Getting to the Roots of Anger


Anger is such a common emotion, but we so rarely sift through its nuances. We all are familiar with a sudden jolt of anger, like a spark igniting a smoldering ember. Its fiery breath all too often rushes us into words and actions whose offspring are most often regret and penance. In many situations, anger comes when we lash out at a world that won’t bend to our will. That is the nature of the ego that seeks to control and shape the world to meet its every whim and can only create suffering. But if we pause and resist anger's pull, we can feel beneath the surface small tendrils of pain--the roots from which anger grows and eventually bursts. These roots are connected to a core feeling of being diminished, made smaller, of being ignored or not credited. We feel anger when our boundaries are crossed, our needs are not recognized, and our value or worth are diminished.

For many people, anger lurks in the crevices of relationships with figures of authority, where one person perceives an imbalance in power and cannot (or believe they cannot) assert their own needs or wants. One of my most painful, angry memories is from my 18th birthday. My father called my mother to say that his obligation to me was now over and I would no longer be receiving child support payments. I was not angry at the loss of financial support, but at being reduced to a line item in his budget that could now be repurposed for something else, like tchotchkes for his new wife (whom, out of youthful rebellion, I steadfastly refused to acknowledge as my stepmother). I screamed at him over the phone that I was not an obligation that could be fulfilled. In doing so, I learned the limits of angry speech and saw the promise of self-definition.

Anger is but one response to the feeling that the world regards as less than we are. The truth is that, on another level, it is always a response to a perceived lack of power. Anger is a roadmap to the parts of our lives where we are not exercising the power we all innately have to create our lives and claim the truth of who we are. By power I simply mean the act of acknowledging and laying claim to who we are. That can take the form of drawing boundaries, voicing our needs or making different choices. It may mean saying no, when we so often say yes. It may mean asking for what we want when we are inclined to swallow our needs and suffer in silence. It can mean laying claim to being something more than what someone else tells you are. While giving in to anger almost always leads to unskillful action and bad karma, used skillfully it can be a signpost that points to where in our lives we are letting others shrink our world.

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