Anger is one of the more debilitating experiences one can have. It is not without its place, but when it is not understood – or when it is give more time and energy than it merits – the results can be very painful. Letting go of anger – through understanding and through conscious choice – allows us to be more peaceful and helpful people.
A few weeks after my daughter was born I woke up before dawn and went downstairs to bake bread and write. I sat there in the kitchen of our house, drinking tea, typing away on a computer. I remember very vividly the sense of peace and creativity in that moment. It was very quiet, very potent. While the bread rose, I wrote a poem entitled “My Daughter’s One Month Birthday” that was later published in the Chiron Review.
Baking bread at 4 a.m. –
sliced olives tossed in oil –
my old friend anger
watching me from the corner.
That was in many ways a sad poem for me, but it was also an important one. It acknowledged the fundamental health of the moment – baking bread, writing – but took due note of the fact that anger was there waiting. It was not the poem of a healed man, but a man being given a brief respite.
We have to see this about ourselves – we cannot pretend we are without flaws. It is only by being willing to see ourselves as broken that we can turn with any meaning to the one who can heal us.
Unfortunately, there is often a gap between seeing the problem and having it forgiven. Coping with anger is more than just figuring out where and in what way one can be angry. A more radical healing is called for.
When I was a kid, I was known for two things. My eloquence and anger. I could talk circles around anybody – well, almost anybody – but I was also highly sensitive. The slightest thing could set me off.
When I reflect on it, anger felt like a muscle that I was always flexing. It was an energy field from which I drew a lot of sustenance. I don’t know why. It seems like at some point in childhood I just suddenly had this presence with me, as if I had acquired a friend that I could not see, yet trusted completely. Anger had my back. Does that make sense? The poem I wrote makes this clear – anger is “an old friend.”
I won’t say anger is good – I won’t. Though my own anger rarely manifested in physical ways (though on a couple of occasions it did), it still hurt people. I said stupid things to people that I loved. I behaved like an idiot – walking out of important conversations, not returning phone calls. Anger is protective, of course, but at the cost of destruction. It wants to ruin what it thinks will hurt its host and it has no capacity for long-term thinking. Anger always surges into the Now but like a tempest, a bull.
Anger doesn’t want to ask questions and it doesn’t want to be questioned. It wants to create a space in which one can be safe. But it never really works because it never addresses the fear that is driving it, that is creating the apparently dangerous situation. So we end up in a perpetual cycle of fear and anger and fear and anger.
So letting go of anger matters. Anger is the barbed edge of fear. There’s no point in trying to understand it otherwise. I’ve certainly been a beneficiary of talk therapy over the years, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from giving it a go, but there’s going to come a moment when it’s you and your fear. Anger promises to help – that’s what anger says, I’ll take care of you. I’ve got your back. It’s like the parent you never had, or wish you had.
Letting go of anger means saying no to it. Literally feeling its rush to the fore and pushing it back. No thanks. Not this time. You aren’t powerless before your anger, no matter how strong and intense and massive it might seem. You made it. Don’t ask why because why doesn’t matter. Whatever it was for back in the day, you can’t get back. What worked for you when you were five, or eight, or ten, or sixteen, won’t work now. Let it go.
There is another way.
That way has to do with facing the fear that you scarred over with anger. The fear isn’t real, either. You made that, too. You will have to let it go as well. But before you get there, you have to give up your anger. You don’t need the protection any longer. What you are cannot be hurt or injured, because it is abstract and spiritual, and eternal. It doesn’t matter if you believe that or don’t believe it. Right now – this minute – it’s all in your head. You are making it all up as you go. Letting go of anger and resentment can seem impossible but it’s easy.
It’s okay. We can see this, too. We can let this be healed, too.Habitual emotional responses don’t go away easily, though. They surface and recur. They sometimes find new channels, as if they don’t want to be forgotten or abandoned.
The relationship between the fear and the anger is not always rational – in fact, sometimes it’s irrational. Try not to judge this – but simply let it be. Assume that somewhere in your psyche or consciousness you created a link. If it seems foolish in the light, well, okay. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. That doesn’t mean we can’t take it seriously in the interests of healing it.
Sometimes it was helpful for me to say something like, Okay. I’m not seeing the fear here that’s causing the anger. Where would someone else see it? Where – or what – could it be, if it could be anything?
Other times, I simply had to trust that – even though I couldn’t identify the fear – it was still there. Even if all I could do was acknowledge fear, it still helped to defuse the anger.
Another trick I learned to help undo the immediate effects of anger was to focus on my breath. One of the things that happened to me when I was angry was I stopped breathing – or breathed in a very quick and shallow manner. This kind of breathing fuels the body’s sense that it needs to either fight or take flight – and that, too, keeps the anger vital and alive.
When I concentrated on breathing properly – even for just a few moments – it helped. The physical intensity of the moment decreased and I was able to think a bit more clearly. If there is something that needs to be done – a decision to be made or something, we can do it better from a place of relative calm.
So what I am saying is that we need to be willing to see fear differently. That’s it. That’s enough. Just let the fear be – you don’t have to defend yourself, don’t have to attack it, don’t have to understand it, don’t have to define it, don’t have to justify it, explain yourself to it, explain it to someone else, make art of it, hide from it, talk to it or dance or celebrate with it in any way. Just be. You and the fear.
Coping with anger is not spending a day at the beach, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I stand as witness to the freedom that follows the surrender – which is very much an ongoing process – of anger. We hurt ourselves – and sometimes we hurt people who are dear to us. So we have to see that damage, which is to also see the need for healing. And then we ask for help. Lots of it maybe.
I promise that if you can sit with the fear for a moment – honestly without reserve for just one moment – then your anger will subside. It will go away because you don’t need it anymore. It’s like putting the fork down when you’ve finished eating. Nothing left on the plate, no need for a tool to scoop it up.
Easy? No. Simple? Yes.
Sean, thank you. I come from a family where anger surrounded me. My three siblings still use it frequently, but it is rarely directed at me. Still it affects and colors my relationships with them. After reading this sharing, I now have another way to look at their anger….it is just their fear. I do fear in a much quieter way; they do it in a louder way. I am headed to a family reunion in a few weeks. I will practice this new insight. Many thanks….
You’re welcome, Robin. I’m glad it was helpful. It is a good point you make – that anger, even when we are not its object, still colors the relationships in which it appears. I know we are all in different places with respect to our ability – and interest – in dealing with fear, guilt and anger, but still. Toning it down and feeling more empowered with respect to its appearance and affects seems to lead to more peace and gentleness overall. What’s not to like in that, right?
Thank you again for reading & sharing. Enjoy the family reunion . . .