A Process Perspective on Dealing with Anger – February 2014

Question: I often have intense feelings of anger toward those who are ruining the planet or preventing positive actions. Does process theology have guidance as to how we deal with these feelings?

Publication Month: February 2014

Each of us has her or his own way of dealing with anger. Process theology encourages us to share our experiences and reflect together about what we can learn from this interchange. Being asked this question gives me an occasion to participate in that discussion, sharing my current thinking as it has grown out of my own experience of anger and what others have taught me.

How distinctive process theology is on the topic of anger I am not sure. Its teaching here is basically that we should learn from experience. From the perspective of process thought, for example, we should not draw up a list of “good” and “bad” emotions and then try to prevent bad ones.  The data of a prehension evoke subjective forms derived partly from past experience. These include anger. That is the way the world is. We should accept that and adapt our goals to it. That is the way things operate as we derive our initial aims from God. Anger is an element in the subjective forms of many actual occasions. It can contribute to the richness of the occasions that include it. It can also block other feelings that might contribute more. If it dominates, the consequences can sometimes be seriously damaging. 

It is important to make a major distinction between being angry and hating. Anger badly handled can lead to hatred and to deep-seated rage. These are obviously damaging to the person who has these feelings and can easily lead to destructive actions. But one can also love the person toward whom one feels anger. A girl may be angry with her parents because they deny her something, while still loving them. A father may be angry with his son for lying to him, without any loss of love. It can help if the girl thinks about why she is being denied. Even if she does not think the reasons suffice, she can feel some empathy for her parents. It is similarly helpful if the father tries to understand why his son lied rather than focus on the fact that the lying was a betrayal of trust.

On the level of society, leaders such as Martin Luther King emphasized the reality of the injustice and cruelty of the way whites collectively were treating Blacks collectively. Focusing on injustice and cruelty normally and healthily arouses anger. But King emphasized that this anger was directed toward a system and collectivity and did not involve hatred of the people who are acting unjustly and cruelly. 

In Ephesians we read, “Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (4:26)  This seems wise counsel. It is OK to be angry, but don’t let it lead you to act in destructive ways. And don’t feed your anger. That is an important piece of advice. If children are angry with parents for thwarting them, that can be natural and healthy. But if they then draw away and dwell on their parents’ perceived injustice and cruelty, connecting the present instance to others, they will do damage to themselves and to the relationship. We may call this “sulking,” and parents need to do what they can to reduce such sulking without making the child feel guilty for the anger.

At the societal level, Blacks damage themselves if they dwell too much on the century-long injustices and cruelties to which they have been subjected. Healthy anger can turn into unhealthy rage. Rage destroys any possibility of love. Anger can motivate thoughtful action for change. Rage overwhelms thought and often leads to lashing out in ways that are destructive both of others and of oneself. 

When we are angry for good reason, how do we avoid allowing it to lead to rage? One way is to be “philosophical” about the evil. I make use of this myself, and I think it can be genuinely helpful. In viewing the terrible evils now occurring I reflect that history is, for the most part, the story of those who are able to impose their will and exploit others doing so. Who exploits and who is exploited change. In some ways most of us sometimes feel exploited. Many of us recognize that we are also exploiters. Viewing the situation in this way dulls the intensity of anger and enables me to keep on keeping on.

But this can also be harmful. Resignation in the face of evil is not our calling. It is true that history generally has this ugly character. We whites have certainly displayed it in relation to Native Americans and Africans. But it is not a strict necessity. Human beings can do better. Sometimes they do. If we view history against the background expectation that the powerful always exploit whoever they can with no concern for the consequences to others, then we can rejoice in the rare and wonderful exceptions. Rather than resign ourselves to the typical evil, realism calls us to consider what possibilities of repentance and improvement actually exist. We can lift up these examples and work for more. If we have some moderate successes, these do not fully satisfy us, but they open the door to others. We can find ourselves in a process guided by a sense of righteousness that is never satisfied but that still finds joy in positive changes.

I personally marvel that so many people from communities that have suffered immensely at the hands of whites avoid being consumed by rage against us. The human warmth and personal acceptance I have received from some of them belongs to the great list of counter-instances to what we might reasonably expect. The program of truth and reconciliation enacted by Blacks, when finally they wrested power from white hands is a large scale illustration.

How have Blacks, and Native Americans and others who have suffered so horribly at white hands like mine been able to lead in breaking the cycle of cruelty and exploitation? I think that some of them have gained a remarkable wisdom over time about how to handle cruelty and injustice. We who have suffered much less have much to learn from them. 

One very important factor in enabling people to endure injustice and cruelty without being destroyed by the emotions one faces is community. Oppressed people have learned to support one another, and this mutual support within exploited communities is of immense importance. Exclusion from community has often been taken as the ultimate punishment. The experience of individual injustice within a community engenders an anger with which it is more difficult to deal. 

The question has a more specific focus than the answer thus far. The evil that now calls forth our deepest anger is action that may lead to the end of history as a whole. What I called above “the philosophical response” was not geared to that kind of anger. We cannot now point to an ever-recurrent pattern. We are speaking of a once-for-all catastrophe. The anger we feel toward those who blindly or blithely lead the world toward that ultimate catastrophe is a special case. 

The philosophical response in this case may be a final resignation or despair or sheer nihilism. Much of our sense of better and worse seems irrelevant if the course of human events is soon ending.  Perhaps one should learn not to care about the future. The sensible response may be “eat, drink, and be merry” now, without giving thought to consequences. In that case, one may simply join those who hasten the destruction of our world. At least one may cease to feel anger toward them.

To avoid that logic, I appeal to something like the biblical notion of the “remnant.” It seems to be too late to avoid the cataclysm. But the now inevitable cataclysm need not mean the end of human life on the planet. If there is the possibility that some will survive, then efforts to increase that number are appropriate. Also it is appropriate to imagine the kind of world the remnant might create.

With that overview, anger toward those who make a terrible situation even worse than it needs to be is fully appropriate. Hating them, however, is useless, and it damages us. Directing our energies toward making a positive difference is the best response to thoroughly legitimate anger.  I find that if I can engage in activity that has some chance of making a favorable difference, the deep-seated anger that pervades my life does not become a damaging rage.