Righteous Anger

I’ve been receiving personal revelation from magazines lately. Don’t laugh, it’s true; God speaks in mysterious ways. In a recent round of browsing the shelves at my local co-op (where some of the more “hippie” themed publications reside), I came across an article that I really resonated with. The title, “Prelude to Courage” caught my attention, but it wasn’t until I got home and read it that I knew why.

In the health sectioned article (from Ode Magazine), Diana Rico describes her experience with not wanting to deal with feelings of anger. She, as many of us do, interpreted anger as an undesirable emotion. After all, many of the world’s religions and spiritual leaders denounce it as being something that we need to let go of and remove from ourselves to attain peace, both within and around ourselves. But what she explores in the lengthy article (but well worth reading) is that the emotion of anger itself is not the enemy that we might view it to be. It is actually rage that we are thinking of when we talk about anger as being something that should be suppressed and banished from our experience. Rage, as an action rather than a common and natural feeling of the human condition, is “an accumulation of feelings about the past”, whereas, according to the article, “healthy anger” is “always about what’s happening now”.

I got to thinking about this in the context of what I’ve heard in sunday school discussions about “righteous anger”, specifically the counsel in Ephesians 4:46 to “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger”. To “be” angry is not the problem. Anger is a valid and important part of our existence. It is rage and the destructive behavior associated with acting on our accumulated feelings that could be construed as sin. By letting the “sun go down” on our legitimate feelings we are no longer living in or dealing with the moment. We are putting it off and letting it fester. Furthermore, “when you are in a state of rage, you’ve moved from your prefrontal lobe ‘down to your midbrain, where you can only fight, be in flight or freeze’, That’s why rage is uncontrollable—and frightening. But with healthy anger, you’re still in your prefrontal lobe, where capable of managing your responses.”.

The article also mentions some fascinating connections of both unrestrained and suppressed anger to negative outcomes in our health and relationships. At first glance, it appears that no matter what you do to deal with anger, you’re risking your physical and emotional well being. Depression is even compared to “anger turned inward”. So what is the upside? Is anger always bad?

Well, for starters, anger can produce results that complacency and submission never can. Healthy anger, according to the article, draws people into conversations (as well as intimacy), but can also be viewed as the fuel for many of the social changes in recent history. Our collective outrage over injustices can be seen as the driving force behind such important pieces of history as women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement. In these critical moments of humanity’s timeline, anger was the spark that preceded the courage to inspire and fight for change. But that doesn’t mean that anger was always expressed, or that rage always took it’s place. As Gandhi demonstrated, anger at the wrongs that were being perpetuated could be channeled into something that could have a true and lasting impact for positive change.

So where does that leave us? Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Pattern of Intimate Relationships, is quoted in the article as believing that “healthy anger…requires us to change our part in the relationship patterns from which our anger springs”. Rico says that Lerner sees “healthy anger as a powerful tool for increasing respect and fulfillment in relationships with loved ones.” Healthy anger requires that we “observe and change our part in the patterns that keep us stuck, rather than dissipating our energy trying to change another person who doesn’t want to change.” So, in looking at this from a Mormon Feminist perspective, is our relationship with the Church valuable enough to us to want to change it? If this is true, than perhaps what Lerner suggests is the way to go about negotiating and navigating such a relationship – especially when the other party does not want to change for us.

Are we “dissipating our energy” when we fall back into familiar patterns with our church attendance that feel safe and non-confrontational? Are these patterns keeping us stuck? What could we do differently in the spirit of healthy anger that motivates us to positive action? Do we need to stop letting the sun go down on our anger and deal confidently with problems that we personally witness as they arise?

Do you believe you could turn anger into courage to work for positive change?


Corktree is exploring life and spirituality in new ways and new environments while studying midwifery, reiki, yoga, homeopathy, herbology and evolutionary nutrition. She has 3 daughters and one son, which add up to what now feels like an enormous family of 6.

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20 Responses

  1. TopHat says:

    Corktree- If you haven’t read it, read Nonviolent Communication. I need to memorize that book. But regarding anger, it says that anger is often an emotion that we use to cover another emotion: usually fear, guilt, shame, etc. For me, I’ve been able to use my anger more productively when I sit down and figure out what the real driving motive is behind my anger.

  2. Maureen says:

    I’ve experienced depression as anger turned inwards. I had a couple of major depressive episodes, and always when I came out of them I felt angry without explicit reason. It’s just more a feeling that seemed to be welling up from where it was buried deep within. Because of this I have felt angry at being socially pressured to not be angry. I have especially been frustrated by the lack of acknowledgment of righteous anger in the Church. So much focus seems to be on Christ’s love and forgiveness, as if Christ himself didn’t get angry (eg violence on the temple grounds John 2:15) or that love has to preclude anger. It feels hurtful to victims to be so merciful to the injurious and not really be angry at the injustices.

