Unhappiness results when desires are frustrated, when expectations are thwarted. Unhappiness leads to frustration, and frustration leads to depression or anger. Depression can lead to despair, paralysis, and even suicide or death. Anger often ends in verbal or physical aggression. Verbal abuse at times can cause greater damage than physical abuse. Anger is one of the primary emotions that help persons cope with life’s events. People generally think of it as a negative, bad emotion. Like any other emotion, it is neither bad nor good. When properly managed and channeled, it can be a constructive, motivating energy for achieving one’s goals. It can mobilise scattered energy into a concentrate just enough to realise one’s immediate aim that otherwise might not have been reached. It can drive a person to higher and higher levels of excellence as well as success. In an impulsive person, it can be a destructive and devastating force. St. Paul writing to the Ephesians said: “Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger (4, 26 &31)”. It is alright to be angry as anger has a rightful place in the nature of things; but it should not lead to unwholesome behaviouurs. Nursing prolonged bitterness, anger, and wrath can pave the way for grudge and even revenge. Harbouring any kind of resentment, malice, and a desire for retaliation is not conducive to healthy spiritual, mental, and physical life.
It is of utmost importance to keep in mind that other people or events beyond our control cannot make us angry. My clients often used to say: “So and so made me so mad”. And I corrected them saying: “You let yourself get angry”. In final analysis we allow ourselves to be affected by others or events; we allow ourselves to get angry and upset. We know, for instance, the same or similar things said or done by different people have different effects on us. People who are close to us affect us more intensely than others who are not. If we do not want to be affected by others, we need to stay emotionally distant from them. But that is not helpful either. Our life would be emotionally very poor. As there cannot be a mountain-top without a valley, there cannot be intense joy without intense pain.
A rich life is one of contrasts. How we lead our life is our choice. Taking responsibility for our anger can help us control and direct our anger. When in anger it is wise not to say or do anything. It is wise not to make any impulsive decisions. It is wise not to punish our children in anger. We are liable to use more force than necessary. We do not want to say or do anything that we will regret later or that will get us just the opposite of what we want. Here it may be in order to say that I am totally against physical punishment as it relates only to the animal part of a human being. If we examine ourselves we will have examples of things that we did or said in anger that we regretted later on.
Fear and anger can be deadly. We have heard the story of the lady killing her pet mongoose that saved her child’s life from a deadly snake. Seeing blood on the mouth of the mongoose, she wrongly assumed that it had hurt her child. In reality the mongoose had killed the snake. When things done in anger, even our so-called victories are Pyrrhic in nature. If not properly managed even our righteous anger can destroy us as well as others.
I am often asked as to how to let go of anger. And my answer is simple. If your anger serves a useful, beneficial purpose, keep it; if not, let it go. Very easily said; very difficult to put it into practice. In about 40 years of mental health practice in India and the USA, I cannot recall a single person who said that holding on to anger has been helpful. But how to let it go? The first thing is to want to let go of it. This denotes the intention to release the anger. Once the will to let go of anger is set in motion, and the informed decision that letting go is more advantageous than holding on to the anger is made, sheer enlightened self-interest kicks in. Enlightened self-interest is the result of a well-executed assessment that holding on to anger is more harmful to the person who clings onto it than to the person at whom it is directed. In reality a negative and burdensome emotion is renting space in the inner life of a person. It negatively influences that person and weighs that person down while paying no rent. Once the conscious decision to let go is made, the emotions will fall in line. In technical terms, the emotional (affective) release will follow the intentional (cognitive) release. Emotions are charged energies like spirited horses ready to prance; but they need to be reined in by the mind. The emotional release will take time depending on personality factors, level of maturity, spiritual disposition, and one’s world-view. A person who is cynical, has a distrustful view of life, and who had an overwhelmingly negative experience of the hostile world around in early years of life will have extreme difficulty in letting go of anger and forgiving. On the other hand, a person who is secure, and has very little need for controlling others, and has an optimistic outlook on life will have little difficulty in letting go of cumbersome anger.
Letting go of anger becomes easier and easier as time goes by, and also as one experiences the benefits of it. As a result of letting go, one becomes more compassionate, understanding, empathic, tolerant, and aware; less judgmental, less dogmatic, and less critical; one is less tired, more energetic and enthusiastic, more accepting of self and others; one enjoys life more fully.
Persons who cause suffering to others, and occasion anger in them truly suffer from ignorance (avidya). If nothing else works, the fact they are ignorant, and the fact they are their own worst enemies is an adequate reason to let go of anger and to make the best out of life for all.