I have been thinking about anger. I often have the feeling there is too much anger in our society and pervasive anger is just not productive. There is too much vindictive anger in our political discourse as well. People seem to default to anger in stores, in traffic, in schools, in parking lots, and even sporting events if they perceive an offense against them. In almost all cases the emotional response does not fit the actual situation.
What is anger? Anger is a strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence aroused by an interpretation of being wronged or offended.
There is a place for anger, when it is in response to an injustice being committed and it brings us to speak up and to take action. Thomas Sergiovani, a prominent thinker in educational leadership, spoke of righteous indignation as the motivator to take action to correct the inequities in the educational system.
For the most part, anger is simply unproductive. Uncontrolled or frequent anger can affect the physical and social well-being of a person; in addition, frequently the angry person ends up being mistaken, because anger causes loss of the self-monitoring capacity and the ability to observe situations objectively. Put simply, anger clouds judgment and reality.
Why all the anger? Judaism, while recognizing the rightful place of anger, generally frowns upon anger as an acceptable emotion.
The rabbis teach: "Anyone who is angry – if he is wise, his wisdom flees from him. If he is a prophet – his prophecy flees from him. Those who live with rage, their lives aren't worth living; therefore, they commanded [us] to distance ourselves from anger to the point where we will not be sensitive to that which is worth being angry about. This is the best way, and the way of the righteous. They will take insults, but they will not insult others. They will heed their shame, and they will not respond. They only act out of love, and they are happy even in their affliction. It is written of them: "And those who love Him are like the sun that comes out when it is most mighty." (Judges 5:31)"
Too often I have seen people become prisoners of their anger. How sad for people who always seem to find something to be angry about or who are stuck in their anger about an issue or situation that has long since passed. Anger can be toxic; we confuse it with the righteous indignation we feel in response to injustice, but when it comes to perceived wrongs or insults committed against us as individuals, anger is seldom healthy or useful.
Save the righteous indignation for injustices in our society. Channel it to become God’s partners in repairing the world and making it a better place.
When it comes to ourselves and any wrong or insult we perceive against us, do not let anger confuse or consume reality. To begin, it is good to take to heart the teaching of the rabbis – “Judge everyone favorably.” In other words, give people the benefit of the doubt. It is rare that anyone wants to intentionally hurt or wrong another person.
As adults, parents and educators, it is incumbent upon us to be aware that our children watch us intently and learn at least as much from our actions and attitudes as they do from our words. If their primary role models address challenges, disagreements and even perceived slights and insults with anger and grudges, then it is likely that we will sentence our children to the same kind of unhappy, discontented life – for they will learn to respond to issues with anger as well. As a friend shared with me, "Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to die."
We can choose to respond to differences, disagreements, misunderstandings and life’s other challenges by addressing them calmly and thoughtfully. Often it is best to allow some time to elapse before responding. That time allows us to calm down, think more rationally, to truly reflect whether a response is warranted, and if so, how to respond in a respectful manner. We also need to sometimes accept that we have to agree to disagree and find productive ways to move forward; and we need to learn patience.
Most of all, we need to practice forgiveness. As I recently read, forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future. Not only will we be helping ourselves, we will also be showing our children healthier ways to address these issues.