated.

How does this translate in practical terms? Let's say you're my killjoy mother who constantly humiliated me as a child. Ever since I can remember, you told me I had too much imagination and no common sense, that my dream of being a fine artist was unrealistic, and I'd never amount to anything as long as I insisted on shilly-shallying around. I became quiet for two reasons: one, because you undermined my confidence and I became insecure; and two, if I had insisted that I had a right to my aspirations, you would have only badgered and humiliated me more. You took my inhibition and silence as agreement with your position. But underneath my particular manner of coping, I was angry.

Because I was just a kid, I couldn't express my anger, so as I grew up, my anger turned into resentment. Through the years, I resented you for trying to control other aspects of my life just as you had tried to control my creativity as a child. However, now that I am an adult, I can simply remove myself from your presence whenever you get on my case and start asking me if I still mess around with those stupid canvasses. But I don't talk to you about my long-standing hurt. Instead, I cut our visits short and go my own way, free of your meddlesome nagging--or so I think. I take stress-reduction classes and try to enjoy life. After all, I don't have to talk to you if I don't want to, so why be angry?

It is fifteen years later. You are celebrating your sixty-fifth birthday with a huge party. When I arrive, I give you my present of a powder blue doohickey, priding myself that I've "risen above" the earlier difficulties between us enough to be magnanimous and give you a carefully selected gift. But then comes the explosion. You casually ask me where I got the doohickey so you can return it, because a neighbor gave you the same doohickey in pink, which you prefer. Your comment instantly plugs me in to a much more intense and vicious thoughtlessness of the past. I react by blasting you in front of all the guests about what a horrible mother you are, that I searched long and hard for that doohickey because I thought you'd like it, and now all I'm getting from you is flak about my being a worthless daughter. Furthermore, I shriek, why did you hold your party on a Sunday? You always had a knack for ruining my weekends, and now you're doing it again. Not caring if my points make sense or not, I rattle on and on. After years of resenting you because I never successfully got my anger off my chest, I now feel hostile. As a result, I start venting.

Justifiably feeling attacked, you raise your voice and belittle me in a counterattack. Frustrated because you still haven't heard me or addressed my hurt, I leave your house with us both feeling angry, hurt, and bewildered.

The relationship of anger to hostility, then, is a few steps removed. Anger is healthy, whereas hostility (and its manifestation, venting) is a distortion of anger--precisely because the anger was never expressed. The inner-city youth who was beaten as a child by an alcoholic father and later bombs buildings and mugs innocent people, is venting his hostility. The sexually harassed, underpaid secretary who complains each week to her peers--because if she confronted her boss directly with anger she'd be fired--is resentful. In both cases, for different reasons, the anger is unexpressed, although the secretary's expression remains closer in content and awareness to the original hurt. Anger--if it is truly anger--is direct, reflecting self-esteem. It stems from an inner knowing that says, "Because I feel good about myself, I need to address the conditions that made me unhappy."

Let's say I've done something to hurt you, and you come to let me know you're angry. If I really listen to your protest, without imposing my own values on how I think you should be reacting or feeling, you feel cared about, and your anger can begin to dissipate. Also (and this is a major component), the grievance now has a chance to be redressed. If I'm not open to dealing with your anger, one of two things might happen: although you may not like my response, you nonetheless feel settled because at least you stated unself-consciously how you felt and believed in what you said. As long as you didn't need my understanding or approval to make you feel okay, then the matter can be dropped without harm. The other possibility is that you end up feeling not listened to or accepted, possibly because my response reminds you of similar situations where other people didn't listen to you, either. If this occurs, your anger remains, and at some point will surface in another, unacceptable way, seeking an outlet.

The most misunderstood aspect of anger is its genuinely functional role in survival. Anger, like catching the flu, is an indication that the integrity of the organism has broken down. Just as illness is a sign that we need to rest and stop our usual activity in order to heal, feeling anger is a way of giving ourselves a message that we need to stop whatever it is that is hurting us. Anger serves an immensely useful function: who wants to hurt?

