Thursday, July 1, 2010

Men Getting Angry and the Hook of Self-Righteousness

I wrote about anger as entertainment a few days ago, and would like to add a little to that discussion with the help of another voice. The following is from this guest post by Don Mead over at the blog Metta Refuge:

But, one might say, “My anger is Vajra (spiritual) anger. There is no hate in it. My anger works for the good of all sentient beings.” Luckily for us, there is a very easy test to check if our anger is ego-centric or not.

If there is even the slightest bit of self-righteousness, then we, are 100% in the wrong. In fact, I would go so far to say that self-righteousness is the Ninth Precept’s best friend. It is so easy to recognize in ourselves that all excuses to indulge our anger are washed away. But we need to examine ourselves honestly. “Do we, in fact, like the energy of anger?”

Now, his conclusion that we "are 100% in the wrong" seems a little clunky. Wisdom is contained within our delusion-riddled responses, and I also believe that getting into labeling things "right" and "wrong" misses the mark. However, I think his focus on self-righteousness is a good one to pay attention to.

One example I used when speaking about anger in my previous post had to do with cars blocking the crosswalk while I was trying to cross. Even a momentary glance at the anger that arose during that situation is enough to see how I felt superior to those drivers involved. I was following the laws, and also was not polluting the planet as I walked, while those drivers were both breaking crosswalk laws and, by being in cars, adding pollution to the environment. There is a certain truth in these statements, and anyone who reads my blog knows that I always try to take the social context into account. It's never just about "me" or "you" or some "others."

However, at the same time, I can see how hanging onto statements like that, and even pointing immediately to the larger context in situations can be a dodge of responsibility. If I look closely at the anger in that situation, it's really more about two things: fear, and a deeper woundedness.

The fear is easy to see. Drivers often forget in their haste and/or being surrounded by a half ton or more of plastic, metal, and whatnot that in any crash between a car and a pedestrian (or bicyclist), the pedestrian (or bicyclist) probably will be hurt, frequently hurt badly. I've been hit twice by cars while on bicycles, and know this intimately. So, whenever a car gets too close, some fear is bound to arise. In addition, the blocking of the crosswalk usually means stepping out into traffic part of the way, or attempting somehow to get the driver to back the car back, both of which are scary if you ask me.

The second, deeper issue for me in this situation is a sense of woundedness I feel when it comes to my own impact, and the rest of humanity's impact, on the planet. Car-centric urban and suburban planning, where people on foot, bicyclists, and others are de-emphasized in favor of increasing the speed and mobility of cars - experiencing the results of this always brings up grief, sadness, and helplessness in me. And behind these emotions is a story about how the world "should" be different, more eco and community friendly. I don't want to accept the situation as it is, and in fact, believe that accepting the situation as it is means giving up on any kind of work towards things like an eco and community friendly place to live.

I think this is a struggle for most of us who become involved in social, environmental, racial, and other forms of justice-oriented work. Accepting the present conditions feels like defeat, and people who aren't involved, or could care less about the world around them really don't understand why we "justice work types" get so attached to our visions, and also have a hard time accepting the realities that are currently present.

When it comes to anger, though, it's a more acceptable expression than all of this complex grief, attachment, justice narrative stuff, especially for men. Getting pissed off can give you instant street cred amongst activists, or just plain frustrated people, like the ones at the bus stop with me this morning, waiting for a late bus. (Half the people waiting were pissed off, and I started to act angry about the bus being late when the reality was that I really didn't care if I was a few minutes late to work, and mostly just wanted to blend into the conversation that was already around me.) In "ordinary" situations like this, getting angry allows us men to cover up all the other stuff I mentioned above that takes time to explain, and might make us "look weak" or "odd" in the process. At the bus stop this morning, I didn't want to expend the energy to have a real conversation with the people standing there, getting upset because I was already thinking about how much energy teaching my classes was going to take. So, I opted for faux anger, which allowed me to blend in, and not have to actually say or do much. The sad thing about this is that it just added a few drops of misery to the collective pot, and really didn't save much energy for my teaching either. Maybe if I had expressed some calm, and the actual sense that I wasn't really worried about a late bus, I could have helped lessen the anger load for everyone else. Or at least not added to it.

*11 of the 12 angry men from the 1957 film 12 Angry Men


Petteri Sulonen said...

Anger is, for me at least, the trickiest emotion to deal with. I think there is such a thing as truly "righteous" anger, but it's very rare, and very hard to recognize. OTOH it's all too easy to fool yourself into thinking that the anger you're feeling is something realer than just a very powerful form of ego-stroking. Zazen has been an immense help with this, actually; since I took it up, I have managed not to act on my anger immediately (or repress it through the will, which I'm no good at anyway), but instead acknowledge it and let it dissipate.

I think I may have experienced "spiritual anger" once or twice over my life, such as when witnessing gratuitous cruelty, when that anger sort of instinctively got channeled into action that actually helped in the situation. However, the only reason I think this may have been the case is because of the results: after the anger and associated action passed, I had done someone some good, and I did not feel the sick self-loathing of adrenaline gone stale that I invariably get when I blow a gasket.

But for me at least, the immediate problem is dealing with the regular small-self temper tantrum self-righteous type of anger. It's not easy to find that narrow bridge that goes between giving into it and trying to repress it, but it's there, and I think it's pretty good practice to try to stay on it.

As an aside, my pet peeve is drivers behaving like assholes too. I love riding my bike, and I make a point of respecting the rules of the road and being a polite cyclist (even if lots of people don't, [self-righteous-sniff!]) but it does give me a sense of moral and physical superiority that's probably doing wonders go cultivate cittas of pride...

Nathan said...

"I think there is such a thing as truly "righteous" anger, but it's very rare, and very hard to recognize." Yes, very true. It's pretty easy for me to find some kind of "taint" when I look at anger coming up for me in most situations.

I also agree zazen is a great place to witness all of this.

Richard Harrold said...

Anger is a two-sided coin, and on the flip side is fear. We become angry because of something we fear.