It’s commonplace these days to note that anger drives much of U.S. politics — let alone comment sections — today. It is less common to turn that claim on ourselves.1 I was therefore surprised by a question I heard recently: “What motivates us? Are we trying to help the powerless? Or are we more interested in hurting the powerful?”
The speaker was on a conference panel about the role of socio-economic exclusion in this year’s elections.2 The litany of problems runs long — issues of race, ethnicity, sex and poverty — and there is plenty to be angry about. But that’s not what the speaker chose to focus on. He rather asked a spiritual question: “Where is our energy? Is it in helping the bottom 15%? Or in hurting the top 1%?”
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Human motivations are complicated, and the speaker wasn’t trying to discredit the efforts of those who work for justice. But in an environment of contagious anger and outrage, why should we think ourselves immune? How often do we let our anger at injustice move us more than our love and concern for the vulnerable and marginalized?
It is worth contemplating just how seductive anger is. It makes us feel powerful: to be angry is often to put the onus on someone else — minimally, to take the blame, but often also to right the wrong. When I find someone to blame for a situation, I feel that I’ve done my job. I have identified the problem, and that problem is now someone else’s. It is now his responsibility to fix things.
Anger also makes us feel wise and “in the know.” Now that I know who’s to blame for a situation, I know the “truth” of the problem. I grow firmer and firmer in my conviction about it, and then surer and surer about what needs to be done. There’s no room for compromise or conversation: just do what I demand! As President Obama said recently: “you can’t just keep on yelling.” But that is the shadow side of “speaking truth to power”: we often never question the truth of what we speak.
Anger can make us feel in control of others. But more subtly, anger gives us a sense of control over ourselves, by masking what’s going on inside us. If you’ve heard of the phenomenon “hangry,” you know that anger is often a broad emotional response to what we do not like. Think of a situation in your life in which someone became very angry, only to break down in tears and admit that they were hurting from something else, from somewhere very deep inside them. We humans get angry for many reasons — when we are embarrassed; when we are lonely, tired or even hungry; when we feel unloved; when we are passed over or our talents are underappreciated; the list goes on. Absent some helpful self-reflection, these can breed a resentment and anger that come out sideways.
When we’re in that space of diffuse anger, we don’t really know what’s bothering us. But like a wounded animal, we lash out to protect ourselves — sometimes against people who want to help us.
Desires to feel more powerful or intelligent than other people, or to protect ourselves from our own fears, is not what leads us to fight for justice, of course. Nor should they discredit that fight. But those desires can become powerful motivators for why we keep fighting, and they can influence how we fight in that struggle. Anger makes it easy to shift blame to others, to feel powerful, and to avoid asking deep questions about ourselves. It allows us to create an “other” on which to project all of our problems, and thereby lose the chance to actually face the reality of our limited, imperfect responses to complex issues in the world.
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All of this leads me to wonder: what is going on behind all of the anger in our political life? What do we not want to be responsible for? What has left us feeling so powerless? What truths about ourselves do we not want to face?
If our answer is always and everywhere, “The problem is those people over there,” then we have missed the point. Because the awkward truth is that anger often points to our dissatisfaction with ourselves. Anger lays bare our failures, our limitations, our sorrows, and ultimately our inability to love and feel loved. And so the anger we feel so pervasively in our lives won’t be solved just by strident demands for justice from others, which are so often accusatory and alienating. Nor do we overcame diffuse anger by turning an accusatory finger back at ourselves: “you’re right…it’s all my fault.” This merely deepens the resentment, and can cause severe internal turmoil.
Rather, it can be helpful to step back and ask ourselves, What have been the conditions in which I have acted from strength, courage, and love? Whose demonstrations of goodness lead me to reconsider my own resentments and too-easy certainties? Where has my anger come from, and what good is it producing for the world? Where might I need to get off my high horse, and get to work myself?
Title image, “Angry Face” by André Vasconcelos, is available on Flickr here.