Understanding the Flame of Anger: Three Contemporary Philosophers on Anger

 

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Intersection. Photograph by Several Seconds. Via: (FLICKR)

 

Growing up, I knew two different forms of anger: my mom’s anger and my dad’s anger. My mom’s anger is vocal. Her anger was very reactive. Sometimes she would use a physical aggression to extend her rage. On the other hand, my dad, expressed his anger very quietly. His face would look very upset but he knew how to prevent himself from being engulfed by his anger wholly.

Even when anger was a common experience of my childhood, and often it fuels my acts and thoughts, I believe that it is more than just the obscenities of our language to communicate our feelings. I know it’s more than that because people just don’t flare up in fury abruptly. There has to be something that drives them to strike out, to punch, and to curse.

Here are some problems that we have in our society about anger: once we see anger displayed in public, we step away from it. We dismiss and judge it because it’s too terrifying to go near it, and we believe there is nothing good that comes out of it. It’s hard to pause and reflect on what anger wants or what anger truly means when we are too often caught up in its “flame.”

Therefore, to help us to understand what anger wants and means, here I gathered three of my favorite contemporary philosophers:

Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum. Via: (FLICKR)

 

Martha Nussbaum, a professor of Law and ethics at The University of Chicago, in her essay Beyond Anger, argued that anger contains a sort of strike back tendency. This is an idea that she drew from Aristotle. Nussbaum writes:

“Aristotle says that anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. He adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a hope for payback. So: significant damage, pertaining to one’s own values/circles or cares, and wrongfulness. All this seems both true and uncontroversial. More controversial, perhaps, is his idea (in which, however, all Western philosophers who write about anger concur) that the angry person wants some type of payback, and that, this is a conceptual part of what anger is. In other words, if you don’t want some type of payback, your emotion is something else (grief, perhaps), but not really anger.”

This wish for payback is deeply human but it doesn’t always make sense according to Nussbaum. The example that she brings in her essay is if we saw someone who has been raped, we focus our attention on the wrongdoer, hoping he gets a “deserving” payback from what he’s done. We want the wrongdoer to be instantly punished and jailed. Though punishing the wrongdoer is a necessary step to do, especially if there’s a law for it, Nussbaum believes that there are other necessary solutions that we need to talk about such as how we can prevent future rapes or how we can restore the victim’s life. This concept of  payback or “blood for blood” will not solve the root problem, and is a short-sighted way of looking at problems. At the end of the essay, she says, “the arguments proposed by anger will be clearly seen to be pathetic and weak, while the voice of generosity and forward looking reason will be strong as well as beautiful.”

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Alain de Botton. Photograph by Charlotte de Botton. Via: (alaindebotton.com)

 

If Nussbaum understands the desire for “pay-back” in anger, another philosopher that we need to look at is Alain de Botton. In his short but powerful essay titled On Anger, he realizes that the root cause of anger is optimism. We get angry when we are excessively optimistic with our plans and then suddenly they are not working. This is when anger starts to leak out and control our behaviors.

de Botton writes succinctly:

“Anger begins with the many imperfections of existence: the internet connection has failed, the plane is delayed again, someone is driving too slowly. It is fair enough to take a negative view of these things. But in order for them to make us angry–rather than merely sad–there is something else at work: we break, kick, slam, and accelerate because we are, at some level, horribly optimistic. Though the angry may seem negatively predisposed to life, they are in their hearts recklessly hopeful. Recklessly because how badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal. We may be irritated that it is raining, but our pessimistic accommodation to the likelihood of showers means we are unlikely ever to respond to one by screaming. Our annoyance is tempered by what we understand we can expect from the climate, by our melancholy experience of what it is normal to hope for from the skies. We are not overwhelmed by anger whenever we don’t get something we want; we do so only when we first believed ourselves fundamentally entitled to secure it–and then oddly did not. Our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground-rules of existence.”

What de Botton says is reminding me of Daniel Kahneman’s assertion of the danger of overconfidence. He says, “Overconfidence is associated with a failure of imagination.” When what we believe to be true turns out to be false, sometimes anger becomes the expression of our dissatisfaction.

