On meeting anger

Being out of the country in May, I missed the depressing news about yet another senseless shooting, this time in Hyvinkää; a teenage boy opening fire on a crowd of people, in what appeared to be a random act, leaving two dead and seven injured.

I learned about it from two other aliens I was chatting with after the Finnish Language Café at Pasila Library. Wondering why these incidents are sadly becoming all too frequent in Finland, one of them speculated that it has something to do with the Finnish male’s inability to talk about his feelings. Unable to express feelings of anger or hatred,  it comes out in senseless acts of violence.

I’m not sure I quite buy that. First of all, I question whether there’s anything specially problematic about Finns. After all, you can go into any English provinicial town centre on a Saturday night and experience testosterone-fuelled explosions of anger. It just so happens that gun ownership is considerably lower in the UK than in Finland.

There is a long history to what might be called a hydraulic theory of the emotions: that somehow keeping them bottled up means that they must explode at a later date, or as Freud suggested, find expression in our neuroses.

The English poet William Blake, seems to be thinking along these lines in The Poison Tree:

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

Descartes, in The Passions of the Soul proposed a theory as to why, as he saw it, people who anger “makes flush” and even cry, are less dangerous than those “it makes turn pale”.Descartes' physiognomy of anger

In the first group, those who are only able to avenge themselves by looks and words employ all their strength and fervour as soon as they are moved.

On the other hand, others who plan to delay their vengeance are saddened by thinking of themselves as “bound to do so by the action that angers them” as well as being afraid of the consequences that their vengeance will have. This makes them “pale, cold and trembling.” Then when they have their revenge, “they warm up all the more for having been cooler at first, just as we see that fevers that begin with chills are usually the most severe.”

However, I feel uncomfortable with the suggestion that we simply have to act out our anger, or even necessarily talk about it. Often it seems that  rehearsing the case for the prosecution – telling ourselves or a friend just how much we’ve been wronged –  just seems to feed the anger. And if we go the whole hog and let loose the full force of our rage against the wrongdoer, this often leads to unpleasant and unpredictable consequences, including quite often, further personal humiliation.
As so often, perhaps there is a middle way between the seeming polarities of pent or vent. One alternative might be to learn to understand that the anger is part of ourselves and not something in the person or people we feel angry with.  The next step is to familiarise ourselves with it in order to learn how to manage it.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a walking meditation using six sentences:

Breathing in, I know that anger is here.
Breathing out, I know that the anger is me.
Breathing in, I know that anger is unpleasant.
Breathing out, I know this feeling will pass.
Breathing in, I am calm.
Breathing out, I am strong enough to take care of this anger.

What I like about this exercise is that it is rounded off by a statement that embodies our ability and intention to be kind to ourselves as well as to others. In relation to the confused and angry adolescent, it’s like the development from teenage frustration to quiet, confident adulthood, the child being father to the man.

The vital ingredient for maturity in anger is self-knowledge. As Descartes puts it, wisdom “teaches us to render ourselves such masters of [the passions], and to manage them with such ingenuity, that the evils they cause can be easily borne, and we even derive Joy from them all.”

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