Your feelings and actions stem from your perspective. This means that if you think in angry ways you will feel angry and act on it. It also means that your perspective on the value of anger changes the influences the how present it is in your life. So, should we accept our anger or try to move beyond it? One of the world's leading philosophers, Martha Nussbaum, argues a compelling case that anger is bad for our lives and that there is a better option.
Nussbaum makes the case in her latest book, Anger and Forgiveness. She points out that anger is common and serves several psychological functions, particularly from an evolutionary perspective, but she questions whether in today's context it is good for us. Does my ideal life include anger? There are other philosophers who think that it should, so long as it is a reasonable response to wrongdoing. In that case, they argue, it expresses self-respect and a sense of justice. Nussbaum disagrees.
Nussbaum starts by pointing out that emotions expresses attitudes. A lot of people assume that emotions are merely feelings, but in fact they are perspectives, which resonate in the body as sensations. To feel anger is to hold the opinion that some wrong has been done. Nussbaum says that anger expresses two kinds of opinion. One is focused on social status, on how another’s wrongdoing has lowered me socially (or lowered those I care about), for example by disrespecting me in front of others. The second tries to undo the wrong through payback, as though we can take back what was taken from us by inflicting a similar wound.
Nussbaum assesses these two aspects of anger. She says that "status" anger is coherent as an attitude, but is morally questionable for it is narcissistic. It is rooted in egoism. The ideal we should strive for is to be less concerned what others think of us, to be more wise and self-possessed than that.
Nussbaum then turns to "payback" anger, and shows that it contains the opposite flaw: it is morally more worthy - we want to right the wrong that was done - and yet it is incoherent: two wrongs do not make a right. An eye for an eye will not restore your sight.
Nussbaum also notes that anger is backward-looking, focused on to the wrong done. She says that while this is psychologically understandable, yet it is a trap. One we need instead to do is to "transition": to transition to creating what has been damaged, to rebuilding, to healing, to protecting in future, and to creating more meaning and value.
It can be hard to move on from anger when we have been deeply wounded, and often I have to remind angry people of that, to be patient with themselves, accepting of their human nature. And yet I think Nussbaum is right. The ideal we should strive for, if we are to build a better life and contribute to a better world, is the transition that focuses on building, healing, protecting, and creating or asserting value. Anybody who has suffered from anger in the face of a betrayal or abuse may find Nussbaum's book challenging, but it is exactly the sort of thing they need. For while many people defend anger in theory, I can say from my work that most people who suffer from it long to be free. It is like acid in the soul. Those who embrace anger become bitter, and this leads to physical, psychological, and social damage in their life. I think of certain clients whom I saw for an extended period, who managed their emotional pain by losing themselves in anger. I predicted that each would develop a physical problem as a result, and each time I witnessed that happen, usually in the form of chronic pain. Be warned, anger can destroy you. As the ancient Chinese saying goes, When you set out to get revenge, remember to dig two graves.
It can be helpful to realise that anger is usually a secondary emotion. It distracts us from something else. Nussbaum points out that below anger usually lies grief. When a wrong is done to me, for example I am betrayed, the core of the experience involves feelings of loss, violation, devaluation, sorrow, and helplessness. To feel anger in that context is to fantasise that I am not helpless, that I have power ("Watch out!"). This is a refusal to accept reality, and we cannot change anything unless we accept the truth of our situation first. What we do have is the power to transition, to step over the other's action and rise above it, creating something better. And now that I have (briefly) addressed the question of whether we should accept anger in our lives, and answered that ultimately we should rise above and beyond it, the the topic of the next reflection is how we do that.