Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Punishment of Anger

Many people believe that anger is a natural human response and in many ways, uncontrollable. If someone upsets or disappoints us, we feel justified to express anger. However, most people don’t realize that anger is essentially destructive and futile. Although we may feel that anger “punishes” the agitator, the expression of hostility causes severe damage the person who expresses it. When there is anger, we always need to remember that our own frustration, intolerance, impatience, pain and distress are hiding right below the surface. Anger is usually a reflection of internal suffering. Perhaps we need to face the pain, instead of expressing the anger.

When we feel the “need” to express anger, it is simply a decision. There are many ways to deal with inequities in life and only one of these options is anger. We always have a choice to confront a person without the emotion of anger, even though this decision takes a great deal of patience and restraint. What is the purpose of anger? Does it make us feel better or worse? By expressing anger, are we helping to improve or deteriorate the situation that precipitated the emotion? Or are we trying to hide or mitigate the pain that underlies its expression?

Anger does not ensure that another person will take responsibility for the actions that provoked the emotion. In fact, the opposite is usually true. Once anger is expressed, an automatic reaction of defensiveness appears. The person on the receiving end feels the need to justify the inequity even if he or she is certain that a wrong has been committed. Anger is like a tornado that slowly builds into a very destructive force. Words are said that cannot be taken back and the negative emotions are extremely harmful to any person who is affected by the anger (including the people who witness the anger).

As human beings, we have the power to avoid responding with anger. Particular actions or words may naturally precipitate the emotion of anger, but we can rise above our impulses. We can confront people calmly and merely ask that they take responsibility for the actions that caused us pain. We can also ask for an apology. Isn’t that all we really want in the first place? It’s hard to believe that the purpose of anger is merely to punish. Why do we need to punish someone we love for making a mistake? Do we believe that this punishment is “deserved?” Aren’t we seeking compassion for the pain that has been caused instead of punishment?

Outside of the legal system, punishment seems to be a juvenile motivation when an adult makes a mistake that is not illegal. The only justified need for punishment is a parent or guardian who is trying to teach a child a lesson. Yet, even lessons can be taught without the emotion of anger. When dealing with equals, our punishment is futile. The only person who can inflict effective punishment is the person who commits the inequity. The only appropriate response to the injustice is remorse. We can express anger but if the person refuses to take responsibility, the anger serves no purpose.

Psychologists often say that it is better to feel anger than to suffer through pain. Pain is internal self-punishment; while anger is external and helps us release the emotion to the surface where it can be handled appropriately. In my opinion, anger is also self-punishment. By expressing anger, we hurt ourselves in a different way. We feel bitterness and hatred that can actually extend itself beyond the object of the anger. We also may take this anger out on people who do not deserve to be affected by it. There are many cases of individuals feeling anger about an external situation and in turn, express that same anger toward the people they love. The people closest to us do not deserve the anger of an unrelated event.

We hurt ourselves because anger has direct physical reactions that may not be apparent immediately. Our blood pressure rises, our heart beats faster, and we may be causing physical problems that can appear at a later time. Many doctors have reported that stress is one of the major causes of disease. Anger works in the same way. Anger is simply an overt expression of negative stress.

As the Dalai Lama further states in his book An Open Heart, “It is natural for us to experience emotions such as anger and desire… I am aware that in Western psychology, expressing feelings and emotions, even anger, is often encouraged. Certainly many people have endured traumatic experiences in their past, and if these emotions are suppressed, they may indeed cause lasting psychological harm… Having said this, I do feel that it is important to adopt a stance against strong emotions such as anger, attachment, and jealousy and devote ourselves to developing restraint. Instead of allowing ourselves to indulge in occurrences of strong emotions, we should work at decreasing our propensity toward them. If we ask ourselves whether we are happier when angry or when calm, the answer is evident… The troubled mental state that results from afflictive emotions immediately disturbs our inner equilibrium, causing us to feel unsettled and unhappy. In our quest for happiness, our main aim should be to combat these emotions… Mental afflictions do not disappear on their own accord; they don’t simply vanish over time. They come to an end only as the result of conscious effort to undermine them, diminish their force, and ultimately eliminate them altogether.”