In his essay, de Botton looks beyond the root of anger. He finds that if we can look at the angry thoughtfully, we can learn something from them. He writes:

“Behind their outburst, the angry are trying to teach the world things: how to run an airline, how to drive, how to make decent dinner-time conversation… However, they are exceptionally bad teachers because too much is at stake for them. They lack the basic psychological resource of good teachers: a relative indifference to the success or failure of their lessons.”
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David Whyte. Photograph by Christopher Michel. Via: (FLICKR)

 

In addition to Martha Nussbaum and Alain De Botton, another thoughtful philosopher that we need to discuss is David Whyte. In his book titled Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, with his poetic and philosophical eyes, Whyte is able to see the most tender part of anger that we don’t always see. He believes that anger is coming from a place of deep compassion. People who are angry, if we can reframe our point of view, they are profoundly compassionate and working to protect the things they care about. This sense of compassion is sometimes too intense and they cannot contain it within themselves. Then anger becomes a way for them to reduce its intensity.

Whyte writes beautifully:

“ANGER is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for. What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when we are overwhelmed by its accompanying vulnerability, when it reaches the lost surface of our mind or our body’s incapacity to hold it, or when it touches the limits of our understanding. What we name as anger is actually only the incoherent physical incapacity to sustain this deep form of care in our outer daily life; the unwillingness to be large enough and generous enough to hold what we love helplessly in our bodies or our mind with the clarity and breadth of our whole being.”

It’s important to refuse to internalize anger as what it displays in our lives. The language and the physical aggression of anger give us nothing but its extreme cruelty and its chaos. When we resist its superficiality and chose to find its meaning beyond what is visible, we can start to understand that anger is more complex and more fluid than what we always see. To see anger beyond what is visible is the beginning of wisdom.

Can We Demystify Creativity?

 

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Fanny Elssler in dem Divertissement: “Des Malers Traumbild.”. 1843. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Our world is brimming with many mysteries. One of which has continued to enchant us is the quest to unravel the source of creative inspiration. When we talk about creative inspiration, it’s hard not to bring up its famous myth. There are some people who still believe that creative inspiration comes from a “divine” invisible creature from an unknown place who will assist the artist to shape the form of his or her work.

In her engaging 2009 Ted Talk, the novelist Elizabeth Gilbert, believes that everything that we hear about this myth of creative inspiration, to the historical evidence, can be traced back to ancient Greece. She says that Socrates used to have a demon who would speak philosophical ideas to him. Socrates was not the only example of an historical figure who had a mystical encounter with creative inspiration. In his recent book titled The River of Consciousness (Amazon), Oliver Sacks explains that Mendeleev, the great Russian chemist, once remarked that he discovered his periodic table in a dream. Feeling inspired and a sense of urgency, he woke up immediately and wrote it down on an envelope. In Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From (Amazon), he writes that when the French mathematician, Henri Poincare floundered about arithmetical questions for days, he decided to spend a few days at the seaside to relax. One day when he was out walking and thinking about something unrelated to math, the solution came to him. These are the stories of creative inspiration that have been perpetuating in our culture. We adore these stories because they suggest that the inception of any creative project is easy. We don’t do the work, creative inspiration will do it for us.

Is it true that inspiration alone will do the work for us? There’s another way to investigate the source of creative inspiration by observing the quantity of the work that an artist has produced. In his book Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World (Amazon), Adam Grant, an industrial psychologist and a professor of business at University of Pennsylvania, shatters the common myth of creativity that comes from a mystical and divine inspiration. Drawing inspiration from Dean Keith Simonton’s intensive research on creativity titledCreative Productivity: A Predictive and Explanatory model of Career Trajectories and Landmarks,” Grant argues that what Simonton finds is, when a creator produces a lot of outputs, his or her chance to create a masterpiece is more attainable. Grant continues to say that when someone is producing a lot of work, he or she is more likely to stumble upon some variations that can enrich their work and will bring their work closer to originality. Grant says, “Many people fail to achieve originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection.” Then Grant describes the abundant creative output of Picasso and Maya Angelou. In his life, he says that Picasso has produced more than 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, 12,000 drawings, and many more tapestries, rugs, and prints. Then one of the greatest poets of our time, Maya Angelou, though she’s widely known for her poem “Still I Rise,” people often overlook her 165 other poems.

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Thomas Edison. 1906. © Museum of the City of New York. Via: (Artstor)

 

In his paper, observing Thomas Edison’s creative career, Dean Keith Simonton talks about Edison’s prodigious work output. “His 1,093 patents notwithstanding, the number of truly superlative creative achievements can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.” He also argues that the diversity of the projects that Edison did had helped him to channel his energy whenever he faced a long series of trials followed by consecutive errors. This method, when he moved from one project to the other, according to Simonton, awakened his mind with some neglected solutions for his unfinished projects. Simonton goes on to say, “Those periods in which the most minor products appear tend to be the same periods in which the most major works appear.” Grant and Simonton seem to agree that quantity is a better stimulant than quality to invite inspiration.

