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In Sight of Ourselves: 2. Anger (October 19, 2001)

n. An emotional arousal associated with the use of power to manage a real or imagined threat or injustice. When the threat or injustice is real, anger is a valid and useful emotion. If my child, for example, flushes several handfuls of large rocks down the toilet and blocks my water pipes, then I have the right to feel angry. If someone breaks into my home and threatens my family, then anger becomes an important defensive force. If a terrorist kills my neighbors, near or far, I am justified in feeling angry toward them. In each case, the injustice, the threat is real.

Valid anger has many positive aspects. One of the most important is the energy it provides in overcoming fear to counter the threat. Marge Piercy wrote, "A good anger acted upon is beautiful as lightning and swift with power." Anger is similar to fear. Both are a response to threat. When we are afraid, we feel powerless to counter the danger. When we feel angry, we have some confidence in responding to the danger or threat. Fear tends to produce flight; anger fuels opposition. Malcolm X put it this way, "Usually when people are sad, they don't do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change."

Of course, too much anger can make us emotionally blind. Anger that boils to rage is dangerous. Anger can extinguish the candle of intellect and become self-destructive. Shakespeare wrote, "Anger's my meat; I sup upon myself/ And so shall starve with feeding." Anger toward an imagined threat or injustice is useless, like burning money to gain its ashes.

Anger is like fire. It provides energy but requires borders. The key is to feel anger but channel our response in a calculated way. What a difficult task this is. It is so easy to give in to anger, to let go of control and be carried away by rabid fury. Oh it feels so good…. at the moment. Anger degenerating into wildfire is a destructive force, consuming all involved. But inside an engine in which it is contained, anger can be a powerful thing.

The feeling of anger is not the same thing as aggression. I can feel angry without spanking. I can feel angry and not act self-destructively. We should be teaching our children that although anger is valid, destructive behavior is unacceptable. For example, a child spits on his father in a moment of rage. The father says, "Don't you dare get angry with me!" Instead, he might say, "You feel angry with me; you are upset. So, tell me how you feel. DO NOT spit on me!" This father affirms the child's emotional experience while simultaneously confronting the child's behavior. Anger is given its proper place.

In the face of terrorism, we should feel angry. However, we should use our anger to arouse courage to face these difficult times. Moreover, we should not allow our anger to make us see enemies where there are only neighbors.

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