When We Know We’re ANGRY, and When We Don’t

The Rev. Alison Cornish

January 21, 2007

The most important work of our generations for our world is to use a new level of introspective insight and self-mastery to break the chain of descent of inherited personal, family, and cultural violence of mind, speech and body.

– Robert Thurman

Reading: Anger – Robert Thurman

Practitioners of western religions don’t try that hard to challenge anger, since they believe that God models anger, has done so from the beginning, and that it would be the sin of pride to think they could alter their own nature. They also think that anger can be good when you are righteous. Humanists don’t try very hard either, since they think of anger as a good thing, a natural energy for self-preservation, a neurobiological survival-enhancing reactionÖ neither of these types considers anger very deadly; thus, neither has a strong likelihood of developing any real control over it.

It is no accident that these two types make up the vast majority of carriers of the modern or postmodern Western and Western-derived culture. This culture is, in fact, the most angry yet, in the sense of the most violent and militaristic culture yet apparent on this planet. In spite of our admiration for Athens, we are the Spartans’ Spartans, the Romans’ Romans, the Imperialists’ imperialists. We Americans in particular, still-in-denial heirs of the mass genocides of the Native Americans and the slavery holocaust of the African Americans, children of the Pentagon, wielders of nuclear weapons, producers of chemical and germ warfare agents of unprecedented virulence and quantity – ours is the most militaristic culture ever to manifest on Mother Earth. We spawn mini-militaristic cultures all over the globe, dominated by puppet-like dictators, propped up by militaries manufactured in our image and equipped with our secondhand arms, but never allowed to reach the same massive proportions as us, the inspiring model.

I don’t mean to go overboard with the vision of America’s imperialistic aspect, recently so extremely prominent since our democracy was compromised. The point here is that anger, its profile, its anchoring habits, its systemic cultivation and channeling into socially internal and militarily international violence, is part of the disciplines taught for membership in our culture. At a young age we watch the cartoons Road Runner and Tom and Jerry, which relentlessly imprint violence into our nervous systems. At school we are taught the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and we sing our war-glorifying national anthem. We are taught to read and revere the Iliad, to admire the battles of David and the Israelites against all manner of enemies, to be awe-inspired by Shakespeare’s chronicling of the violent deeds of the English kings as well as those of Caesar. We root for Hamlet to waste his uncle, and in the current cinema we love Rambo, The Terminator, Star Wars, Alien fighters, Bruce Lee, Kill Bill, and so on. At school we have gymnasiums and stadiums, where we gear up for mini war games such as football, soccer, basketball, hockey, lacrosse, wrestling, and track-and-field competitions, cultivating such battle skills as teamwork, focused anger at the opponent, running, javelin, discus, and so on.

Facing this context of the culture in which we have been brought up and conditioned, not to say brainwashed, we should be alert to a strong resistance within ourselves to the idea that anger is a detriment, that it has negative consequences. Yet we must entertain such an idea and explore it carefully, if we are to free ourselves from individual and collective enslavement to this militaristic culture of anger, violence and war.

“When we know we’re ANGRY, and when we don’t” – The Rev. Alison Cornish

This morning we continue our exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins. My aim in this series has been to look at how the classic deadly sins – or vices, or transgressions, or infractions, or whatever term works best for you – how these are with each of us, every day, now, in our time. For, as the theologian Matthew Fox reminds us, ‘sin evolves as culture evolves. Our capacity for destruction and alienation, self-hatred and social resentment, luxurious living among gross injustice, evolves.’ (Fox, 7) Over the past few months, we’ve looked at gluttony and greed – today we take on anger.

Now, anger differs from some of the other seven deadlies in some significant ways. First, most of us will quite readily acknowledge that we experience anger, as opposed to the other sins from which we try hard to distance ourselves. Anger is considered to be common to the whole human species, so primal and basic that it’s very unlikely for someone to not have felt anger. Child development consultant Adele Brodkin, in writing to parents and teachers, says, ‘Anger is a normal and inevitable human emotion Ö Anger is as natural as joy, excitement, or any other emotion. (Kaiser, np) We live in the psychological age, when the full range of human emotions are far more readily explained and accepted than at any time in the past. In such a climate, the mission is not so much to rid ourselves of anger as to learn ‘how and when to express our aggressive feelings in a socially acceptable and emotionally productive way.’ (Kaiser, np) So that’s one way anger differs from say, gluttony or envy or lust – our times assure us that we all experience anger, and that’s OK.

The other difference that logically follows this universality of anger is the mix of opinions as to whether anger actually is a sin – or whether, perhaps, anger has gotten a bad rap over the centuries, and is instead a good thing – as in righteous anger – that some forms of anger are beneficial to us as individuals, and even to the world around us. In fact, the world’s spiritual traditions are divided about our ultimate prospects concerning anger. At one end of the spectrum are those who believe that ‘anger is merely an inevitable part of life and so must be borne and managed.’ Most secularists land here, too, along with Darwin who maintained that we are ‘hardwired’ for anger. But a few religions, particularly the western mystical traditions along with Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism in the East, do see anger as something to be confronted and overcome; not to be tolerated, but opposed and defeated. (Thurman, 8, 13) So, you can see, with anger, we really are dealing with a very different animal than other deadly sins.

