We don’t like anger, though there is something particularly effective about it. When someone is angry with us, our attention is held in place. They have successfully seized upon our mental space and we are forced to respond.
But we wish they wouldn’t. Anger is ugly.
But this might the point, and it might be a good thing. Reis-Dennis, in his article “Anger: Scary Good,” makes the case for anger as important to our moral lives precisely because it’s so ugly.
There are aesthetic, moral, and divine implications to this. I want to explore these dimensions further in a 3-part series. This post will be the first part, where I explore the aesthetic dimension of anger. Anger’s ugliness, or the ugliness it exposes, is where anger gets its incredible power, so we will start here.
Is it really anger itself that is so ugly? There is something unsavory about the anger we feel when:
the coffee machine doesn’t work when we need it to…
someone breathes loudly on the bus…
our toddler interrupts our work…
We don’t like this anger, and wish it would go away.
But this isn’t the whole story. The anger a woman feels toward her abuser when she decides she’s had enough isn’t ugly the way the above examples seem to be. When the oppressed are angry with their oppressor, we know they’ve had enough, so we cheer. Yes, good! You’ve had enough, don’t put up with their garbage ever again.
Perhaps it isn’t the anger itself that’s so ugly, but what it reveals. Reis-Dennis points out the uneasiness anger causes is due in part to the seriousness anger attaches to whatever it is someone is angry about. Anger suggests something has seriously gone wrong between two parties. It reveals something about the relationship between the one who is angry and the one they’re angry at. Someone has behaved wrongly in the relationship, and now it’s time to get mad.
This is central to Reis-Dennis’ point, as you can see from his cheeky article title. Anger is scary because it suspends civility and promises to keep civility in suspension until something is set right. The transgressor now knows it’s time for an apology, a change of behavior, or reparation. For this reason, anger can be deemed ‘good.’ Anger promises justice will be restored by whatever means necessary. While Reis-Dennis calls anger itself ugly, I suggest what’s really ugly is the transgression anger responds to, and anger simply works to elucidate its seriousness.
Anger has a demanding quality. As Reis-Dennis puts it, anger forces transgressors to engage in a ‘status-balancing’ ritual, such as an apology or reparation. The force anger has comes from the promise to see moral balance restored between persons. Anger lets the transgressor know the transgressed upon will see to that justice be restored, so the transgressor had better get on board. Anger is threatening. Give me justice or I will obtain it for myself.
It seems silly, then, to be angry with an inanimate coffee-machine. It can’t behave morally or immorally. To be angry at another person for breathing “loudly” is absurd. We’re not obligated to hold our breath for anyone. The shame we feel when we get angry at a 1-year old for interrupting our work is earned, they can’t know any better. The anger felt in these cases is inappropriate. No one has done anything wrong. There are no inequalities to set right. Anger is an emotion that functions to demand others behave morally with respect to each other, and here it is misplaced.
Yet we feel angry anyway. We feel entitled to that coffee, so the machine is to blame. We feel entitled to silence, so we glare holes into the heads of mouth-breathers. We feel entitled to our space, and won’t give a pass to our 1-year old for not understanding the home-office is off limits. I could end this post here, and leave you off feeling guilty for being such an entitled prick —
But there is more to misplaced anger than this.
When our needs are not met, we feel insecure and fearful. We know something is amiss. That coffee is how we get through the first half of a very long day. The bus is cramped and you haven’t had a moment of true silence all week. A project desperately needs to get done and you just don’t have time to play. We are overworked, overstimulated, overburdened. We’ve had enough. If only this machine would work, if only that guy would sit somewhere else, if only this kid would just take a nap…
If we take a moment to notice our thoughts, we know the coffee-machine, that guy on the bus, and our small kiddo didn’t do anything wrong. The demands others make of us or that we make of ourselves are often too much, and we know it. Anger demands when something is wrong, that’s its job, but we’re clumsy with our anger. Anger is not ugly, but it can reveal to us morally ugly things. It also works to help us remedy that ugliness, but if misdirected, leads to more ugliness.
Anger is not ugly. It may be unwieldy, even overwhelming, but ugliness is not intrinsic to anger.
Forgive yourself for your misuse of anger, and do not attempt to flee it. Notice your anger, and be aware of its true origins so that when anger arises, you may understand and direct it properly.
There is something liberating about realizing where our anger comes from. Sometimes, it allows us to let the anger go. Other times, when we realize our anger is warranted, there is something satisfying about that anger when it’s directed where it ought to be.