Anatomy of anger

An angry person is nobody’s favourite. A fiery outburst does little to promote positive reactions or to arrive at amicable solutions. Are we then to conclude that anger achieves nothing and should be strictly avoided?

A small experiment will throw much light on the matter. Hold an infant’s hands firmly down and, in no time, you will see him struggling and screaming in helpless rage. He will protest with all his might until he is set free.

What impels him to do this is the instinctive urge built into almost all living creatures to resist and fight. Anger is Nature’s way of enabling us to thwart opposition, struggle forwards and attain desirable ends.

It is a tool, which helps us either to break or build. We could liken it to a psychological knife that can be used to carve or to kill. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, has explained this in clear terms: ‘Anybody can become angry.

But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time and the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power.’

An amusing anecdote concerning Henry Cadbury, America’s distinguished Biblical scholar, tells us how difficult this task can be. A gentle Quaker, he worked relentlessly and selflessly for peace in war-torn Germany.

It so happened that one day a carefree youngster went skipping down the sidewalk right across his freshly spread concrete. When he saw the child’s deep footprints, Henry exploded in rage.

Taken aback by this outburst, a friend exclaimed, ‘Why Henry, I’m surprised to see you so angry. I thought you liked children!’ Henry replied, ‘I do like children in the abstract, but not in the concrete.’

Pun apart, his words highlight two truths. It is simpler to deal with people in the abstract than in the concrete. Separated by distance, people may appear reasonable and easy to tackle. At close quarters, they can well succeed in ignoring, hurting, insulting and frustrating you. This can trigger great anger.

Secondly, even the best and the mildest among us can react in anger. The rishi, Durvasa, in the Mahabharata serves as an example. In spite of his sagacity, he was often overcome by wrath, making him pronounce dreadful curses. Fortunately we can learn to control our anger through quiet reflection.

In quietude, we can look at certain realities. Others do not exist to satisfy our every whim. Some may hurt you, but perhaps unintentionally. Also while you are entitled to your rights, you cannot infringe on the rights of others. 

All anger is not destructive. The lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr demonstrate that beneficial changes can be brought about as a result of outrage against unjustifiable laws and behaviour.

In short, if we bear in mind that anger is just one letter short of ‘danger’ and use it wisely and well, we can make this world a better place.

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