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Ginevra King Pirie. Via: (FindaGrave)

 

There is another source of creative inspiration that we can try to investigate other than the quantity of artist’s work. Inspired by the book titledThe Lives of the Muses by Francine Prose, Maureen Corrigan for the Boston Globe wrote that there are people in the writers’ personal lives that have played an enormous role in supplying inspiration for their work. When Fitzgerald met Ginevra King on January 4, 1915 at a party over Christmas break in St. Paul Minnesota, the two instantly attracted to each other. King was only sixteen and Fitzgerald was nineteen. They started to correspond and their letters to each other were full of passion, flirtation. They stayed in touch only for two years. King eventually married a wealthy young businessman from Chicago and Fitzgerald married Zelda. Though King and Fitzgerald did not stay together, King was an enormous source of Fitzgerald’s fictional characters in his literary career. Corrigan argues that King is Judy Jones in his short story “Winter Dreams.” She is also Isabella Borges in Fitzgerald “This Side of Paradise” and Daisy Buchanan in his memorable work of fiction “The Great Gatsby.”

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Portrait of Agnes von Kurowsky in her American Red Cross nurse uniform, Milan, Italy.  1918. Via: (JFKLibrary)

 

Corrigan also mentions that one of Hemingway’s fictional characters was also inspired by someone that he had met. It was Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse that helped Hemingway regain his sense of vitality after he was wounded during World War 1. Hemingway was madly in love with her and they had planned to marry, but by the time Kurowsky went to the U.S, she sent a letter to Hemingway that she had engaged to an Italian officer. Hemingway’s early love life was a hapless event in his life, but he turned Von Kurowsky into a fictional character in “A Farewell to Arms” as Catherine Barkley.

All of the examples I have presented above seem to suggest that the myth of creative inspiration that we always carry is just a myth. In fact, if we look deeper into Mendeleev’s life, though his idea of periodic table seems to appear out of the blue, his work ethic to solve this chemical mystery doesn’t enter our conversation whenever we talk about creative inspiration. For almost nine years, he was constantly pondering this subject, consciously and unconsciously. So did Poincare who refused to succumb to this myth and chose to work hard to solve the mathematical problems. Only when he disengaged himself from his work for days at the seaside and let his ideas simmer, while he was thinking of something else, the solution came to him.

Rex Jung, a prominent neuroscientist who studies creativity for more than a decade knows why the solution came to Poincare when he stopped working. In conversation with Krista Tippett, Jung argues that “eureka” moment usually comes after someone has consciously absorbed ideas and then let them simmer for a while in his or her mind to interact with other ideas. Jung says, “You have to have the raw materials in place to put together, but you also have to have the time to put them together.”

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The creative inspirations that catapulted Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Edison, Mendeleev, and Poincare into public consciousness are missing our romantic idea of artistry that must come from magic. Their dogged determination was the path that granted them the creative inspiration. Even from a scientific perspective, Jung arrives to remind us that when we deliberately make a space for our ideas to simmer and interact to other ideas after countless hours of working, inspiration is more likely to come to us.

To believe that good ideas must come from a mystical place is to believe that work ethic is a useless ingredient to achieve mastery. This is a dangerous belief that needs to be clarified. Understanding a craft of writing, for instance, is not something that can be done in a night by magic. It takes years or even decades to be able to present language that can tell stories and evoke emotions to readers. There is no shortcut for the conquest of mastery because “Everything worthwhile takes a long time.

Four Years: Some Thoughts on Studying Abroad and Embracing Contradiction

 

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I was not as articulate in English as I am now. Language used to be a firm barrier in my life during my freshmen year of college. That was the first time when I had to step out of my native language, Indonesian, and begin to think in English. Though I still feel self-conscious with my accent, when I give an in-class presentation or simply speak English with strangers, this language has slowly interwoven into my being. Now I understand many more words than I did before. I can participate in challenging discussions with my peers and professors. What was impossible, has become possible.

Now, the problem is more than just the words of the language; it’s the ability to understand all of the underlying meaning that is expressed.

I take it as an elemental truth that language matters–It’s more than just a tool of survival. The language that we use reflects the story that we want to tell ourselves and our world. At its core, language is always brimming with human dynamics. The more I understand about the language of this country, the more my understanding of its human dynamics expands. When I can speak the language that Americans use, I don’t perceive myself as an outsider. I am with them. Their stories are mine and my stories are theirs.

This is a good sign because I don’t feel alienated and have found “home” in a foreign territory. The problem with this connection is that I also feel their pain. When they have struggles, it troubles me because whenever I hear these stories, I don’t want to be part of them.

