The gift of anger

I have written about modern popular stoicism, and how that has inspired my thoughts on the inner citadel. However, I grew less fond of the rejection of anger. Yes, you hear me right, I advocate to not rid yourself of anger. Why so? Let me state some brief reasons to support this. I will hopefully elaborate more in the future.

While I’m not a big follower of Jordan Peterson, his (and others’) opinion that anger has utility value is worth considering: anger gives you the ability to counter the terror that could freeze you in a life-death situation. Of course, there is an easy straw man here. The modern Stoics would soon point out that we modern humans rarely face life-death situations — boss’s upsetting emails, and internet trolling don’t constitute life-threatening scenarios as much as a panther in the bush that’s going to pounce on you. However, to me, this logic is not sound —- without the emotional energy (such as generated by anger), individuals (and hence collectives) will not have the willingness to overcome friction to change the situation that’s causing the pain. In this case, one can argue, without the energy of collective anger, we can never defeat the shadow side of our species, such as slavery, racism, and modern versions of those things that are very much still present in 2022. We can only change the world via the right leadership and communication, both rely on our energy. But anger and its energy need to be channeled appropriately (or, using a popular psychology phrase: anger can be reframed), just to not create another narcissistic terrible leader like we had enough in politics, technology, and science.

So what am I advocating? Certainly not hitting the reply button right after you type up that angry email — at least not immediately. Just like Marcus Aurelius would, remind ourselves that betrayal is common, but we need to use our energy to fight those who betray us strategically. I recall one of the modern popularizers of Zen in China, Huai-Jin Nan used to mention in this book (I paraphrase in my own words): 真正的佛法不是道貌岸然的. Rough translation and interpretation by JJ: the true Buddhist spirit is not the appearance of floweriness or solemnness; it’s full of liveliness and energy

Here, I somewhat butcher the Buddhist’s thoughts by repurposing them in my own way:

  • When I feel angry, in the spirit of the late Thich Nhat Hanh, I propose simple treatment as first aid.
    • When you feel the anger burst, talk to yourself or your anger, saying tenderly:
      • Anger (or “your name”), I see you, I know you are in pain.
      • I sense your energy, and I know that energy is precious
      • I will take care of you; I will be a part of the change and the solution I want to see happening in the world.
Written on November 11, 2022