    I take a little issue with “healthy anger” is “always about what’s happening now” and rage is “an accumulation of feelings about the past”. It makes it sound like because hearing something in church now that makes me angry is inseparably tied to a time where something similar happened that I still have feelings about and still affects me in the now that I can’t be experiencing healthy anger.

    But other than that I like what is said here. Personally, I’ve always preferred to consider anger to be like fire. When harnessed and controlled it can be greatly empowering. When allowed to run rampant or misused it can be hurtful and damaging.

    In answers to your questions, I tend to feel compassion for those who are suffering from the injustices you mention, not anger. The one thing I really get angry about is when others arbitrarily put obedience to priesthood leaders over trusting and developing someone’s discernment and personal revelation. As I am getting a better handle on controlling my anger and not turning it inward, I am speaking out more against the grievous wrongs I perceive.

    • Corktree says:

      I hear what you’re saying about the definitions, and I hesitated to define them as such, but the article makes use of it well, so I tried to incorporate it into my thoughts. I suppose I see it more as whether or not we’re doing something directly about the problem that we’re angry about, or letting that anger spill into other areas and affect our behavior in unrelated ways. So I guess if something has been recurrent that makes you feel anger, dealing with it in context (probably the next time it happens) is how to approach it from a healthy place. The article has a good example of a husband and wife where the wife is doing something that bothers the husband and the difference in whether he continues to let it bother him or addresses it at the time (in the morning) and then heads off to work and isn’t conflicted about it anymore. (This comes across better in the article). But I like the description of where we’re dealing with it in our brain better anyhow – and I think it’s possible to actually focus on that aspect of it and direct our thoughts and feelings into a healthy region – especially since dealing with something as it comes up has the potential to set the stage for a more dramatic reaction and confrontation.

      But I also think of the admonition in the scriptures to settle things directly with the people that offend us and how immediate that always sounded to me. I’m rambling…

      • Sijbrich says:

        Corktree – your last paragraph caught my attention. I remember learning about this concept a few years ago from the story of Mary and Martha. How Martha got angry and told Christ about it instead of talking directly to Mary. A great lesson about dealing with problems directly with the people involved and avoiding gossip. I need that constant reminder.

      • Maureen says:

        I see what you’re saying here Corktree. I didn’t think the way in which I saw how it could have negatively been interpreted was how you or the original article intended to have it interpreted. I guess I’m just hyper sensitive to seeing how things could be interpreted negatively as I’ve suffered so much in having such turned against me.

        I did in a way like how rage was equated with action (though personally I have issues there too as I don’t like emotion language being conflated with non-emotion language, as it’s hard enough to share and explain subjective experience). I like it because I see that actions are what can be good or bad, not emotions. And I think too much emphasis is put on how we ought to *feel*, as if we can be all powerful over our emotions. Whereas I see them more like sensation perceptions. I can’t choose to not see the sky as blue, and I can’t choose to not feel angry at injustice. But I can choose, like you said, whether to act on the anger directly and immediately in a positive manner or to sublimate the feeling which may make it more difficult to act positively later on.

        I’m really enjoying this discussion. Thanks for posting all this.

  3. Sijbrich says:

    Over the last several months I was holding in a bit of “anger” over my daughter being fed marshmallows and cookies in nursery at church. A very small thing compared to other injustices that you ask about that we can experience, but I did feel empowered from the experience as I got up the nerve to nicely ask the Primary President if they could refrain from feeding her those things. Turns out, the Primary President had no idea that that was what was being served (she was pretty recently called) and the next week the snacks had been replaced with healthier alternatives, not just for my daughter, but for all the kids. I was a little apologetic when I was making this request, but she assured me that I had a right to ask this, and she also pointed out that if I had called her and yelled at her about it, that it may have been different. The way we react to others and express our anger is so crucially important.
    I also just finished reading Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden and the recurring theme is regarding the story of Cain and Abel and how Cain dealt with his anger when God had refused his sacrifice. It was a really thought-provoking read and is making me think twice about what I do with anger – do I end up hurting others with it, or am I proactive about it and use it to cause a better change. It’s a process, and while it was such a small thing with my daughter and the snacks in nursery, I felt like it was good practice and a nice baby step into possibly creating more change in the future.
    Thank you for writing this. Funny how applicable it is to what I’ve recently been experiencing/reading/thinking about.

    • Corktree says:

      Unfortunately, I get angry about those types of things too. But I like what you did with it. Wonderful example. And I need to read East of Eden, it’s been on a my list for a while.

  4. spunky says:

    This is very interesting! Especially since (it seems to me) that women, especially are not “supposed” to be angry. I think anger is passion- and passion if undirected, can be destructive to self, others, relationships. So in directing passion, things that anger us can empower us to drive for change.

    Like you said, this thought is in conflict with “when others arbitrarily put obedience to priesthood leaders over trusting and developing someone’s discernment and personal revelation.” But I think directing passion is more important than continual, submissive blind-faith to leaders. I think blind faith to leaders is in deep conflict with developing and following a personal relationship with Christ.

