The Gift of Anger
Seven Steps to Uncover the Meaning of Anger and Gain Awareness, True Strength, and Peace
by Marcia Cannon, Ph.D., MFT
The Problems and Challenges Anger Creates in Our Society
A Special Report
By Dr. Marcia Cannon, Ph.D., MFT
(The research quoted in this article is as important today as when it was written in 2003.)
Our culture, like many others, teaches us that our anger is someone else’s fault. “You made me angry,” is a common statement. From the toddler first learning to speak to the oldest among us, many of us say it automatically, not even thinking about its meaning. We take for granted that if we are angry as a result of something someone else said or did, then our anger is the other person’s fault. What that person said or did caused our anger. It is that simple. Or is it? This report explores the pattern that develops from viewing anger as another’s fault.
If someone else can cause you to be angry, then that person has a lot of power over you. In a very real way, you are at that person’s mercy. You can hope that he or she will be kind and not do or say something that will bring forth your anger. Hope is usually not enough, however, so most of us opt for self-protection as well. We keep some of our energy focused on staying alert and wary toward others. To the extent that we do so, we feel less powerful, less safe.
Feeling less powerful or safe, we seek to reestablish our power by using our own anger as a weapon. Thus, many people have been taught that whoever angers them is their enemy, and that they should find ways to conquer their enemies and make their enemies pay. In fact, all of us are saturated with this belief. In books, movies, and throughout the media, under the battle cry of, “Don’t get mad; get even”, what is felt as hurtful behavior is interpreted as grounds for full-scale retaliation. In the event that we are unable or unwilling to avenge ourselves, we are often taught, at the very least, to hold onto our resentment and remember our pain.
As a result of such negative training, conflict often initiates a very destructive progression. Anger fosters resentment, which leads to retaliation. Retaliation then angers the other person, who retaliates in turn. This behavior ensures an escalation of negative emotions and actions. People become angry combatants, jockeying for power and control. In fact, that is what has happened, to a frightening extent, in America. Consider the following statistics, taken from the Harvard Mental Health Letter, June, 2002:
“In the United States, more than one in three murders is committed during an argument.”
“Millions of American women are abused by hot-tempered partners.”
“Enraged (American) drivers caused an estimated 200 deaths and 12,000 injuries in the early 1990’s”.
Anger fosters resentment, which leads to retaliation, which leads to further anger. We can see this spiraling, destructive scenario being acted out in people all over our country and all over the world. There is nowhere we can go without being bombarded by stories of escalating anger and its often violent results. The problem is great enough in America that experts describe it with growing concern and worry about our future. Consider the following quotes:
Dr. Robert Enright and Joanna North, in Exploring Forgiveness, 1998, Page 128, state,
“…we as a nation, have lost the art of rational argument and the ability to listen to one another. What we hear instead is a constant stream of anger and cynicism spewed out over the nation’s airwaves”.
Richard Beck and Ephrem Fernandez, writing in, Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1998, Volume 22, Number 1, page 63, state,
“With violent crime rising among adolescents, widespread familial abuse, continuing racial discord, and recent acts of terrorism, attention has turned to anger as a major problem in human relations.”
There is nothing particularly new in these facts. Anger and the violence it often leads to have been problems in our world for centuries, maintained and escalated through cultural training. What is different today is our easy access to one another and the sophistication of our weaponry.
We are living in very challenging times. Many people are angry, fearful and vengeful, while at the same time, our world has shrunk. Cheaper and faster transportation, the Internet, and our expanding global economy crowd us all together on our one, tiny, shared planet. Feelings are overflowing. The words “enemy” and “war” are common rallying cries all over the world.
We know this is so because the Internet, added to the other media options, has given so many of us instant access to the whole world. One result is that we can see, so much more clearly and graphically, the price we all pay for our collective anger. An even more worrisome result is that we now have the technological ability to escalate that price far beyond what we, as a planet, can afford.
On a technological level, our training, that the cause of our anger lies outside of us, and that we should nurse resentment and get even whenever possible, threatens us with the potential for permanent destruction. We have known for a number of years that America and a few other nations each have the capability to destroy Earth. While the “super powers” have tried to limit access to weapons of mass destruction, we have reached a point in our history where our potentially annihilating weaponry has been so proliferated that even unstable, minor military powers have access to it. From the individual level to the world-wide level, unhealed anger has become very, very expensive.
The angry battle against our fellow humans has been mirrored in our angry battle against Mother Nature. We talk of “conquering” the land. We speak of “taming” what little wilderness is left. Mother Nature has, too often, been the victim of our assaultive attempts to tame the wilds and win the supposed battle against her.
