Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.
Ephesians 4:31, New International Version
When writing a blog entry about anger, I deliberately sought out a quote from the Bible, a book (or, rather, a collection of books) that normally triggers angry feelings in me. The goal was to try to find something positive in there despite my instincts to the contrary. Amid all of the verses about God unleashing his anger — and there were many of them — it was nice to find some good advice about human anger. I suppose the Bible is not all bad.
You see, I’ve been feeling tremendous amounts of anger lately directed at a variety of sources.
When I found out that a jury convicted Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of child sex abuse, I reacted the way most people probably did: seething at a man who used his influence to take advantage of so many trusting children, including his own adopted son. When I found out that a jury convicted financier Tim Durham and his business associates on fraud charges, I had similar feelings: perhaps gleefully imagining the horrible things that are sure to befall all of these men in prison. They surely deserve it, right?
But this feeling accomplishes nothing. Revenge does not in any way compensate a victim or undo the damage that these men did. Instead, it perpetuates the tragedy and causes more pain. It might feel satisfying for a moment, but once the moment passes, you are still left with the memory of terrible tragedies for which there is no possible resolution or restitution.
What about political or ideological anger that motivates us to fight for a particular cause? Surely that is more productive, right?
It is certainly a step up from revenge on the grand scheme of things, but that is somewhat like ascending into a higher circle of hell from a lower circle. You are still (metaphorically) on fire. And you’re probably so distracted by your emotions that your effectiveness wains. Nothing changes, you get angrier, and the downward spiral continues.
I’ve been taught before that “anger is a secondary emotion.” The lesson, of course, is that in order to address it in a healthy way, we must identify what emotion is behind the angry cloak.
For me, I believe the true emotion is helplessness. There is absolutely nothing I can do to help the children who were assaulted by Jerry Sandusky. There is nothing I can do to compensate the people who lost their savings as a result of Tim Durham and his associates. That much is obvious, and that is what makes me really foam at the mouth.
What was less obvious is that there is also very little I can do affect the way the larger world works. If the Supreme Court strikes down the health care reform law and returns the United States to the status quo, I will be deeply disappointed and, yes, angry, but I have to realize that these are decisions being made by people whom I have never met and likely do not care what I think anyway. I can vote, I can make small campaign contributions and I can share my views with others, but I ultimately cannot control the outcome in any meaningful way by myself. It is what it is.
I have found some solace in the Tao Te Ching when I experience these emotions. Maybe I should practice it a little more so that I can be more centered.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
Tao Te Ching