We can’t divide emotions up as good or bad. We need to stop seeing them that way, and instead see them as either being applied appropriately or inappropriately. When we describe a man as having a bad temper, what we we really mean is that he often applies an unproductive thought pattern to the situation he’s in, and that in turn leads to unproductive behaviour. But the anger isn’t the problem. It’s his misuse of it.
If he was mad at Nazis, or slavery, or child abuse, then that could be quite helpful. Not everyone needs to be on the front lines of those battles, but someone does, and those people’s courage is often motivated by anger. So Gandhi and Martin Luther King and The Dalai Lama all have gotten angry. Angry at injustice, angry at intolerance, and angry at unnecessary cruelty. You don’t want hate, but anger provides fuel and energy for the most challenging kinds of battles in life. It simply must be applied appropriately.
To make the point, let’s flip the idea upside down. Suppose someone never got angry. Is that someone who would stop Nazis? Would that person stand up to a bully? Would that person physically defend people he loved from an attack? Would we see that person as being all that he could be, or would we feel he was missing something if he couldn’t act on the obviously moral cases listed above?
Without anger we are incomplete and we are prevented from living a full life. Think about it: could they show love in all of the ways someone who can get angry can? A couple years back a woman fought a large cougar off the back of her young daughter. Again: a small woman used her bare hands to save her daughter from the fourth largest wild cat on the planet. Think about how hard it would be to seriously fight with a house cat and you can get an idea of what she took on. Claws, teeth, size, weight, and the athleticism of a cat and still she won. You can bet it was anger that accomplished that.
Rosa Parks was tired after a long day at work, but she was also brave when she sat on that bus seat up front. There was a serious risk involved, but she did it anyway because she was angry about how things were. And some black families sent their kids to schools in Montgomery Alabama and that was terrifying for them and for the kids, but they were angry enough to gut it out through that in order to build a country where one of them could actually be elected President.
Every day women use anger to motivate them past their fears so that they can make the necessary plans to leave an abusive relationship. Every day kids use anger to defend themselves from abusive parents. Many good people use their anger about social injustice to motivate strong and important action in the public sphere. Anger isn’t a problem. We as a people simply need to raise our awareness so that we are giving proper consideration to the appropriateness of our thinking.
Getting angry at other drivers or trains blocking your commute makes no sense. Getting angry at a co-worker for being lazy when that’s all you’ve ever seen them be is just silly. Clearly they don’t see work as the same responsibility you do, so stop trying to give them a whole new childhood and just accept the fact that that is who they are and your anger will not change that.
You are responsible for the application of your emotions. It is you who must break out of the patterns of thought established by your history. You must begin to consciously choose to raise your awareness to the point where you are literally choosing how you feel moment by moment. And on top of that, you should be choosing it because it is leading you in the direction that you simply know you want to go. These are not directions that can be decided by others.
Your thoughts are always choices. Your emotions are never wrong, they are merely the sums of your thinking. If the answer you’re getting isn’t solving your problem, then maybe you’re applying an inappropriate formula. Maybe you need to change the thinking you’re doing.
Stay calm, be happy, enjoy life. But if you have to face a personal crises, social injustice or even a cougar, you’ll realize that getting angry really is the best thing to do in just the right situation. But it still won’t help you build any Ikea furniture, so do your best to only conjure anger when it will actually be productive. Do that and not only do you win, but so does every loved one and stranger around you. Even your furniture will get assembled more quickly. It really is the very best way to live.
Now go choose yourself a wonderful day.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.