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.

Chronos and Kairos: Two Meanings of Time Explained by a Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr

 

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Image by Darkness. Via: (Unsplash)

 

I love discovering new words, especially words that we don’t normally use, words on the margin, words that hold so much truth and aliveness. Those are words that can speak directly to our experiences when we run out of things to articulate.

In a podcast that I recently listened to, Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, unleashes his reflection on two different meanings of time: chronological time and deep time. These concepts of time are rooted from Greek words, chronos and kairos.

Chronological time (chronos), as he argues, is the time that ticks. It’s, for instance, when a bored student stares at the watch in his class, wishing the class would end faster. Chronological time is the short and structured time we inhabit. Unlike chronological time, deep time (kairos) is grand and audacious. Living in deep time means looking at a longer view of time with an unflinching optimism, believing that every moment in our culture is a blink that will pass. As Rohr succinctly says, deep time is, “where time comes to a fullness, and the dots connect.”

The transcript of the interview:

Krista Tippett: “A phrase that you use a lot that I’d like you to just flesh out is an aspect of this progression towards meaning, towards spiritual fullness, is ‘living in deep time.’ Just say what you’re saying there.”

Richard Rohr: “OK, well, let me say, first of all, I’m not sure what I mean by that. [laughs] But a phrase was used in medieval Catholic spirituality was ‘the eternal now.’ ‘When time comes to its fullness,’ is the biblical phrase. I’m sure you’ve been told that in the Greek, in the New Testament, there’s two words for time. Chronos is chronological time, time as duration, one moment after another, and that’s what most of us think of as time.

But there was another word in Greek, kairos. And kairos was deep time. It was when you have those moments where you say, ‘Oh my God, this is it. I get it,’ or, ‘This is as perfect as it can be,’ or, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this,’ or, ‘This moment is summing up the last five years of my life,’ things like that where time comes to a fullness, and the dots connect, when we can learn how to more easily go back to those kind of moments or to live in that kind of space.

Now, I think that’s what the tradition means by the word ‘contemplation,’ that to be a contemplative is to learn to trust deep time and to learn how to rest there and not be wrapped up in chronological time. Because what you’ve learned, especially by my age, is that all of it passes away. The things that you’re so impassioned about when you’re 22 or 42 don’t even mean anything anymore, and yet, you got so angry about it or so invested in it.

So already, the desert fathers and mothers discovered this word ‘contemplation’ because I believe they found the word that most believers use, the word ‘prayer,’ to be so trivialized, so cheapened by misuse. Prayer was sort of a functional thing you did to make announcements to God or tell God things, which God already knew, of course. And they created another word to give us access to this deep time, and that word that kept recurring throughout the 2,000-year history of Christianity was the contemplative mind. It’s a different form of consciousness. It’s a different form of time.

Let me add one thing. We used to, in Latin, use this phrase sub specie aeternitatis, and the old professor used to say, ‘Sub specie aeternitatis.’ And what it means — ‘in the light of eternity.’ In the light of eternity, this thing that you’re so worried about right now — is it really going to mean anything on your deathbed? [laughs] And for some reason, that had the power to relativize the things that a young man would get so impassioned about, positively or negatively. And those were various ways of directing us toward deep time.”

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Love is a stronger than death. Image by Peter Tandlund. 2012. Via: (Flickr)

 

To enjoy the full podcast:

Seneca on Understanding the Shortness of Our Lives

 

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Seneca. Via: (Daily Stoic)

 

Lately I have been pondering about time–how it moves swiftly but quietly through our lives. The scariest realization of its fleetingness is when we use it lavishly. At the end of the day, we wonder: where did time go? What did we do all day? Even for people who have treated their time as their most valuable resource, time will keep on moving, unconcerned of what we do. Once it vanishes, time won’t come back to us.

I was reminded of this strange nature of time by an essay that I read called “On the Shortness of Life”, one of the three moral essays compiled and translated into English in a book titled Seneca: On the Shortness of Life (Public Library) (Amazon). This essay was written by Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC – AD 65), one of the most well-respected stoic philosophers, for his friend, Paulinus, around 49 CE. This was the year when Seneca returned to Rome after his exile in Corsica. What makes this essay compelling to me is Seneca’s crisp and precise articulation of the nature of time can still be evocatively felt by this generation though this letter was written more than two thousands years ago.

Translated by C.D.N Costa, the essay powerfully begins:

“Most human beings, Paulinus, complain about the meanness of nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, and because of this spell of time that has been given to us rushes by so swiftly and rapidly that with very few exceptions life ceases for the rest of us just when we are getting ready for it.”

Stoicism is philosophy that promulgates living in conformity with nature’s laws. This idea is very present in most of writings of stoicism, especially in this letter. Then the question becomes: what does it mean to live in line with nature’s laws? Robin Campbell, the editor and translator for a book called Seneca: Letters from a Stoic (Amazon) said that living according to nature’s laws means “not only questioning convention and training ourselves to do without all except the necessities (plain food, water, basic clothing, and shelter) but developing the inborn gift of reason which marks us off as different from the animal world.” (Massimo Pigluicci, Professor of Philosophy from CUNY, also thoroughly explored the meaning of living according to nature in Stoicism on his blog.)

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The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. 1931. Via: (Artstor)

 

Returning to our main topic on the swiftness of our time, Seneca continues to offer a wise and yet harsh reminder for us:

“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.

[…]

Many are occupied by either pursuing other people’s money or complaining about their own. Many pursue no fixed goal, but are tossed about in ever changing designs by a fickleness which is shifting, inconstant and never satisfied with itself. Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly–so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest of poets: ‘It is a small part of life we really live.’ Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time.”

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Alarm Clock by Diego Rivera. 1914. Via: (Artstor)

 

What Seneca says in the following sentence is something that we do all the time. We are more terrified of the risk of losing something replaceable such as money or our personal properties than losing something that is inherently irreplaceable, which is our time:

“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

I remember I asked my childhood friend what he wanted to have for his tenth birthday. He said jubilantly: “A time machine!” I asked why and he explained he wanted to foresee his future faster than anybody else.

It was a serious thing to be uttered from the mouth of a nine year old boy.

Reflecting on what my friend said, I think his underlying meaning behind his longing was he wanted to be able to mitigate any risk in his future life.

We are all eager to know what will happen to our lives in the future so that we can use our time wisely and do the things we need to do immediately. But we cannot predict our future because it will always dance with uncertainty and mystery.

Seneca captures this longing of foreseeing our future in the letter:

“But nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing. But if death threatens these same people, you will see them praying to their doctors; if they are in fear of capital punishment, you will see them prepared to spend their all to stay alive. So inconsistent are they in their feelings. But if each of us could have the tally of his future years set before him, as we can of our past years, how alarmed would be those who saw only a few years ahead, and how carefully would they use them! And yet it is easy to organize an amount, however small, which is assured; we have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point.”

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Walentas Clock Tower by Glen Hansen. 2011. Via: (Artstor)

 

Someone wisely said, “Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity.” Another wise man also said, “Start small, start now.” However, being present is not an easy thing to do in our age of endless distractions. Though procrastination done strategically could enhance our creativity, procrastination is still one of the biggest obstacles that can hamper the progress of our work. This topic of procrastination found in this letter remains as fresh as when it appeared thousands of years ago. Seneca writes:

“But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining?”

With everything that he has said, Seneca has one last urgent request for all of us:

“The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”