February 21, 2012

On Anger: A Shared Meditation

This week I had the privilege to collaborate with Rev. Leaf Seligman on a meditation on anger which we then shared with the folks at First Parish UU Church in Fitchburg

The late poet essayist Audre Lorde wrote that “anger is loaded with information and energy…We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us nor seduce us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty.” This morning Tricia and I offer a meditation on anger with the hope it is useful to others in the process of excavating honesty. 
My daughter and I recently read To Kill a Mockingbird together. In case, like me, you haven’t read it since eighth grade, here’s a quick refresher: Jean Louise (Scout) and Jem Finch are two kids growing up in Alabama in the 1930s. They are raised by their single father, Atticus, a lawyer who is defending Tom Robinson, a black man on trial for rape.

In what I think is one of the most moving scenes in the novel, a mob of angry white men arrives at the jailhouse seeking retribution as they are convinced Robinson is guilty before the trial has begun Atticus is waiting for them armed with only his wits. They will not hear reason and begin to close in on him. It is, in the end, eight-year-old Scout who breaks up the mob by unwittingly singling out among the men the familiar face of someone who is desperately trying to ignore her. She says:

“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?”… “I go to school with Walter,” …“He’s your boy ain’t he?”
"Mr. Cunningham was moved to a faint nod. He did know me after all."

Scout continues to chat, and finally her friendliness reminds Cunningham, the reader must assume, that Atticus is a friend to him, they share the common bond of fatherhood, that they are both human, and with that knowledge Cunningham turns home and takes the gang with him.

Later Scout says to Atticus,
“I thought Mr. Cunningham was our friend . . . "
“He still is.”
“But last night he wanted to hurt you . . . "
“Mr. Cunningham was part of a mob last night, but he was still a man.”
Atticus goes on to say, “I don’t want either of you bearing a grudge about this thing, no matter what happens.”
I think of that jail scene and the following conversation often, especially as my anger flares when I see littered hiking trails, inflammatory bumper stickers, or when I hear hate speech on the radio. I envy Atticus’s gift for seeing the good in people, even when he fundamentally disagrees with them, when they spew hatred at him and his family, when they threaten his life. Atticus does not raise his voice in opposition; he rarely quarrels (except with his sister) but instead lives his beliefs quietly and does not back down.

As I discussed the book with my friends who have kids, we agreed that Atticus is the best lesson in good parenting.  When Scout—who would “just as soon jump on someone as look at them if her pride’s at stake”—complains that kids at school are badmouthing Atticus, he tells her, “You just hold your head high and keep those fists down…Try fighting with your head for a change.”

Atticus’s point is that our anger isn’t going to change another person’s beliefs. As much as we’d like to try it sometimes, it’s really not possible to knock the sense into someone. But for some of us Atticus’s peaceful path is a long, strenuous, trail where we try to lead our children, but often find ourselves lost in fury’s forest. 

“Benevolence” by Tony Hoagland:

When my father dies and comes back as a dog,
I already know what his favorite sound will be:
the soft, almost inaudible gasp
as the rubber lips of the refrigerator door
unstick, followed by that arctic
exhalation of cold air;
then the cracking of the ice-cube tray above the sink
and the quiet ching the cubes make
when dropped into a glass.
Unable to pronounce the name of his favorite drink, or to express
his preference for single malt,
he will utter one sharp bark
and point the wet black arrow of his nose
imperatively up
at the bottle on the shelf,
then seat himself before me,
trembling, expectant, water pouring
down the long pink dangle of his tongue
as the memory of pleasure from his former life
shakes him like a tail.
What I’ll remember as I tower over him,
holding a dripping, whiskey-flavored cube
above his open mouth,
relishing the power rushing through my veins
the way it rushed through his,
what I’ll remember as I stand there
is the hundred clever tricks
I taught myself to please him,
and for how long I mistakenly believed
that it was love he held concealed in his closed hand.
None of us like anger directed at us. Few of us relish being angry, though sometimes it can energize or distract us from an even deeper pain. I used to fantasize building a Rage-O-Rama for all the mild-mannered folks like me afraid to unleash our anger for fear like Yahweh, we would leave a decimated village behind. I imagined an airplane hangar full of indestructible material to ignite or wallop, with the assurance nothing and no one would get hurt. Before seeking venture capital to build it, I read Thich Nhat Hanh, the wise, gentle, Buddhist monk who counsels instead:

