We seem to be getting angrier and angrier as a society. People’s words and actions upset us, and we rail against bad policies and leaders. We get frustrated when our friends don’t seem to get angry enough. And our opponents’ anger is simply infuriating: What do they have to be angry about?
Anger can play a positive role if it inspires us to stand against wrongdoing. But surprisingly often, we get angry about wrongdoing but don’t do anything. Instead, we just talk and think about how angry we are. We talk obsessively with our allies, we gossip about the bad people on the other side, we post and repost slogans on social media, and we get even angrier.
Indulging anger in this way becomes an alternative to positive action. It causes harm to our health because it stresses us out and makes it harder to sleep. It is harmful in other ways as well:
First, it keeps us from thinking clearly and strategically about how we can reach our goals most effectively. Instead, it inspires us to make snarky and hurtful comments, scoring cheap points. I know how gratifying it is to land a devastating comment, especially if the target is a person that I don’t like. But it’s a bad long-term strategy because it makes it much harder for us to work together in the future. And it’s mean.
Second, anger distorts our view of the people who anger us. It makes their flaws loom large, and it hides their good sides. It prevents us from giving them the benefit of the doubt. Instead, it makes us attribute shadowy motivations to them and assume that their ugliest words and actions represent them at their core. It keeps us from trying to see things from other people’s point of view, and lets us think we’re 100% right and they 100% wrong. All this makes communicating and working together more and more difficult.
So what should we do instead?
· Don’t repress anger but acknowledge that it is there. Anger doesn’t go away just because we pretend not to see it. But don’t put it in charge and don’t let it make your decisions for you. Maha Ghosananda says: “If you come to my door, I say ‘yes please come in.’ But I can also say, ‘I am busy right now.’ You can do this to anger.” You have a choice. Use it.
· Make kinder choices when you interpret what other people do and say. People say things they don’t mean because they are tired, tense, or because you provoked them. Assume good motivations rather than bad ones. Try to see things from their point of view. Listen to understand and not to refute.
· Pay attention to how you feel and consider staying away from toxic situations. Has drinks after work turned into draining gripe sessions that make you feel worse? Change the situation if you can — others may be relieved. If that’s not possible, avoid the situation.
· Why are you angry? Dig deep here. It is easy to identify the external factors that contribute (the guy who cut me off in traffic, the woman who keeps interrupting me), but anger usually has internal sources as well — our own expectations, fears, and insecurities.
· Figure out what you can do to make things at least a little better or, at least, how you can keep from making them worse. Then do it. You’ll feel better and you’ll help the rest of us too.
***Maha Ghosananda (1913–2007) was a Cambodian Buddhist monk, who led the efforts to rebuild Buddhism in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge atrocities. He is quoted in Matthew Weiner’s essay “Maha Ghosananda as a contemplative social activist” (Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism, edited by Queen, Prebish and Keown, Routledge 2003.)
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