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    Is Anger Useless?

    By John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney–

    Anger is one of the most powerful and compelling emotions that humans experience. It can engulf a person completely and become blind rage, derailing a person’s capacity to think or act responsibly. Anger can simmer quietly for hours, days or years, and intertwine itself with a person’s psyche or identity.

    Anger can be repressed and manifested in how a person thinks, feels and acts without their even being aware of its presence. Anger often obscures difficult emotions, such as fear, sadness or loneliness that a person may not want to acknowledge or feel. 

    Anger can obscure our ability to see clearly and prevent us from understanding something true about ourselves or the way things actually are in the world that we wish were not so. I went to a long meditation retreat years ago in which a student asked for a teacher’s help in addressing anger at a dear loved one that had consumed him for days. The student was particularly disconcerted because there was no way that he and his loved one could resolve the problem together after the retreat. His loved one was dead.

    The teacher suggested that the student consider if he had a belief that he should think only one way—positively—about his lost loved one. “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.”  “Never speak ill of the dead.” The teacher wondered if, in fact, the student’s relationship with his loved one was more complicated and complex. Was anger obscuring him from opening up to such a truth?

    Many people embrace what they term “righteous anger” and attest that it motivates them to fight for change in the face of injustice or harm. In a 1967 speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., prophesied that “with righteous indignation” a “true revolution of values” will illuminate the West’s exploitation of developing nations “and say, ‘this is not just.'”

    More recently, the San Francisco Bay Times featured a photo of a participant in the 2018 San Francisco Women’s March proudly displaying their homemade poster that read: “MY ANGER CANNOT FIT ON ONE SIGN.”

    But news outlets reported that a witness to last month’s deadly mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival said he heard someone shout at the shooter: “Why are you doing this?” And the shooter answered: “Because I’m really angry.”

    Did the Gilroy shooter and countless others who share his political and social ideology believe their anger is righteous? Do they take pride in how they use their indignation as a motivating force for their political engagement?

    Regardless of whether a person believes their anger to be justified, how they express it and act upon it makes a huge difference.  Anger, including political anger, can be lethal. A parent or partner’s physically or emotionally violent expression of anger can cause lifelong trauma to its victims, especially children, and can help to perpetuate generations of anger and violence.

    The American flag at UN Plaza flew at half mast on August 7 to memorialize victims of recent gun violence in Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton.

    In the 2018 documentary RBG, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained how she incorporated the directive that her mother gave her as to how to be a “lady” into her approach to practicing law. Her mother’s advice: Do “not be overcome by useless emotions, like anger.” When Ginsburg’s granddaughter was in law school, she counseled her that “the way to win an argument is not to yell.”

    Ginsburg (and her mother) considered anger to be “useless” and an emotion that would “just zap energy and waste time.” As both a lawyer at the forefront of the movement for legal gender equality and a woman arguing numerous precedent-setting cases before countless male judges, Ginsburg had plenty of cause for “righteous anger.” 

    It’s noteworthy that Ginsburg’s mother did not tell her that she was wrong to ever experience anger; her advice was to recognize that anger was not useful and that people should not be “overcome” by it. Interestingly, Ginsburg is well known for her close personal friendship with the late Antonin Scalia, a man with whom she fundamentally disagreed on many things of vital importance to her.

    Dr. King’s writings also articulate a perspective similar to Ginsburg: “You must not harbor anger… . You must be willing to suffer the anger of the opponent, and yet not return anger.” A person’s “destructive passion is harnessed by directing that same passion into constructive channels.”

    Today’s world presents no shortage of injustices and harms to LGBTIQ and other oppressed people and all of those who are essentially powerless in the face of the impending climate crisis. Opportunities to fill oneself and the world with anger abound.  In the difficult days ahead, we must examine our anger when it arises, see for ourselves whether it is useful, and choose how to respond wisely.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.