Updated: Sep 8
For the last three weeks, I’ve been working in my father-in-law’s shop, building kitchen cabinets for our home. Two days ago, I put in an extra-long day in order to get all the painting done. It was a hot and humid and I was in pants and long sleeves to protect me from paint spray. I came home tired, ready to take a shower and take it easy. I had just one thing to do before that could happen; bring a corner cabinet into the house.
Before I started, I measured the door opening, and it was too narrow. I took the front door off and tried to bring it in that way. Still too narrow. I took the screen door off and tried to bring it in. Still too narrow. By now I was more tired and getting frustrated. Every little obstacle or irritation was setting me off. My wife was helping me carry the cabinet in. So, we set it down by the front door in defeat, and I paced around the house trying to think of an alternative. Looking out the living room window, I finally saw a solution; the window itself.
I took the bottom panel off but couldn’t get the screen off. I finally pried it off, breaking it in the process. When I took the top window panel off, I discovered a horizontal bar right in the center, cutting the window space in half. There was no way I could get the cabinet in without removing that bar. I had to smash it out with a hammer, breaking it as well. By the time my wife and I got the base cabinet into the house, it was an hour later, and I was angry. I felt ready to punch something.
I hate getting angry.
As a kid, my dad had a temper. He would get angry and abusive. As an adult, I swore to never hurt others in anger like my dad had hurt me. I decided to not get angry. But that didn't work. Though I rarely got angry, I still did, and still do. When I get angry, it feels overwhelming. I've been praying and sitting with my anger more lately, especially after the incident with the base cabinet. And I'm coming to some new conclusions about anger.
In American culture, we don’t seem to know what to do with anger. We see it a useless, negative emotion. We see it as only bad. We often treat angry people like their useless and bad. But, when we label sometime bad, we cut it off, and when we cut something off, we’re no longer able to work through and resolve it.
I don’t see many good examples in our culture of how to deal with anger in healthy, positive ways. By simply deeming it a “bad” emotion, we won't deal with and resolve it in healthy ways.
Anger is not a useless or bad emotion.
Anger is a response to injustice.
Whether real or perceived, we get angry when something wrong happens to us or others we care about. When we don’t make space for anger, we don't make space for the resolution of injustice. When we don't make space for anger, we can dismiss angry people instead of helping resolve the underlying issues their anger is revealing.
Anger is a powerful emotion.
Very destructive, explosive, harmful, even fatal in its extreme.
It’s no wonder we run from it, in ourselves and others.
However, the most unhealthy thing we can do with anger is keep it in the dark. That action puts it out of sight, but can makes it more dangerous. Out of sight is not out of mind. Anger in the dark can burst out in unexpected and uncontrolled ways. When we are more aware of our anger - how to allow for it, listen to it, and deal with it - we can bring it forward in the right way at the right time, and learn to resolve it.
We have every incentive in the world to deal with our anger. Look at the state of the world. Look at how many people groups are in conflict with each other. Every day a different story with the same narrative. Someone has done someone else wrong, and someone is angry, hurt, frustrated, and oppressed. But anger is not just “other” oppression. It is just as oppressive to the person experiencing it. Anger is a response, but how we respond out of it is still in our control. When we get angry, we can choose how to express it, in good or bad ways.
The genius of Martin Luther King Jr’s approach to systemic racism was his understanding that how we react towards injustice can make a difference. It can make the difference between compassion and conflict. King understood that calm energy draws people in, while aggressive energy pushes people away. This is what he called non-violence. And yet, through this non-violence he was able to call for the right kind of violence as well.
MLK wanted to do violence to an oppressive system of racism, but he also wanted to ignite the cooperation of a large number of people previously sidelined on this issue. MLK knew he had to walk a fine line, to speak with great passion against an oppressive system, while eliciting great compassion from those helping reinforce that system through their silence. He had great intuition about the human heart. He banked on the truth that most people want to do what is right, and are simply caught in systemic apathy without realizing it. MLK aimed to ignite the compassion of a sleeping nation the only way possible, by opening their hearts to love.
It was the system that was unjust, and not most of the people complicit with it. It was the system that deserved a violent end, and the people who needed to be rescued from it, even those most complicit in it. MLK's aim was to transform both by understanding which one required violence and which one deserved compassion. Energy always produces more of the same, negative to negative, and positive to positive. The energy of hate only elicits more hate, but the energy of love is stronger than the most violent hatred. Love is the only remedy to hate.
If we want to see an end to hate,
we must learn to love even those who hate us.
Contemplation shows us that the problem in the world is in us. In a hate-filled world, if I am simply repeating the cycle, then I am a part of the problem. If I want to break that cycle, I must change myself.
We must be the change we want to see in the world.
We must become what we want the world to become.
Love is not self-seeking. Love is being wounded in order to not be the one doing the wounding. It sets the example of where we need to get to, in that we would rather be hurt than continue the cycle of hurt, even when we have the right to react in kind. If all we know how to do is protect our “rights,” we will never make the world right. If we can learn how to suffer the loss of all things, as Jesus did, then we can set the example of an unwavering love.
Contemplation points us to the work we need to do in ourselves. It begins by surrendering even our ability to see our own dysfunction and invites someone with a higher perspective to come in and help. Contemplation helps us give up trying to make ourselves “better” by letting God show us that our truest self was never wrong. At the core, every person has a heart of love. The dysfunction is how we’ve been trained to live in opposition to ourselves. Its why MLK could trust that, given the chance, people would respond with compassion, because he knew it was already there waiting to come out.
Anger has a proper function, when focused in the right way. Anger can be a loving response to hate and injustice. In our anger, we can do violence to the things that need to be ended, in order to bring about something better. When we make space for anger, both personally and corporately, we can see what it is telling us, and telling us to do. The proper focus of anger is never in hurting another person, but in ending unjust systems that are the cause such hurt.
When we listen to and focus our anger in the right way, it can become a power for positive change.