In Ethics for the New Millennium, the Dalai Lama states, “To say that we need to curb anger and our negative thoughts and emotions does not mean that we should deny our feelings. There is an important distinction to be made between denial and restraint. The latter constitutes a deliberate and voluntarily adopted discipline based on an appreciation of the benefits of doing so. This is very different from the case of someone who suppresses emotions such as anger out of a feeling that need to present a fa├žade of self-control, or out of fear what others may think. Such behavior is like closing a wound that is still infected.” He further states, “When we become angry, we stop being compassionate, loving, generous, forgiving, tolerant, and patient altogether. We thus deprive ourselves of the very things that happiness consists in. And not only does anger immediately destroy our critical faculties, it tends toward rage, spite, hatred, and malice – each of which is always negative because it is a direct cause of harm for others.”

We all have the power to control our reactions to certain situations. For example, suppose a husband walks into his bedroom and find his wife in the arms of another lover. Clearly, the first immediate reaction is anger and pain. Yet, if this person has incredible self-control, he needs to do nothing except make the couple aware of his presence. The two people who have committed the infidelity will naturally feel guilt, embarrassment and pain. If the wife loves the husband, she will probably beg for remorse. The husband does not need to react at all because the guilty parties will take responsibility. It is idealistic to assume that the husband will not feel pain but the pain can be healed over time. The anger expressed at the moment can never be taken back. In fact, the husband has a number of decisions in response to this scenario: 1) he can confront his wife calmly and hold her responsible for her actions, 2) he can explode with irrational anger, bitterness and hatred; 3) he can walk out of the room and deal with the situation at a later time; 4) he can provide her with the opportunity to feel remorse and ask forgiveness; 5) he can eventually forgive her; 6) he can repress what he saw and do nothing; or 7) he can choose to divorce her. Anger is only one of many responses to this painful situation.

The need to further “punish” the wife for her infidelity falls into the category of revenge, which is not an appropriate response (because revenge creates a separate negative action). If the husband is unable to forgive his wife’s indiscretion, he should divorce her without inflicting additional damage through revenge. Revenge not only punishes the wife unfairly but also hurts the husband by creating hatred, bitterness and aggression.

The Dalai Lama further states, ”An important practice is distancing ourselves from strong emotions before they arise in us… When we feel anger or hatred we think that that the anger is bringing more energy, more decisiveness, swifter reactions… However, there are many unfortunate repercussions… If someone treats us unjustly, we must analyze if we can bear the injustice. If the negative consequences are not too great, I think it is best to accept it… I think that anger and hatred actually cause more harm to us than to the person responsible for our problem. Imagine that your neighbor hates you and is always causing problems for you. If you lose your temper and develop hatred toward him, your digestion is harmed, your sound sleep goes, and you have to start to use tranquilizers and sleeping pills. You then have to increase the dosages of these, which harms your body. Your mood is affected; as a result, your old friends hesitate to visit you. You gradually get more white hair and wrinkles and you may eventually develop more serious health problems. Then your neighbor is really happy. Without having inflicted any physical harm, he has fulfilled his wish! If in spite of his injustices, you remain calm, happy, and peaceful, your health remains strong, you continue to be joyful, and more friends come visit you. Your life becomes more successful. This really brings about worry in your neighbor’s mind. I think that this is the wise way to inflict harm upon your neighbor… There is a certain irrationality in responding to injustice or harm with hostility. Our hatred has no physical effect on our enemies; it does not harm them. Rather, it is we who suffer the ill consequences of such overwhelming bitterness. It eats us from within… It affects us profoundly, while our enemies continue along, blissfully unaware of the state we have been reduced to.”

A situation that provokes the natural response of anger is only a test. Do we have the patience and restraint to avoid the natural tendency toward anger and hatred? Or can we rise above the situation and remain calm? According to the Dalai Lama, “When we are faced with an enemy, a person or group of people wishing us harm, we can view this as an opportunity to develop patience and tolerance. We need these qualities; they are useful to us. And the only occasion we have to develop them is when we are challenged by an enemy. So, from this point of view, our enemy is our guru, our teacher. Irrespective of their motivation, from our point of view enemies are very beneficial, a blessing.”

