Thursday, April 4, 2013

Anger Redux

Is anger bad? Is it bad for a person to get angry? For much of my life I believed anger was a bad emotion and that really good people don't get angry. During those years I fought my angry impulses whenever they arose. I was determined to vanquish anger. I wanted to be a man of peace, forever calm and loving. I knew well the traditional teachings of the Jewish ethicists, the baale musar, who decried anger as a most evil trait. I reminded myself of the Talmud's admonition that "anyone who angers it is as if s/he worshiped idols". I tried meditation. I tried reading spiritual texts. I gave myself little lectures on the subject. And in the end, as you can imagine, I had little success. Yes for a period of time I might keep my temper from flaring but eventually I would succumb. Try as I might I failed again and again to rid myself of my feelings of anger. All I succeeded to do was become angry at myself for getting angry.

Yet as I matured I began to wonder if the problem was in me or in my assumption about anger.I began to re-examine anger and whether it truly was an evil trait. In this week's parsha, that of Shmini, Moshe gets angry at the two surviving sons of his brother Aharon for not eating the sin offering as the laws required. And it's not the only time Moshe gets angry in the Torah. In my count we are told of at least six time when Moshe got angry, and he is the exemplar of spiritual excellence. Moreover our tradition ritualizes anger and validates it. When a near relative dies we are mandated not only to cry but to vent anger. The tearing of the clothing, a requirement by halacha, is to express our anger at our loss. If anger was bad why give it expression?

What's more I began to learn about the psychic issues around anger and emotional health. Anger is an emotion. To deny our feelings is not a good thing at all. When one feels angry and cannot acknowledge the feeling, deeming it unacceptable, one tends to internalize the anger. It can lead to depression and/or be somatized in physical ailments and diseases. Years ago Harriet Goldher Learner wrote a classic on anger and women titled "The Dance of Anger". She is strong is arguing that women do themselves and their relationships great harm when they deny the feeling of anger within. And we might well wonder are those who don't allow their anger for whatever reason, safety or piety, really not angry? Have they conquered their anger or just forced it undergound? The peaceful man or woman may be someone who has simply repressed his/her feelings. We pay a price for repressed feelings!

So what now? How do I reconcile the negative attitudes about anger found in the tradition with the contrary evidence also found there. And how do I remain whole and healthy if I cut off an important feeling and stifle an emotional expression?

I suspect part of our issue with anger is our difficulty in examining it closely. When we are in it it is consuming and hardly a matter for analysis. When we don't feel it we are loathe to come near. Anger is rarely pretty.

Let's you and I examine anger together. It's a big emotion. It is weighty and complex. We can't do it all. But I think we can take some first steps. And in examining anger alone, without any further action taken, already we make strides in becoming it's master rather than its slave.

When Moshe in this week's parsha got angry what we notice is how controlled the anger was. Yes he had the feeling. Yes he expressed the feeling. But he was careful to give it voice in a productive mannner. He expressed the anger, the anger did not express him!
Look at the story. Moshe was in fact angry with Aharon. He was angry that Aharon did not conduct the rituals as Moshe thought proper.
Yet he voiced the anger at Aharon's sons, Elazar and Itamar. Why? so as not to embarass his older brother! The anger was not the problem so long as he vented it properly. And when Moshe confronted Elazar and Itamar he does not belittle them. He does not get petty.
He rebuked them for what he perceived was a serious failing. And indeed when Aharon explained to Moshe why he and his sons did what they did Moshe acknowledged that he was wrong, and they were right. The Torah does not say Moshe apologized. He was not wrong in being angry. There is nothing wrong in being angry if we channel it correctly. Anger is a feeling. It can be neither good not bad of itself. It's only the expression of it that can be at times wrongful. Moshe had nothing for which to apologize.

When we say to someone after a fit of anger "I am sorry for being angry" we are not sorry for the right reason. There is nothing wrong with being angry initself. Its the way we behaved when angry that may well warrant the apology.

Let's move a step deeper into the pool of anger. When someone we love is angry often our first question is "who are you angry at?".
It is as if anger without a a target of the anger is unacceptable. If we have no one we can be angry at we have no right to be angry.
But that is a patently false assumption. When the bereaved family tear the garments in expression of anger after the death of a loved one who are they angry at? G-d? Can't be. It would not be acceptable and immediately prior they make a blessing accepting G-d's judgement as just. No the mourners have no target of their anger. "Who are you angry at" is the wrong question. The critical question to ask is "what's making you angry?". Anger always has a cause. It need not have a target! All too often we dump our anger on someone as if they caused it. That may well be why anger is deemed so much a negative emotion. And indeed when we are angry, if we are to use the emotion well, we need to look at its source. Finding a scapegoat is counter-productive. It shows a character flaw in us rather than reflect of anger's evil.

Even as I can learn to better contain my anger, without denying it. I can grow as a mature and balanced person so that what makes me angry is truly worthy of the emotion. When I was young every time my football team lost I got angry, and that was quite often! Now I may be disappointed but not angry. As we grow spiritually what angers us becomes less about selfish designs that got thwarted and more about others we love and care for and their wellbeing. It's true Moshe got angry many times in the Torah. Yet he was only punished for one episode of anger. Each time Moshe got angry it was prompted by concerns for others. In this week's parsha Moshe got angry when he thought Aharon and his surviving sons had not followed the required rituals of the sacrifices. You recall this all happened in the aftermath of the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon's eldests, who died that day after a violation of ritual in the Temple. Moshe feared a further tragedy. He got angry because he loved Aharon and because he loved his nephews. He got angry as a parent might get angry if their young child crossed the street without looking both way so as to be safe. The parent's anger is stimulated by love.

Vanquishing anger is neither a useful nor desirable goal. We need to have a relationship with anger. It's not helpful to make it an enemy.
How we get angry matters. We need learn to express the feeling when it arises in a constructive way, to neither dump it on people who don't deserve it nor beat people up with it even when they have triggered our wrath. And what makes us angry matters. We need to spiritually mature so that we are more loving and understanding of others and of life as a whole. In growing spirtitualy we become more tolerant and less reactive when we don't get what we want. The bigger person gets angry just like the little person. The difference is what makes them angry ...and how they express it!

So we made a beginning. We made a start at taking the veil off the dreaded demon we call "anger". Talking about it is the first step in becoming it's master. The work lies before us. Our agenda is not to not get angry, but rather to get angry well!

Shabbat Shalom

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