It’s always good to begin with some definitions. What is anger? Robert Thurman offers us some helpful etymology:

Anger is an English word that seems to derive from Old Norse angr, which is said to mean ‘trouble,’ ‘affliction,’ even ‘pain.’ This etymology encourages us to say that anger is pain, it comes from feeling pain, and it moves to inflict pain. (Thurman, 30)

We often know the pain of anger by its synonyms, raging from the mild – irritation, impatience or frustration – to the intense – ire, rage, fury, indignation, even wrath. Though each and every one of us feels anger, it is of course the expression of anger that is the central issue. Peter Holmes tells us that ‘anger can be expressed in the form of crying, teasing, yelling, sarcasm, attack, depression, pouting, silence, aggression, and violence. When we cannot get what we want, when we are frustrated, or our desires are not fulfilled, and when we are assaulted, we become angry.’ Yet Holmes falls squarely in the ‘anger can be a good thing’ camp when he says, ‘anger [also] helps us [to] survive assaults, correct injustices, grow, be independent, and establish better values.’ (Holmes)

These last words leave us with what I call the Modern Anger Dilemma – is anger a destructive force, or a path to growth? The story I shared earlier, ‘The Roof of Leaves,’ subtitled ‘a tale of anger and forgiveness,’ well illustrates the familiar trajectory of anger – first, the arguing and yelling that leads to forgetting the common loves and cares for one another – then, the emotional fury that leaves reason behind – finally, the staking out of positions where injuries are nursed, and hurts protected. All this affirms anger as a destructive force, one that separates us from one another, even those we love. But, recall that the story didn’t end there. Anger in this story led to brilliant creativity, and not just for the arguing couple, but for all the women and men of the community. Anger gifted the village with a unique moment in its collective life ‘that had never happened before in the village. As far as we know, it never happened again. The best that can be hoped for is that we remember that we can always wash the leaves.’ The story’s conclusion affirms anger as a force that can bring us growth through the agents of softening hearts, courageous and creative acts, and forgiveness.

We all have our stories and experiences of anger. I like to think of myself as someone who has a ‘long fuse.’ By that I mean that when I feel myself getting angry, I try to remember the benefits of responding rather than reacting – to remember to take a deep breath, and step back from the moment, rather than returning pain for pain. But just when I begin to think that anger is something that I might be able to control, I have an experience of anger rising so quickly, so forcefully, that it takes my breath away. One of my most dependable triggers is being tailgated, especially while driving on our local roads at night. Here’s the scenario: I am driving carefully, near the speed limit. I am watching the road and its shoulders for the movement of animals, especially deer, and people, especially cyclists. And suddenly, someone comes at flying speeds, and sits there, right on my back bumper, his too-bright lights bobbing in my rear-view mirror. And up flies my anger, too – in an instant, I am furious – my heart beats faster, my palms sweat, my focus is riveted on this driver, seemingly inches behind me, instead of the road before me. I start fantasizing about all the nasty things I could do to this jerk. And I meet my anger, head-on. I know that I am angry. But I am smart enough to know that road rage is real, even in the seemingly bucolic Hamptons. There is no way that I am going to allow myself to be drawn into an exchange of anger on our highways and byways. This is a time to feel anger, not to act on it.

The gift of anger, if there is one in this situation, is for me to be reminded of how quickly, and forcefully, anger can rise in me given the right trigger. And if this can happen to me, as I simply drive down a local road, might I then better understand the anger that wells up in an overtired mother who lashes out at her young child, in an elderly man overwhelmed by frustration with the stubborn bureaucracy of a social security office, in a teenager who has been picked on by bullies one time too many? When we think about these and thousands of other similar situations, we can begin to realize the commonality of anger that cuts across peoples of all ages and all backgrounds. And we can begin to be grateful for the multitude of disciplines and practices that we have evolved so that we can better understand and best express anger.

These are the times when we know we are angry. These times challenge us, but starting when we are young children, we learn to stamp our feet, walk away, or talk it out. We learn our own patterns of anger, what triggers us, and how we act out the feelings of hurt and pain; hopefully we find ways to safely express the thoughts and feelings inside. But there are also times that we can’t see the anger that lives inside us, when we don’t know we’re angry, and yet, we find ourselves lashing out. Some of us carry around deep wells of bitterness that we have nurtured for years. Some of us are grieving, and the first level, the first way grief is expressed, is anger. Some of us have felt like victims for a long, long time, and some of us have experienced deprivation or oppression, and anger is the most available response. In so many ways, our anger is a smoldering coal, just waiting for the right conditions to fan it into fire.

And, as we heard earlier in the reading from Robert Thurman, all of us gathered here have been raised in a culture that cultivates, normalizes and glorifies all manner of anger and violence, whether it be sports, movies, or war. We can call these something else – games, entertainment, self-defense – but the truth is, they are, each of them, fed by anger. How well do we know and understand this anger of ours?