Anger is a form of temporary insanity. We may find that if we can restrain our initial impulse to respond, the anger naturally subsides with time. As a friend explained, “Some comments or actions have caused me to feel intense anger and I usually feel the need to respond to the injustice immediately. Sometimes my desire for confrontation is overpowering. If I can’t reach the person to express my feelings, I have resorted to writing an email so that I can get the issue ‘off of my chest’ immediately. Undoubtedly, my response is harsher than if I had waited a few hours or days to respond. In some cases, friendships have been severed as a result of my reaction. On the other hand, when I have allowed time to pass, I find that the anger naturally becomes less severe. In some cases, I wonder why I was so angry at the time. A comment that causes extreme pain can appear to be insignificant a few days later. I have learned that if I have the restraint to avoid a confrontation right away, my responses are much more humane.”

Other manifestations of anger include jealousy and impatience. Jealousy is expressed because we are afraid of losing someone or something that we believe rightfully belongs to us. How can this definition apply to a human being? We do not own people. Our partners do not belong to us. A relationship is the choice to be with a person we love. Jealousy often results without an action of physical intimacy toward another human being; instead, it is the feeling that the object of our love desires someone else. If our partner desires another human being, clearly an infraction has occurred and the relationship has been violated. We can respond by ending the relationship, forgiving the person, expressing envy, feeling pain or feeling jealous of the “object” of desire. Jealousy is only a symptom of a much larger problem. Anger will never cure jealousy because jealousy results from insecurity, low self-esteem, irrational mistrust or a belief that the relationship is in trouble. Anger only exacerbates the problems that already exist. The irony of jealousy is that it cannot exist with true love. Love is impossible without trust, while jealousy implies a lack of trust. Jealousy says more about the person who expresses it than any external situation that appears to precipitate it. Since jealous people feel that they must “own” their partners, inevitably jealousy in a relationship will ensure its failure. One person consistently feels anger at the slightest provocation and the partner feels resentment for the lack of trust. Jealousy in a relationship is anger that will ultimately lead to destruction.

Another form of anger is impatience. We have all at one time or another felt out of control by long lines, traffic jams or other people’s perceived incompetence. Anger never solves these problems because by definition, they are out of our control. Controlling anger means that we need to feel comfort with elements that we cannot affect. Switching lanes in a traffic jam does not make the problem go away. If there is no exit or alternative route, we will only hurt ourselves by feeling angry. Does the anger really make us feel better or worse? The anger also channels itself into guilt. Unfortunately, instead of feeling anger, we feel a range of negative emotions. We feel guilty for making someone wait; we feel irresponsible for being unable to make the appointment and we feel anger that an external event caused all of these unfortunate results. Life always presents unexpected surprises and some of these events are negative. Since we have all been faced with unfortunate external circumstances, most people will understand and forgive the event that precipitated the inconvenience. We need to take the natural anger we feel and release it. Anger is under our control. We can simply decide not to express it.

The most dangerous form of anger is anger towards ourselves. Why do we want to punish ourselves? Anger usually appears because we expect more from ourselves than we are capable of achieving. We schedule too many appointments; we have unrealistic goals; we set idealistic deadlines; or we just don’t feel like accomplishing tasks that would mitigate the anger toward ourselves. These circumstances are actually the easiest to control. We can change our expectations and we can “let ourselves off the hook.” We are only human and often we just need to adjust our view of reality. In essence, we do what we want to do. There is a limited amount of time in the day and every minute of the day, we set our priorities. Some priorities may conflict with preconceived commitments, but we have to realize that there is nothing wrong with changing our priorities. We need to live in the present, rather than the past or the future. Today’s present is tomorrow’s past and yesterday’s future. Without the present, the past and future do not even exist. Time is only an illusion. We will eventually accomplish what we need to accomplish and the timelines we set are merely arbitrary.

Anger results from so many factors that it is impossible to list them all here. Anger often arises from an inability to accept people who are different from ourselves or because we expect more from a person than he or she is able to give. We may also feel anger if our beliefs and behavior are rejected by others or if someone receives something that we believe we deserve. In essence, disagreement, differences or expectations provoke anger. All of these types of anger result from insecurity, impatience or an idealistic view of the world. If we were truly secure with ourselves, rejection or differences could never cause anger. We are all unique individuals. If we let these differences upset us, we will always feel anger instead of peace. Furthermore, if we were patient, we could adjust our expectations. Anger is merely a difference between our concept of “fairness” or “equality” and the reality of the world. Yet, the truth is that life just isn’t fair.

