In my memoir, Finding Venerable Mother, I take a look at the roots of my anger. I grew up thinking anger was a bad thing and stuffed it inside. Occasionally I would blow up, like a volcano spewing lava. This still happens to me—not nearly as often as it used to—but when it does, I always regret my outburst. Growing up I internalized the message that “It’s not nice for girls to get angry, not polite.” I would suppress my anger, only to find that under pressure, I would blow up.
In the past four years, with the advent of the #MeToo movement, and the Women’s March of 2017; women’s anger, indeed women’s rage, has become culturally accepted. Popular books such as Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, offer a glimpse into the “galvanizing force of women’s anger, which when harnessed, can change history.” The keyword in the above phrase is harnessed because anger is like a fire with both the power to cleanse and the potential to burn out of control. My question is whether anger can be galvanized for positive gain. In simpler terms I am asking, is our rage useful?
In the most recent episode of Casual Buddhism, Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni talks about “Wise Speech” in the Buddhist context. She said that when we speak with the intention of bringing loving-kindness to the other person—speak with an open-heartedness and are truthful—that is wise speech. Dharma teacher Tempel Smith put it this way, “anger is good fuel, but not always the best strategy,” meaning that the problem isn’t necessarily the anger itself, but the way we express it. Are we being harsh or punitive with the other person? Do we want revenge or are we simply speaking our truth without seeking revenge?
I’ve come to accept my anger as a red flag warning that something is wrong. This is usually accompanied by physical sensations, a hot flash of recognition, and a desire to yell and scream. The problem is, if I do respond from that reactive place, I rarely have a good outcome. For example, when my former spouse and I had a disagreement, the conversation would escalate. I would step forward, arms crossed, glare at him, raise my voice and shout in an accusing tone, “You’re not listening to me.” He would get defensive and shout back, you’re not listening to me.” We became like two bickering children, snapping at one another. These arguments were frequent and rarely accomplished anything. If instead, I paused, lowered my voice, and said, “let’s talk about this later when we both calm down,” he would listen. Perhaps this was the best possible resolution for the time being.
When it comes to anger, I have had to unlearn everything that I was taught as a child. Tempel’s advice that anger is good fuel, but not always the best strategy is good advice. If I stop to consider anger in the Buddhist context, I believe anger can be construed as wise speech (good fuel), if and when it is delivered in a compassionate manner, with respect and caring both for oneself and the other person. How about you? Is your anger useful? How has it helped or hurt you?