But unfortunately, most spiritual disciplines cannot (or do not) regard anger as positive. Because of this, people squelch their anger only to experience it in a distorted form later, when it has been converted into resentment or hostility. How ironic that if anger were recognized as a healthy response to being injured, we would not avoid it, and then the truly unacceptable forms, resentment and hostility, would not arise to become issues of contention. Anger is basic self-preservation, a biological response to help us ensure that others will respect our needs. This sounds simple and straightforward enough.

Why, then, are there so many misconceptions and apprehensions about anger?

One reason, which many friends and clients have voiced to me, is the common fear that if people allow themselves to feel angry, they'll become immersed in it, unable to climb out from the trap. This fear is understandable, but unwarranted. Healthy anger does not remain static, but dissipates--otherwise, it would (as we have seen) contort into something else.

Another reason, I think, that anger is discouraged, has to do with the fear of being threatened. Most of us would agree that anger is not a "pretty" emotion. It's not aesthetically pleasing, as are, for instance, tenderness and joy. As mammals, our reaction to being threatened is to show our teeth and feel the adrenaline pumping through our bloodstream, with a simultaneous impulse to strike out at or push away the threat. These are extremely primitive, genetically encoded responses that we cannot negate any more than we can dismiss our need for food or sex.

But because we are human beings as well as mammals, our intellect helps mediate how, and to what extent, we will utilize these primitive responses. Getting back to the example of the fight at the party, my inappropriate barrage of anger--venting-- at mom was in lieu of slugging her. It just wouldn't do to punch her out; so my mouth, designed for speech, took over. (Had I shot off my mouth, however, perhaps in private, about what I was truly angry about--namely, her treatment of me as a child--that would have been rage, an appropriate and direct descendent of anger.)

Another ability of human beings that our mammalian relatives lack is the tendency to pass on anger from one generation to the next. An animal, when angry, bares its teeth and growls, and perhaps thrusts a well-aimed paw at the offender, but that's generally the end of it. The cubs don't say, either consciously or unconsciously, "Gee, Mom's pissed off and holding a grudge. Wait until I'm a parent so I can take it out on my children." The mom in my account, however, probably felt a need to humiliate me because in some way her mother did it to her when she was growing up, and like me, she was similarly prevented from objecting. Of course, Mom's treatment of me was inappropriate. She expressed contempt toward me, when she should have been either yelling at her own mother or sobbing how hurt she had felt when she was a child. But, schooled like the rest of us to believe that any form of anger is "bad," she held in her feelings, which escalated into a form that was distorted and ultimately harmful. Thus the long held-in anger--which by now is hostility--that she felt toward her own mother was transferred to me.

Another reason why people are so afraid of encountering anger in others is undoubtedly because they are unpleasantly reminded of what they were never allowed to express themselves. So the vicious cycle of condemning anger is perpetuated yet some more.

As intelligent mammals, we invariably come to the issue of choice. Paula's claim that people can choose both what they express and how they express it is valid, up to a point. The problem is finding that middle ground. When is someone's suppression of anger dangerous, where they might benefit from Gestalt, Reichian, or other body-based therapy that encourages them to discharge old feelings? And when is someone's expression of anger an indulgence, where the same issue gets recycled round and round with no hope of release or relief? Is it possible to tell the difference?

I believe it is, and the only way to tell is through the willingness to confront that demon called anger and see where it goes. If feeling angry indicates that a transgression has occurred, we must explore the nature and source of that transgression. If the reaction seems overly intense or otherwise inappropriate to current circumstances, then somewhere there is a hurt, misunderstood, indignant child who must be accessed. This exploration can be quite painful. Most people, in my experience, are reluctant to plumb depths of pain if more acceptable modes exist of dealing with the material they'd rather suppress. After all, this culture offers brownie points and material rewards to those who stay "in line." But is this the optimum way to live?

According to Paula, yes. At the end of her speech, the audience was invited to respond. Many people who came forward, as well as the lecturer herself, seemed to be speaking at cross-purposes to each other because no one made a distinction between the different stages of anger. Annoyed, I finally approached the mike and briefly outlined the differences between anger, resentment, and hostility, with the comment "I wish this had been clarified earlier."