This brings us back to the Modern Anger Dilemma. You see, if we accept the notion that anger cannot be avoided, that anger is an inevitable part of life and so must be borne and managed – then all that is connected to anger – violence, war, self-destruction – also can’t be avoided. Modern, and post-modern times have given us new tools to express our primal emotion of anger. Our technology has increased our capacity for destruction, violence, cruelty, injustice and inhumanity. (Fox, 17) And I would go even further to say that today we have sophisticated methods to cultivate and enlist human anger for the express purpose of delivering evil upon others.

‘Sin evolves, as culture evolves.’

In the end, we are left with two distinct choices about anger: we can accept anger as a normal, natural phenomenon, and do our best to channel it in productive ways; or we can set our sights on overcoming anger, on opposing it and defeating it, personally, socially and globally. We can find support for either path in the world’s religious traditions and in modern philosophy. Both paths seek a loving end. Both paths have their merits. Both have their consequences. The paths are very different.

The path that accepts anger cannot be avoided seeks to use the fire of anger in productive and positive ways. Matthew Fox describes this kind of anger as one ‘born from a gut response of being kicked by injustice.’ In the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, ‘ours is a generation that has lost its capacity for moral outrage.’ This is the anger of the Hebrew prophets, of Martin Luther King, Jr., of the liberating theologies that swept Central and South America after Vatican II. The goal this path seeks is righteousness. Its words are honest, sometimes brutally so. This is an anger that seeks respect, and the end to oppression of all peoples. You know the times in history when this kind of anger has tipped the scales of justice – most recently, the civil rights movement in this country. You also know the times when this path has faltered, when the path’s goals have been distorted or co-opted, when the fire of anger has not been righteous, but self-righteous and self-justifying. I think of some of the stars of hip-hop and rap music, who proudly bind their anger to hate, and I think of gangs who use their fiery anger of alienation to spin a seductive identity for lost youth. To accept anger as a force that cannot be avoided means accepting the risks of playing with fire. It may well be the fire of empowerment, of liberation, of moral outrage and justice-making. Or it may be the fire of revenge, selfishness and suffering.

There is another path, the one that seeks ultimately to overcome anger. In the words of Robert Thurman, the opposite of anger ultimately is love and compassion, but the gulf between these is wide and deep. (Thurman, 59-60) Thurman suggests some steps to get from one side of this gulf to the other – steps that will lead us beyond our anger. We do get angry when we are hurt or harmed – or if we think we are. Anger is so intimately connected to pain. But after the initial pain, the flash of anger, we have some choices we can make. We might find a way to be patient with the hurt. If we feel irritated, we can find a way to tolerate the irritation. Rather than lashing out, we might find the forbearance needed to forestall a reaction. We might even find a way to forgiveness for the injury. In cultivating patience, tolerance, forbearance and forgiveness, we build a bridge from anger and hate to compassion and love.

This path is less familiar to those of us in the modern west, though if we revisited the historical teachings of Jesus, or his contemporary, the Greek philosopher Seneca, we would find that they both maintained that ‘anger always makes it harder to get things right.’ But the path outlined by Thurman comes from Buddhism, available to us from the contemporary teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and Pema Ch?dr?n. The challenge to us in following this path is the yawning cultural chasm between our western ways and their Buddhist practice. For example, members the Buddhist community, Plum Village, sign a ‘Peace Treaty’ that outlines a deliberate and conscientious process for working through anger in community. (Thich Nhat Hanh, 205-208)

Among other steps, it calls for ‘I, the one who is angry,’

– To refrain from saying or doing anything that might cause further damage or escalate the anger.

– To not suppress my anger.

– To practice mindful breathing and go back to myself to take care of my anger.

– To calmly, within twenty-four hours, tell the one who has made me angry about my anger and suffering Ö

– To ask for an appointment later in the week Ö to discuss this matter more thoroughly.

– To not say, ‘I am not angry, it’s okay, I am not suffering. There is nothing to be angry about.’

– To look deeply into my daily life, while sitting, walking, lying down, working, and driving in order to see:

How I have hurt the other person

How the strong seed of anger in me is the primary cause of my

anger, and how the other person is only the secondary cause

That as long as the other person suffers, I cannot be truly happy.

I suspect that this path, who’s goal is to transcend anger, to manage it out of existence, would be new territory for most of us. We are much more used to accepting, managing, ‘channeling,’ explaining, and living with anger. Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to make the choice about which path to follow. But if we are truly dedicated to the cessation of violence and war, it seems to me that the path that aims beyond anger to of greatest use for the world we find ourselves in today.


Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh (NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999).

Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger (NY: Riverhead Books, 2001).

Peter Holmes, Managing Anger: Understanding the Dynamics of Violence, Abuse and

Control (www.siu.edu/offices/counsel/anger/htm).

Cecily Kaiser, If You’re Angry and You Know It! (NY: Scholastic, Inc., 2005).

Robert A. F. Thurman, Anger (NY: Oxford university Press, 2005).

Donna L. Washington, ‘The Roof of Leaves,’ in A Pride of African Tales (HarperCollins, 2004).

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