Friday, November 11, 2016

A Spirituality of Anger

"Shadows and Light"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

In the wake of last Tuesday’s presidential election we have all been inundated with the words and the images of so many “angry people” in this country – people expressing their bitter anger in social media posts, every day a flood of pictures and news reports about angry people everywhere.

Some commentators have suggested that this election turned out the way it did because a vast majority of people in this society are discouraged and angry about their condition in life. Many are angry because they feel as if their lives are dismal with no prospect of improving. They are unable to pay the electric bill or feed their families let alone thrive and prosper;  and so, their “vote” reflected this deep sense of personal and societal betrayal and anger. 

Over the past few days I have also seen pictures and read the posts of the many angry “protesters” dismayed by the results of this election, fearful and angry because they suspect that a new wave of racism and prejudice has been unleashed on this nation, erasing any progress that has been made in this society.

As I marinate in this sea of prevailing anger I have been spending a good deal of time reflecting on what all this anger really means and how it can either be a poison to a healthy spirit or perhaps how it may even be a source of new life and spiritual growth.

On the one hand, anger can spring from an uncontrolled ego and manifest itself as aggression, violence and destruction.  The Buddha taught that if we hold onto a desire to  inflict pain on the “other” who has offended us, our anger becomes a  “poison”  that infects and destroys our spirit.

The Buddha taught”

Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal
with the intent of throwing it at someone else;
you are the one who gets burned.
You will not be punished for your anger,
you will be punished by your anger.

As I see it, a good deal of all the anger out there nowadays is venomous and spiritually destructive; but there is another kind of anger that can also lead to enlightened wisdom. In fact, it seems to me that there is even such a thing as Holy Anger.

Anger is energy, and when this energy turns into aggression "against" others, our anger blocks the path to enlightenment. But that very same energy can also be used to wake up compassion “on behalf of” others. The energy of this kind of anger motivates us to stand up, raise a fist, bare our teeth, and say "NO" to all that is self-indulgent and unjust. 

I recently read this insightful description of the kind of anger that leads to enlightenment:

In its awakened form, anger brings good to the world.
It is the energy that inspires great movements for freedom and social justice.
It helps us to be honest about our own foibles
and to show a loved one how they are damaging themselves.
It is a vital part of every spiritual path,
for before we can say yes to enlightenment
we must say no to self centeredness, injustice and aggression.

I think about the many “fiery prophets” depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures who angrily raised their voices on behalf of those who had no voice, speaking out on behalf of the poor and needy, boldly raising their fists against the kings and rulers of their day who wielded their power by trampling on the lowly.

I also think about Jesus who is often pictured as meek, mild and serene; but there were also times when Jesus was consumed with a holy fury. He angrily lashed out against the temple authorities who said long prayers but showed no compassion for the needy, calling them all "a bunch of hypocrites" Many times, Jesus was an advocate who angrily raised his voice on behalf of those who had no voice. 

In our own time I think about social prophets like Martin Luther King Jr. While he opposed the use of violence, he was consumed with a holy anger against any who would hoard and hog the table of life while barring others from an equal place.   

I have often thought that there is too much anger in the world today, and in one sense that's true; but in another sense maybe there isn't enough anger. In these “post-election” days, perhaps we need to be less judgmental, less aggressive and less strident with those who differ from us and at the same time become ever more “enraged” with a sense of holy anger whenever and wherever we see abuses of human dignity.

My guess is that, over the next several years we will all have plenty of opportunities to claim a holy anger.