Anger is clearly a negative response, while patience and tolerance are positive attributes. Expressing positive emotions in response to a negative scenario is not a sign of weakness; it is an expression of incredible strength. Anger is easy; patience, restraint and tolerance are close to godliness.

If we love others, we should be able to give more power to our love than to our anger. When God is represented as angry and resentful, it is in violation with our concept of a loving God. Love is not anger. Love is not vengeful. As stated in the New Testament, “Love is always patient and kind, it is never jealous. Love is never boastful or conceited. It is never rude or selfish. It does not take offense, and it is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth. It is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope and to endure; whatever comes. “

If we have the power to overcome anger in the presence of pain, we have the strength to rise above our humanity. No other human being can “cause” us to feel anger; it is simply a personal decision that leads to more pain and suffering. Instead of feeling anger, we can feel compassion. Instead of negatively reacting without patience, tolerance or understanding, we can express restraint and forgiveness. If we love others as ourselves, we can suppress our “natural” tendency toward anger with an understanding that we are all human beings striving for perfection and ultimately, we can understand that everyone makes mistakes.

Anger is a “knee jerk” reaction when confronted with a problem, inconvenience or frustration. It is easier to say harsh words with a degrading tone of voice when our “buttons” are pushed. It is easier to yell at inconsiderate drivers than to show compassion for their obvious lack of respect. Any situation that “causes” anger is an opportunity. Each person who aggravates us is a potential teacher for us. We should just view each situation as a test of our patience and restraint.

Spiritual evolution is not supposed to be easy. If we let the situation pass without feeling anger, we may be surprised at the contentment that surfaces. There is a sense of satisfaction knowing that an external event cannot cause us to react internally. The rude driver continues his day without thinking twice about the anger that was expressed. Yet, the anger we feel can last for hours. One rude gesture can make us feel that our sense of justice has been violated. Instead of reacting to the loss of a few seconds on a highway, we feel anger about the larger injustices of the world. We need to put life back into perspective. We are all human beings rushing around trying to get from place to place -- and some people will not let others get in their way. These types of actions usually have nothing to do with us, so why do we react to them so negatively?

In Tamar Frankiel’s book, The Gift of Kabbalah, she states, “If all the therapies and healing movements of the last two centuries have accomplished anything, it is to demonstrate beyond doubt that some of the patterned physical and emotional responses we accumulate are counterproductive, self-contradictory, and damaging to health and relationships. This is not a big surprise: Jewish mysticism, along with many other spiritual traditions, recognized the danger of carrying negative emotions. Scholarly rabbis, Zen masters and Christian monks all agree that passions such as anger, lust, and depression are hindrances on the spiritual path.”

We not only have power in controlling our own emotions, but we also have the power to mitigate the anger of others by apologizing even when we know that an apology is unwarranted. For example, one evening, my mother made some lemon bars and I cut one of them while they were cooling. When she saw me eating the lemon bar, she became angry that I had not waited until all the lemon bars were cut evenly. Normally, I would have responded to her anger by becoming angry myself. The need to have equally cut lemon bars seemed to be a petty reason for an argument. However, I merely apologized for ruining all of the lemon bars (even though my father later cut the rest of the bars and they were all the exact same size). When this tactic for instigating an argument was unsuccessful, she accused me of ruining Thanksgiving dinner because now the lemon bars would not be evenly cut. Surely, this remark should have made me angry because it was an absurd proclamation. Yet, I knew I could simply refuse to respond with anger. I merely apologized for ruining Thanksgiving dinner by cutting a lemon bar before they were evenly cut. I knew these apologies were unwarranted but they served the purpose of ensuring that an argument could not take place. Mutual anger and arguments were avoided simply because I refused to “take the bait.”

Undoubtedly, we have the ultimate power over our emotions. In response to a chaotic world, we can choose not to react. We all have the strength to remain calm when the rest of the world is trying to drive us crazy. We don’t have to succumb to the chaos -- instead, we can transcend it. As cited in Proverbs 16:32, “He who is slow to anger is better than the strong man, and a master of his passions is better than a conqueror of a city.”

We do not need to automatically express our “normal” human reactions. If we can take a step back, breathe slowly, and find inner peace, we can respond to others with love and compassion -- instead of anger, impatience, bitterness and resentment. This internal strength increases our happiness, improves our health, strengthens our relationships, and ensures that others are not deeply hurt by words or gestures that can never be taken back.
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