Reflecting on the nature of joy, the poet William Butler Yeats once wrote that he experienced it only when he let go of hate and anger. “I think the common condition of our life is hatred,” he set down. “I know that this is so with me.” His acceptance of his own hate and anger sounds so simple, so matter-of-fact, but in my own life I’ve found it anything but. Sure, I could always abstractly say to myself, “I’m experiencing hate or anger,” but actually being with it—the full extent of it, and the why of it—is another, altogether more challenging and chastening thing. But we all have to do it if we want to live more authentic, seamless lives.
Some thirty years ago I encountered a passage in a Neil Gunn novel in which a brave fisherman, betrayed by the elements, displays “a coldness of clear anger”—a conscious, appropriately measured response to specific circumstances. That’s not the anger Yeats is talking about; he uses the word “condition” for a reason. The anger that most afflicts us is exactly that: a chronic condition, a lurking vibration that we keep choosing, consciously or unconsciously, to indulge. It does a lot of damage, to us and others, and most of that damage we don’t even see.
That’s why, I think, the saints of all traditions are so serious about anger. The Desert Father Abbot Ammonas prayed ceaselessly for fourteen years to be delivered from anger. The Prophet Mohammed, in Hadith 16, repeatedly advises a seeker, “Do not get angry.” In the Mahabharata, Dronacharya instructs the Pandavas to tell the truth but never be angry. So we can’t afford to be abstract about our anger. We have to face it.
But, as with any quality, we can’t face what we refuse to see. And we conceal our anger from ourselves in countless ways. If we don’t try to bury and deny it, or dissociate and distract ourselves from it, we might turn it in on ourselves and call it depression, or say we’re tired, or get sick, or find something to be righteously indignant about, or unleash it in cutting jokes. Long ago, I came across the line, “A wit is an angry man in search of a victim.” Often true.
I grew up in a home dominated by a kind of ambient, sometimes explosive anger. As a kid, I coped with it by becoming expert at not being there, even when I was there—practiced at finding little hiding places or disappearing into books. Nonetheless, I absorbed that vibration, and have always been quick to dive into it. And, as with all chronic anger, there is a charge to it, a kind of pleasure in the feeling. If I didn’t like it, why did I keep going back for more helpings of it? Rather than be with it and accept the full extent of it—and accept that I actually enjoyed it—I kept it abstract, so it often found expression through irritability, self-righteousness, heedless impulsivity, or a callous dismissiveness. It still does, when I let myself slip.
Anger is a drug—it provides a high that destroys our discernment. Until we accept that we choose anger because we like it on some level, because it does something for us, we won’t really have owned it at all. Because there’s pleasure in it, but none in accepting that we enjoy it and seek it out, it’s always tempting to stop short of owning it. But the more we try to make our anger abstract or mitigate it or domesticate it in any way, the more damage we’ll inflict. And that’s the real danger, because wherever we let unacknowledged anger shape our actions and reactions, there can be no place for Love. This, I think, is the “common condition” Yeats saw. As far as I can tell, he was right: everyone who isn’t a saint is still at least a little in love with their own chronic anger.
So there’s a reason wrath is one of the seven deadly sins: not just that it leads to destruction, but that, more fundamentally, it makes Love impossible. If we want to give up our attachment to power and pleasure, facing up to our anger, and our fondness for that anger, is a good start.
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