Anger and morality

Anger and morality
(Image Copyright: © 2018 Fred Murphy) Anger has been tied to morality, but it isn't the only way and it is far from the best way.

I saw a photograph like this one, of a woman holding this sign at one of the many protests there have been recently. I had a strong reaction to it, which was, “No, you can keep your anger. I am paying attention, but anger is not the way.” 

When did anger become an indication of a person’s morality? We seem to have tied the two together, as if being terribly angry about an injustice in the world shows how moral you are. As if the angrier you are the more you understand the situation. But emotions are both natural and cultivated. And how angry you are doesn’t show your morality, but how much you’ve cultivated it to be your response to situations.

There’s a legend of a grandfather speaking to his grandson about the fight he has going on inside of himself between two wolves. One is anger, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, greed, and fear. The other is tolerance, compassion, love, joy, and generosity. ‘Which one wins?’ the grandson asks. The grandpa replies, ‘the one you feed.’

If you spend time cultivating anger in response to any and all injustices (perceived or real), then you’ll live in anger. And who will suffer? You will. And probably those around you too.

Anger is a powerful force. This is perhaps why people cultivate it because it makes them feel powerful. It’s strong enough to propel you into action. Yet, we all know what uncontrolled anger looks like. Anger, when acted upon in an unskilful way (and in truth, how many of us are acting skilfully when we’re under the seductive, raging power of anger?), is destructive. It can have far reaching and negative effects. Most of us have acted out of anger at some point in our lives and harmed someone we care about. It doesn’t feel good.

The way I see it, it takes a lot more strength to resist anger than to give into it. Anger is the lazy way. Just think about how easy it is to destroy something. It can take a matter of seconds to destroy something you spent years carefully building. It’s the easy way out.

Not only is your morality not shown to others through how angry you are, but by being angry you risk causing more harm. Your morality is shown to others through your behaviour, through how you treat them and how you make your decisions. Anger is not a sign of morality, and it isn’t the only way.

In every single moment that you are living on this earth something terrible is happening to someone somewhere – rape, murder, war, domestic abuse, human trafficking. In the time it’s taken you to read this far, something awful has probably happened to many many people. If we are to be angry on behalf of all of them (and if you aren’t angry on behalf of all of them then how did you make your choice as to who was worthy of your emotions?) then we must live our lives angry all the time. To make working for others your life’s work is noble. To spend every moment of your life angry on someone else’s behalf? That’s a waste.

If that’s how you want to live, go ahead. You only get this one life (or if you get more you can’t remember them), and so I choose joy, I choose love, and most of all I choose compassion. I choose to recognise that there is terrible injustice in this world and that those causing it are suffering too. That this world is a mess, and that we cannot cure it, because it’s human nature. We can make it a little better though. When moments arise and I have the chance to make a positive contribution, I’ll do so. And the more I practice compassion instead of anger, the more that will be my response. And the more that is my response, the more I’ll be contributing to minimising the destructive, harmful forces in the world, because I’m not engaging with them.

The history of humanity is the history of war, conflict, struggle and difficulty. It’s the story of individual human lives lived and loved, fragile and precious, forgotten and unknown. In amongst that, in the only place they can be found are love, joy and connection. If you don’t experience these in amongst the chaos, when will you be allowed to feel them? When we have no more murder, torture, human trafficking? We’ll all be dead before that happens.

Don’t feel guilty for joy. Joy, love and belonging are not a privileges, they are your birth-right. They are what makes life meaningful. They are what propel you forward to make a difference when you’ve stopped choosing anger. Don’t miss these precious moments because you were too busy being righteous and angry.

Mary Oliver’s words are speaking to me these days – about how sad life is, how humans are so unkind and terrible to each other, and how we must find love and joy in amongst that, so I leave you with her words which say it all so beautifully.