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Last summer in Indonesia when I told a stranger that I was going to America to finish up my degree, her eyes sparkled with amazement. I had anticipated this reaction. Then she said something so common, “Everyone must be so happy in America. There is no poverty. Oh. I wish I could go with you.” This was the America that she had understood from the stories of her life. Even all my friends are still thinking this way.

My stories of America are different than hers.

I work part time as a banquet server at a local hotel in the MSU area. There, for the first time, I have seen people whose lives are so constrained that, to survive, they have to work three jobs. I feel shame about how fortunate I am, working only one job and still squandering my money on useless things. One of those people that I met was a vivacious middle-aged woman named Y. She has been washing dishes for twelve years and she also works at two other places. “I like this job,” she said with such outspokenness. Strangely, a part of me saw layers of tiredness and some deep inner dread behind her eyes. The next day after we talked, she screamed at an empty bowl, “I hate this job!” During my freshmen year, I’d have just heard her words without being able to construct any meaning, but now I understand her meaning that is different from what she’s saying and the pain she feels. When someone must work more than two jobs to survive, I know that her life is not easy.

One time I overheard two of my Chinese friends talking in Chinese to each other. Then an elderly white man whose hair was unkempt approached them, “Hey, this is America. We don’t use Chinese here!” He laughed like a fool and walked away from them. My friends stood shocked. If I had encountered this man when I was still in my freshmen year of college, I’d have judged him directly that he’s very racist and the rest of white men in America were also racist. Three years later, my answers are a little bit different. I refuse to call him a racist because I don’t know the drive of his intention. Maybe one Sunday breezy afternoon he tried to practice his French with his sweet lover in a café, and someone approached them and said, “Hey, this is America. We don’t use French here!” He felt very insulted and he brought the pain to my friends by insulting their language. Maybe a Chinese man had robbed his engagement ring when he went out on a stroll alone in a park. Or, maybe he once had a horrifying dream that everyone in America suddenly speaks Mandarin and he’s the only one who speaks English and he wakes up feeling extremely anxious about his own future.

Maybe after all, when we are talking about someone who is racist, we are talking about his “unresolved” pain and his immense fear of a particular race. Three years ago, I would not have been able to construct these possibilities. Racism is a complex topic and I still don’t know how to approach it.

As this country enters a new period of unrest, I have noticed a transformation of the language that my friends use. From their language, there is a lot of raw human fear circulating through it. I cannot count how many times my friends have spoken to me of their longings to move to a place with better government.

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However, this is something I deeply believe: to only mention pain without mentioning beauty is a chronic failure of living.

I have met some people who have taught me to be kind and forgiving in this country. I have exchanged stories with people whose ideas inspire me to be less cynical and more hopeful with the strained reality that we have. I am forever grateful for having the privilege of exposing my eyes to the beautiful color of the trees in the fall. The liberal arts education that I have received at MSU has allowed my mind to traverse across disciplines, time, and spaces. Philosophy has slowly gained my attention, especially Stoicism, as it has taught me to only focus on the things that I can control and ignore the rest. From the literature that I have read across the years in the MSU library, I get to absorb mind-stretching ideas from some of humanity’s greatest thinkers such as James Baldwin, Alfred Kazin, May Sarton, Thoreau, Toni Morrison, and Patti Smith .

Standing up amidst those stories from the people I had met and the writers I had read makes me realize that America is far more complex than what I had seen a long time ago in TV and magazines. Sometimes the stories that I had heard are hard to swallow. I don’t know which side I should trust more: the good, happy stories brimming with hope or the sad, depressing stories with pessimism. In other words, I’m conflicted between choosing one of those sides and being deaf to the other side or taking the contradiction gladly because they are part of my reality. What I’m sure of is my greater understanding when I communicate with my American peers and live life with them, good or bad.

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There’s a line that has stayed with me from Alfred Kazin’s journal. In it, he wrote, “The contradiction itself is the reality in all its manifoldness,” he continued, “And the more faithful he is to his perception of the contradiction, the more he is open to what there is for him to know.” The more I ponder about his sentence over the years, the truer it sounds to me—the contradiction that I have seen is part of my reality—inseparable and inescapable. I think this is the best-learning that I have gotten thus far from living and studying abroad. I learned that pain and beauty can co-exist simultaneously. I learned that I need to teach myself to see things as they are, not with the intention to judge but to understand. Education must transcend a person’s view of life beyond a traditional classroom. Seeing the contradiction, is not only a part of my own reality, but also, most importantly, is my education.

Photographs by Vidi Aziz

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