Again, there is nothing new in this behavior. We have been battling against nature for centuries. We have hunted species to extinction; polluted our skies and poisoned our earth, all in the name of personal rights and economic vitality. What is new is the extent and range of this battle. Robert Bly and Marion Woodman, writing in The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine, 1998, page 6, comment on the frightening results of this destructive process, stating, “Technocrats have raped Mother Earth, filled her with toxins, distorted her natural rhythms, until she can take no more. Now, having withstood all she can, Mother Nature is fighting back.”
As the level of pollution in many of our cities shows and the destruction of our rain forests exemplifies, our abuse of Earth, our only home, has reached a frightening stage. Marianne Williamson, in her book, Illuminata: A Return to Prayer, 1994, page 17, writes, “Our environment now threatens us as we have threatened it, through internal as well as external pollution.”
Our technology is permitting us to battle against Mother Nature so extensively that we are in danger of winning the war. We are in danger of conquering nature, thus destroying our only home, and ourselves, permanently.
Are we simply doomed? Will we, in our anger, continue to destroy each other and the earth, as well? The answer to this question is up to each of us.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
What would it take to change our anger’s destructive pattern? What would it take for each of us to do our part to create the world we hope for?
Patricia O’Connell Killen, writing in, Finding Our Voices, 1997, page 114, states that, “Healthy adulthood is not achieved until we have negotiated experiences of disillusionment and done so in a way that leaves us deeper, stronger, and wiser.”
Sherry Ruth Anderson and Patricia Hopkins, in their book, The Feminine Face of God, 1992, page 17, state that we each need to heal from our anger, reconnect with each other, and re-member our sense of community. As C. Mercer and T. Durham, write in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1999, Volume 38, number 1, page 175, we need to look at people as inseparably interconnected, to perceive the “unity in the diversity.”
Remembering the truth that we are all interconnected on our one tiny home, Earth, we can then see that declaring each other enemies is harmful to ourselves. This observation can lead each of us to redefine conflict as an opportunity for growth rather than a call to arms. Riane Eisler, in The Chalice and the Blade, 1987, page 192, states, “As individuals with different needs and desires and interests come into contact, conflict is inevitable. The question directly bearing on whether we can transform our world from strife to peaceful coexistence is how to make conflict productive rather than destructive.”
Writing in The Partnership Way, 1990, page 182, Eisler and David Loye focus on this movement from conflict as a call to arms to conflict as an opportunity for growth. They differentiate between a “dominator” model of society and a “partnership” model. “In a dominator model, conflict is emphasized…and might is equated with right… [while] in the partnership model, conflict is openly recognized, and dealing with it creatively in ways where both parties learn and grow is encouraged.”
Echoing the need for a partnership model, Charles Klein, writes in How To Forgive When You Can’t Forget, 1995, page 91, “For as long as people willingly accept the brokenness of precious relationships, there can be no hope for a worldwide day of healing and peace.”
In fact, in current literature there is much agreement that our world is at a turning point. Many agree that we now need to develop as a society that recognizes and values our interconnectedness. In When the Canary Stops Singing, 1993, page 184, Pat Barrentine writes, “We are entering a time when it is crucial to live as a unified body of individuals, as a global community.”
In a similar statement, we are told in Illuminata: A Return to Prayer, 1994, page 7, that, “Ultimately, the choice to love each other is the only choice for a survivable future.”
Best-selling business writer, Steven Covy, agrees. In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1990, page 209, Covy states, “Most of life is an interdependent…reality. Most results… depend on cooperation between you and others. A win/lose mentality is dysfunctional.” Covey emphasizes his point even further, stating, “If both people aren’t winning, both are losing.”
TAKING THE NECESSARY STEPS
How can we all win? In When the Canary Stops Singing, page 184, Pat Barrentine points the way. She states, “Community is shaped by the way we relate to one another and ourselves…community is first an attitude, a state of heart and mind…We get there by assuming 100% responsibility for our own lives and the role each of us plays.”
If you take these comments to heart, then rather than furthering conflict by defining your anger as the first step in a battle, you might choose, instead, to use it to initiate an exploration of your own needs and limits, and to further develop your conflict resolution skills. Doing so, your anger becomes the first step in a process that can lead to an increase in both personal and relational understanding and growth.
It is this individual change in your response, your redefining your anger as a first step on a path toward a deeper understanding of self and relationships, that holds the promise of your own healing and, by extension, society’s healing, as well. Most of us have been taught that one person can not make a difference in society, but that teaching is untrue. In fact, each of us, every moment, through our beliefs and our resulting actions, affects everyone around us.
The need for each of us to learn how to use our anger positively is both imperative and personal. We each need to heal from our own, individual angry experiences, and learn to use our own anger as a starting point in a process that leads to greater self-understanding and increased interpersonal harmony. The world will continue to reflect our choices. There is no better time to begin than now, and no more important place for each of us to start than within ourselves.