    • Corktree says:

      This thought, that women are not *supposed* to be angry is something else I wanted to discuss. I was reading about the Hindu Goddess Parvati recently and thinking about how we need examples to follow of how as women we can be simultaneously soft and strong; feminine and bold, angry and joyful. We need to break out of that box that says we can only be one or the other or that anger is un-ladylike or bad.

  5. Helena says:

    There’s the example of Jesus in the book of Mark:

    “And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other.”

    That lends itself to TopHat’s comment about anger coming from another emotional source, in this case, “being grieved”. And it also lends itself to Corktree’s notion that it can be a catalyst for doing unexpected and out-of-the-ordinary good in spite of the censure of others or the traditions of our religious community.

    And I agree, with Sijbrich that, even if our cause is just, when we allow anger to move us to act in ways that are dismissive or abusive of others, we’ve missed the mark. When I slip into that sort of behavior I find that I’ve joined the enemy.

  6. Caroline says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post, Corktree.

    I think I would do better if I expressed anger more often. When I’m angry at my spouse, for example, I tend to freeze up and give him the cold shoulder for a few days. It would probably be better for everyone if I expressed my anger and we had a conversation — however, I avoid that since I often become too upset to have a productive conversation.

    It’s interesting for me to think about the dynamic of anger with people who I am not close to. I tend to be very polite to strangers, even if I’m pissed at them for whatever reason. But I was struck a few years ago by a scene in Kingsolver’s ‘The Bean Trees’ in which the protagonist stands up (somewhat rudely) to some jerks in a diner, and because of that, women witnessing the interaction handed off to her a child who was being abused. They knew she had the guts and the strength to protect and help the child. The scene made me see the good consequences of standing up with anger to something bad that’s going on around me.

    • Sijbrich says:

      I am the same with my husband many times and it drives me crazy. Luckily he is patient and insightful enough that he gets the conversation going when he sees that I am giving him the silent treatment and asks what he may have done to anger me. Passive agressiveness that I think I learned from my parents interacting with each other as I was growing up, but I am determined to eventually break the cycle so my kids learn how to deal with their anger, too. I am currently the Marriage and Family Relations teacher in my ward and I’m glad that I get to be reminded of the need for postive communication.
      And it is really odd that in general, many people (myself included) are more rude and easier to anger with our family members than with strangers. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

    • Corktree says:

      Thanks Caroline. I love that scene in The Bean Trees.

  7. Corktree says:

    You know, I’ve realized today after I wrote this, that it’s my own engagement with feelings of anger that I want to address. I didn’t fully acknowledge how center stage my anger is lately over different issues and how it’s affecting me and my relationships. I really need to learn how to channel it more positively and I do think I need to address a more root cause. Thanks everyone for the comments and feedback.

    • nat kelly says:

      ” I didn’t fully acknowledge how center stage my anger is lately”

      Oh man, I feel this. I had a big yoga breakthrough/breakdown a while back. I realized I have a lot of anger inside me.

      Actually, I’ve been meaning to write about this for you. 🙂 Maybe I should go get on that.

    • Maureen says:

      Having recently read Curse of the Good Girl, I have to say I really like the notion of the author’s four step conflict resolution as a way to approach anger in relationships. I don’t recall them verbatim, but it was something like first affirming the relationship. Next it was expressing your feelings. Then it was admitting your part in it or how you could have made it better. And finally it was seeking resolution or how everyone could help make things better.

      I don’t know if this would help you. But it’s just what came to mind when I read your response.

  8. Rachel says:

    What is the difference between healthy fear and neurotic anxiety? Healthy fear is that there is a real threat to safety, you aren’t ashamed you feel afraid, the fear goes away when the threat is removed, etc. Neurotic anxiety is fear without real threat, you’re embarrassed by the feeling, and it doesn’t go away, etc.
    Feelings are just feelings–the come and go. If someone comes up and slaps me for no good reason, I’m allowed to be angry. After they’ve genuinely apologized, and tried to right the wrong, and it’s 20 years later and I still get realllllly worked up when I think about it..that is something else.
    If my husband were one of several politicians who have been in the news recently, I think most people would agree I’m “allowed” to feel angry.
    Getting clear on what our emotions are telling us is the key. Often we just feel bad, and feel bad/ashamed that we feel bad, and try to ignore it.

  9. nat kelly says:

    This is great, Corktree! I really love Audre Lorde’s discussion of anger. I think her essay about it is entitled “Uses of Anger” or something. I’d reference something but it’s currently packed with all my other books getting ready for our move this weekend. 🙁

    Anyway, yes, I think anger can be very powerful. And important. I think being told all the time that anger is bad and dangerous and unseemly is a really good way to stop angry people from revolting. It also really invalidates the feelings created by injustice. I say to hell with all that. Sometimes I’m just downright mad, and I’m gonna do something about it.

    But then, I never was very ladylike.

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