"Well, we thank you for the clarification," Paula said as she hurried to the podium to close the meeting, though I didn't sense she felt thankful for my clarification at all. Shortly after, when everyone milled around, she passed me with a "Thank you for sharing."

THANK YOU FOR SHARING? By now I felt furious, especially when I saw how many people were congratulating her for an inspiring speech.

I waited until the admiring throng had cleared a space around Paula, and then approached her. "I'd like you to know," I said, "that I wish you had spoken more about your personal experiences with Buddhism. It would have meant more than talking about famous teachers." Paula waited. So far, so good.

"Also," I continued, "I really need to tell you how turned off I am when someone 'thanks me for sharing.' It sounds as though you just came from an EST seminar, and weren't addressing me at all."

With discernible effort, Paula brushed the indignation off her face. "There is such a lack of compassion in the world, particularly in New York City, that I think a little graciousness is needed. I won't apologize for thanking you."

"What I'm trying to say," I interjected, "is that those kinds of phrases have by now become stock, and when someone uses them, it feels like I'm not being seen."

"Do you feel validated only when you're confronting someone?" Paula demanded abruptly, to my speechless amazement. "I will not engage with you if you want to confront me. Furthermore, I'm not going to let you stop me from being gracious. So I'll say it again: thank you for sharing." I gazed at her smile, wondering how it could possibly be authentic. Something was not right; but what?

Feeling my adrenaline level rise, I started to leave. The only thing I could think of saying, Buddha style, that I thought Paula might relate to, was, "Your being gracious shouldn't depend on how I respond."

Fuming, I sat down on a pew to think. Paula had stifled further discussion with an ostensibly spiritual statement. But how spiritual was it, I asked myself, if my anger was not diffused but augmented? Then I realized: though she had presumably said all the right things, the main point of the conversation was never addressed--my objection to being the receiver of a cliché, which immediately turned me into a commodity. Not only that, when I requested that Paula change her phraseology because it made me feel like a nonentity, she essentially said that I was cramping her style, and proceeded to do it again. My objection to how she had treated me turned our exchange into a power struggle.

Clearly (and tragically), Paula was being manipulative in the name of Buddhism. But even knowing this, I was still irate. What was I contributing, I now had to ask myself, to remaining angry?

  • I wanted Paula to acknowledge me. This was clearly impossible for her to do.
  • I also wanted her to see that I was right. This was not possible, either.
  • I was mad at the people in the congregation who had fallen for her peace and love routine. Paula had been asked to speak, was considered important, and I wasn't. That wasn't fair! People should know she was wrong and I was right! Being recognized was a big deal to me, At an earlier stage in my life, others had thought me unimportant and regarded my words with either scorn or disinterest.
  • No wonder my buttons were pushed! But knowing that they were helped me disentangle myself from the incident with Paula. By the time I left the church, I was feeling somewhat better. The old childhood hurts I would deal with in an appropriate fashion at some other time. The justified anger I still felt toward Paula was soothed by later talking about the incident to an understanding friend.

    Is there any anger left? Yes--but it's anger that's constructive. It was this anger I tapped into and used to write this essay: anger that incorporates compassion. Anger that says, "I want to tell you what happened to me in the hope that you don't get trapped into trampling and pushing down your feelings. I want you to know how useful and empowering anger can be. That if we don't acknowledge and respect our anger, we'll either feel powerless or end up manipulating others."

    To be fully alive means encompassing all of who we are, not just the "pretty" parts. The truth may hurt, but not as much as trying to pretend it doesn't exist. Deny truth, and the anger invariably comes back to haunt us.

    But we are not only haunted as individuals, or affected solely by our personal history. I think of Paula, self-righteously preaching to audiences across the country that it's wrong to be angry, and I see the collective spreading of a lie. Paula, who evidently is still adversely affected by her own history, mistakenly believes that if she allows herself to get angry, she will lose her ability to be compassionate.

    It's actually just the opposite.

    (c) 1996, 2000


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