Just like our organs, our anger is part of us. When we are angry, we have to go back to ourselves and take good care of our anger. We cannot say, “Go away, anger, I don’t want you.” When you have a stomachache, you don’t say, “I don’t want you stomach, go away.” No, you take care of it. In the same way, we have to embrace and take good care of our anger. When we embrace anger and take good care of our anger, we obtain relief. We can look deeply into it and gain many insights. One of the first insights may be that the seed of anger in us has grown too big, and is the main cause of our misery. As we begin to see this reality, we realize that the other person, whom our anger is directed at, is only a secondary cause. The other person is not the real cause of our anger.”

So what is? This morning, in conversation with Tricia, I offer a theological response.

Anger is a response to anything that threatens our integrity, our wholeness as human beings. In the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, God is quick to anger. So are humans. Moses liberates the enslaved Hebrew people and marches them into the desert where they angrily complain. But God demonstrates by far the greatest wrath. In the Genesis flood narrative God furiously destroys almost the entire earth. When I look at the source of God's anger, God is broken-hearted with disappointment that human creatures have gone so wrong so God basically says (and I am paraphrasing here,) “to hell with all of you. I will destroy the world,” until somehow Noah finds favor with God so God instructs Noah to build and ark and gather two of every species so that the flood-ravaged world will not be utterly annihilated.

The source of God's wrath is also the source of God's mercy: God so loves the world that God can’t tolerate how humans have mucked it up so God sees the brokenness of creation and like the angry artist who works for years on the painting and then botches it—or maybe the dog comes in, wags its tail and overturns the bucket of paint onto the drying canvas thus damaging the integrity of the work so God infuriated, shreds the canvas into tiny pieces.
In the gospels, Jesus overturns the moneychanger’s tables in the temple and he has harsh words for the Pharisees in Matthew: 
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! ... Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you clean the outside of the cup and plate but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. (23:23-5)

Jesus’ anger stems from the fact that humans have failed to fulfill the potentiality of the moment. Anger arises out of disappointment.

 We get angry at parents who abuse us or drink and abuse themselves, at spouses who violate marriage vows or fail to understand us and our needs. We can spend a lifetime consumed with anger toward the abusive adult: the one who shatters a childhood with his or her drinking; the one who breaks a child's spirit, bones, hymen, with force of body.  Anger arises in response to what violates our totality, what diminishes our fullness, or keeps us from achieving it.

If we, like God, carry an image of what can be, we rail against what prevents the "can" from being.
Last Sunday R and I went on an early Valentine’s date. As we were driving home I turned on “This American Life” and as we listened to reporter Jack Hitt describe the impact of Alabama’s “self-deportation” law (HB 56) on its residents, I felt my heartbeat quicken, and my throat fill with the heat of tears. The law, passed last fall, is intended to make life so wretched for illegal immigrants that they’ll choose to leave the state, and many people have compared the new Alabama to the early days of Nazi Germany.

When Hitt interviewed the law’s author, Kris Kobach, who continues to support the law despite a plethora of unintended consequences, I found myself spewing hatred at his voice through the car’s speaker. I dare not share the vile things I shouted at him in my mind. 

I wish I could say that was the first time I’ve had those thoughts about someone I’d never met, but it happens all too often. Every day I urge my four-year-old son to use his words instead of his fists, speak kindly, use his big boy voice, find a word other than hate to explain how he feels. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and I dread the day he discovers that I am the tree from which he has fallen.

It’s easy to despise a stranger in one moment’s interaction, more difficult to imagine the faceless person in the car that cut me off as somebody’s son or daughter, or a defender of HB 56 as someone with a keen sense of humor who makes a rockin’ cherry pie.

And then there’s the anger that’s harder to let go, the kind that haunts me when a friend or family member has not lived up to my expectations. The people I love seem to suffer the most from unchecked temper, especially as I have been known to carry that anger for decades.

