Transforming Anger to Compassionate Agitation

I have been thinking a lot about anger lately, mostly because it has seemed to become a more popular emotion for me, which is new, and slightly disturbing.  I used to stay up at night dreaming up curriculum for my classes, and I noticed a shift to dreaming about telling people off.  I think anger has something to do with being right, or thinking that I am right.  And that seems to have something to do with self-importance, and taking myself all too seriously.

I am currently in my third year of teaching, and I worry about it as a career.  I used to love to be a student, I loved to learn, and although I got good grades, I never worried about being right.  I wonder, now that I am a teacher, I spend more time proclaiming and less time listening.  Could that be affecting my anger, my sense of self- righteousness? Do teachers feel the need to be right?

Now, I am not a relativist.  I do not think that all opinions are equally valid.  I am with Socrates.  I believe that humans have the tendency to be like sheep, and it is good to question, to form my own opinions, to become intelligently non-conformist.  And I do think that there are some times when I am right, and that rightness needs to be proclaimed in the face of wrongness.

And I do see some people taking the path of least resistance in order to avoid anger.  Anger turns people off, it is offensive and hurtful, but then again, so is apathy, right?

And some women tend to avoid anger because it is not an emotion that is valued in women like it is in men.  Angry men are strong.  Angry women are overly emotional bitches in the middle of their period who should be dismissed as irrational.

I just want to sleep at night.  And that is a choice.  To be asleep or be awake.  And people who are awake get angry more often, and loose more sleep.  There is a point where anger is paralyzing instead of creative, and that is the line I am trying to draw.  I know too much anger is unhealthy, but is a little bit a sign of paying attention to injustice?

My spouse and I were listening to sermon podcast about the man who got trampled to death on Black Friday at Wal-Mart.  It was a horrible story.  And I went into Best Buy right after that and freaked out.  I started to cry.  I felt righteous and angry.  I felt awake, as I watched everyone there buy things that would help them stay asleep.  I think our country is obsessed with consuming, focusing too much on what we have and not who and how we love.  We have too much while others have too little.  In this matter, which is severely brought to light during the holidays at Best Buy, I think I am right, and I think it it worth of a little anger.  If that anger moves me do something to change our systems.

This is not, however, the type of anger keeping me up at night.  There was a misunderstanding at my work place that kept me up at night for a week.  I was replaying conversations and inserting more effectively stinging lines where I wish I would have said them.  This is not creative anger.  This is paralyzing.  A good friend shared a quote with me that instantly gave me the language I was looking for. “The first moment I feel anger I have stopped moving toward truth and started moving toward myself.”  (Buddha)  And that was it.  I was so ready to hear that.  The paralyzing anger is self-centered, while the creative anger is seeking truth.  One is static, one is dynamic.  I have been actively working on taking myself less seriously in matters of the former.  I have been taking myself more seriously in the latter.  Anger is starting to be replaced by truth.

Anger is a sign that there is hurt to be tended to.  Anger is an emotion that may be felt in the quest for truth.  In these ways, not all anger is to be avoided if it can be used as creative energy to bring change.  There are some things worth losing a little sleep over, but my ego is not one of them.  I began to think about compassionate agitation over anger, and it has made all the difference.

  • Absolute truth, beautifully written. Thank you Ellie.

    I taught a 20 hour course on non-violence for years to classroom teachers and members of the community. The concept that anger isn’t wrong or right so much as a compelling force that CAN (with intent) be channeled for good was difficult for people to grasp.

    As for sleep, I too lie awake in the middle of the night. Instead of being frustrated, I’ve learned to ask “what am I awake to understand?” and then wait for a response. The response comes in half-dreams, images, feelings—best if I “get out of my head” and approach the waiting from my heart. I’ve learned that middle of the night wakefulness can be an important part of noticing my inner life, perhaps the only time when my better angels can get my attention.