Updated: Aug 25, 2020
“We become what we think about all day long.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
While our thoughts may feel misty and inconsequential compared to the cold, hard facts of reality, they are in fact the foundation of our lives. Reality is enormous and contains infinite possibilities. Within those possibilities, your habitual thoughts about yourself and life guide what you choose to notice, repeat, reinforce, feel, say, and do. They are like the invisible blueprints from which you build the tangible mansion of your everyday reality.
We take that mansion for everything. For reality, period. We feel its walls as absolute barriers. This is who I am. This is how people are. This is how life is. These are my (often sucky) options.
But Christ said, “In my father’s house there are many mansions.” Or, in Shakespeare’s words, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” There are always more possibilities than we are currently able to imagine.
Anger, Judgment, & Violence
To imagine a way forward, our culture would benefit from clarifying its thinking about three things that are often in the news of late: anger, violence, and judgment. We have tended to mash them all together, when in fact they are three separate things. This way of thinking causes vicious cycles of harm in both our private and public lives.
Anger is an emotion. Like any other. It is neither right nor wrong. Rather, it is sacred. In fact, cultures such as the ancient Greeks associated their gods with bodily visitations, whether anger, sexual arousal, or inspiration. All sacred energies are beyond morality. I Am what I Am, God told Moses from the burning bush.
To honor anger is to feel it without resistance. It is to allow it to move through your body—to pay your mansion a visit. It is to be a good host for your divine guest.
To feel your anger may or may not involve expressing your anger. Sometimes we will speak forcefully to a particular person, sometimes we will shout to the heavens. Sometimes we’ll lie down and let the anger explore our internal household. Being beyond morality, your guest may mess up your house, re-arrange some furniture, or even take down some walls.
Allow it. The miracle is that, as Christ promised, we’ll find ourselves standing in a larger house. You’ll feel more room to move in. You’ll feel more free, more alive. Reality will have enlarged. We can’t predict the particulars of this. They are, by definition, beyond our current capacities to imagine. They must be experienced.
This is what happens when you truly allow any emotion to pay you a visit.
Emotions are motions. They come and they go. And they allow motion in you—they clear blockages, so you can flow onward. We suffer not from feeling, but from not feeling. This is the spirit, I believe, in which the poet and visionary William Blake wrote, “Damn braces: Bless relaxes.”
Judgment, in the sense of moral appraisal, is a brace. When we judge ourselves for feeling anger, we try to hold back life-giving, sacred energies, mistaking them for marauding demons. We bring small-mindedness to meet the sacred.
Our culture is largely permeated with this Puritan notion of how to be spiritual. God is a prudish schoolteacher who raps your knuckles with a ruler when you misbehave.
This idea soaks us so thoroughly that even those, like me, who believe they have gone beyond conventional Christian notions of morality and sin, can fall victim. My idea of being spiritual for so long meant trying to ignore anger; and I felt the struggle, for one, as chronic tightness in my body.
In our culture, judgment is associated with anger in another way. Namely they tend to feel inextricably linked. To be angry is also to morally judge what has triggered that anger. ‘You made me angry because you’re selfish, rude,’ and so on. ‘If you weren’t morally wrong, I wouldn’t be feeling this anger.’ To be angry, in other words, is to blame.
This clutters the true state of affairs. Feeling anger (and perhaps expressing anger to someone) is one thing. “You said you’d be here by 6:00 and you’re late. I’m angry!” Slathering them with your moral paintbrush is another. Clean anger is a tactical strike. It’s a sword, not a bomb. It has nothing to do with moral judgment.
To separate your anger from a moral requirement of those you’re angry at will seem at first like a relinquishing of power. We think we are letting those around us off the hook.
What tends to then happen is that others naturally treat us better. Not because they are being morally bullied but precisely because they feel the opposite—free to be themselves and express their natural love and respect for us.
There will also be situations in which others can’t be loving because of their own hang-ups. Or can’t handle your authentic expression of anger. In these cases, letting them off your moral hook will speed up your realization that a) you can’t change them with your indignation, and b) you don’t want them in your life.
Clean anger, in other words, takes you places. Again, emotion is motion.
The word judgment has another sense, this time positive. To use good judgment is to feel out a situation and intuit what feels right. This kind of judgment is helpful around anger. If you feel, for example, that your anger is out of proportion to the situation, you may judge that it’s better not to express it outwardly in that moment, but just to notice it and perhaps go somewhere else to let it move.
Which brings us to violence. Like moral judgment, violence is often conflated with anger, as if the two went hand-in-hand. And like judgment, violence has no business hanging out with anger. In fact, there’s a sense in which violence is the opposite of anger: It arises when anger is denied.
If anger is motion, a flow of vital energy, then to judge it as unacceptable is to dam it up. To damn it is to dam it.
“What happens to a dream deferred?” wondered the poet Langston Hughes, “Does it explode?” Maybe. Anger deferred definitely explodes. When anger is chronically blocked up, violence erupts. Sometimes we do the violence internally, to ourselves. “I don’t get angry,” said Woody Allen, “I grow a tumor instead.”
Whereas anger is a form of nourishment—the flow of life-giving waters—violence is an uncontrolled spasm of destruction when the dam breaks. It’s critical to distinguish between the two. Allowing anger prevents violence.
This means that Puritanical paranoia dressed up as virtue actually contributes to violent behavior if it tries to shame those who express anger. It doesn’t matter the race or sex or age of the angry person. Anger is anger, sacred anywhere. To deem the natural expression of anger as morally inappropriate is to invite truly immoral behavior somewhere down the line. “He was always such a quiet boy,” said the neighbor.
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