I’m trying to change that. Psychologist Steven Stosny, who works with domestic violence offenders, posits that anger is a mask for another, deeper emotion, and once we are able to recognize and express that other emotion, whether it’s shame, guilt, or pain, from past hurts, the easier it will be to stay calm, to make rational choices. I’m working on it.

My date with R wasn’t ruined, but I’m frustrated with myself for allowing all of that internal negativity into what was an otherwise romantic evening. Next time I’d like to be able to say, “I don’t agree with Kobach’s argument at all, and tomorrow I’m going to sign every petition that I can find to help repeal this law”—which, after my mini-tantrum ended, is exactly what I did. 

The world famous muppeteer, Jim Henson, said, “Kids don't remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are,” and unfortunately my 15-year-old daughter sees me as someone who is angry and unyielding toward people with whom I disagree. Fortunately, she finds this tendency endlessly frustrating instead of seeing it as something to emulate.

Still, I don’t want to risk passing my spitfire-ish nature on to my son, so I try to examine my anger, seek the deeper, truer, emotion, and let it go quickly. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all, but I think back on Atticus Finch saying of Scout’s pugilistic transgressions, “She doesn’t come up to scratch half the time, but she tries…She knows I know she tries, and that makes all the difference.”   
If we think about who and what angers us, much of it relates a) to disappointment, to dashed expectations, and b) behavior that fails to recognize the lattice of connection. Like Tricia, I get angry at right-wing hate mongers who ignore reason, people who gun down doctors to protest abortion or shoot people in a church for being liberal. I rail on a regular basis at the long-gone litterers who have trashed my street. I scream at the woman on the radio who says “owning” a wild animal is a property right. What fractures the integrity of a being, what diminishes the totality of our beingness together elicits anger, which functions as a mechanism of self-protection. But because the self is not a separate entity, and that knowing is encoded in us, we, like the divine ones rendered biblically, try to protect the integrity of Creation. 

Anger operates on the micro level when we feel slighted, insulted, or react to disappointment—and the macro-level of ecocide and genocide: the wholesale destruction of the planet and its creatures. Anger refastens us to our connection with the divine, the core creative energy of the universe. If we, like God, know the potentiality for wholeness, if it is infused in our being, it follows that our human renderings of God in Scripture and poetic imagining will project our anger at defilement. And reflect God’s. 

So two millennia later we read depictions of God angry like a disappointed parent who has expended so much energy to lovingly create and raise humans who turn into ungrateful selfish little brats or worse, violent, homicidal maniacs. We recognize in God the pain-soaked rage of a child now grown who knows parents in the fullness of potentiality should be present, attentive, loving—and yet sometimes they fail due to their own brokenness.

And here's the paradox. Anger functions as a protective membrane—activated as a system of alarm when integrity and wholeness are breached, like skin that keeps life-threatening infection from entering the bloodstream. But if the anger is so inflammatory that we are consumed by it, the skin once charred loses its ability to “breathe” so the tissue blackens and dies. Anger is like that; if it becomes all-consuming, it defiles our integrity—because we are no longer able to function at our full potential. Consumed by anger, we lose our capacity to reason and feel compassion.

Thus anger involves balance. It indicates imbalance and yet too much of it, or too prolonged a period of it causes imbalance. Which is what makes anger holy: like God who creates and destroys: who imbues Creation with such grand potential and then gets so frustrated when the potential is unfulfilled. Amen.
We close with the words of the late poet Jane Kenyon:  

Portrait of a Figure near Water

Rebuked, she turned and ran
uphill to the barn. Anger, the inner   
arsonist, held a match to her brain.   
She observed her life: against her will   
it survived the unwavering flame.
The barn was empty of animals.   
Only a swallow tilted
near the beams, and bats
hung from the rafters
the roof sagged between.
Her breath became steady
where, years past, the farmer cooled   
the big tin amphoræ of milk.
The stone trough was still
filled with water: she watched it   
and received its calm.
So it is when we retreat in anger:   
we think we burn alone
and there is no balm.
Then water enters, though it makes no sound.