Anger as a Spiritual Path (Some Do’s and Don’ts)
A Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning Service, 2014
Rabbi Dawn Rose, PhD
Raise your hand if you recognize the following lyrics from a popular country western song. It is sung by a woman who is angry because her man has cheated on her. As spiritedly performed by Carry Underwood, the woman imagines that ‘right now’ her ex is primping in the men’s room of some sleazy nightclub where he has gone with another woman:
Right now, he’s probably dabbing on 3 dollars
Worth of that bathroom Polo Oh and he don’t know That I dug my key into the side Of his pretty little souped-up 4 wheel drive Carved my name into his leather seat I took a Louisville slugger to both head lights Slashed a hole in all 4 tires Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats
A cursory survey of country western tunes, and I would guess of other genres as well, reveals a long tradition of what we might call ‘really angry songs.’ Though they might also address injustice, they are usually about love gone bad. Interestingly, these songs are most often written and performed by women. A striking feature of these songs is the emphasis on revenge. A particularly notable example currently on the charts is played by a group called The Band Perry. In it, a jilted woman revisits the sight where she and her love carved their initials into a tree. She is singing to the man who left her when she says –
I don’t have you, but I got my chainsaw
Revenge fantasies can be both humorous and exhilarating. Some psychologists believe they help both people express the anger they hold inside them and move past it. (That might explain why some of us have to play the songs a few more times than others.)
Though most ‘really mad songs’ are in fact about the bad sides of love, really mad songs (or paintings, or stories, or other artistic expressions) can be about the whole range of reasons why people get mad: racism, sexism, poverty, death, war, lousy drivers, ants, and on and on. For an examples of this in other genres, I think immediately of Ann Petry’s 1945 ground breaking short story, “Like a Winding Sheet” about a Black man who faces humiliating treatment at his job and then goes home and beats his wife. I remember also a special presentation on NPR—four hours of what they called Croatian Anger Songs about by the deadly TB epidemic around 1930, widely thought to be yet another Stalinist genocide-by-purposefully-ignoring-social-crisis’s. The lyrics of these high, nasal songs over and over being—in Croatian, of course, “I’m dying of TB (cough, cough) and I’m really really angry at Stalin.”
Returning closer to home, the country duet Maddie and Tae have a top of the charts really angry song that sure as heck ain’t about no lost love. Rather, it’s a sophisticated protest against over sexualized images of women in modern music. Consider with me these words to Girl in a CountrySong:
I hear you over there
On your tailgate whistlin’ Sayin’, “Hey, Girl”
But you know I ain’t listenin’ ‘Cause I got a name
And to you, it ain’t “pretty little thing”,
“Honey”, or “baby”
It’s driving me red-red-red-red-red-red-redneck crazy Being the girl in a country song
This song introduces the critical question in our Yom Kippur sermon this morning. Our first two songs, about jilted love, were expressive and perhaps cathartic for both artist and listener. But they were also violent and destructive. They did not offer us, shall we say, any good advice about how to handle anger, or present a reasonable role model to emulate.
On the other hand, Girl in a Country Song goes the next step in what I might call a spirituality of anger. Maddie and Tae don’t just blow steam about women’s stereotypes, they educate and raise consciousnesses. They do it in such a brilliant catchy way that a million women are walking around their homes singing ‘the girl in the country song, how’d it ever go so wrong,’ and all the country song loving men around them have to listen to it over and over. Meanwhile Maddie and Tae are getting very rich with a country western song that not only does not exploit stereotypes against women, but exploits the exploitation of stereotypes against women.
That is my question this morning: What is it that turns some people’s anger from the flamethrower-chainsaw destruction mode to an ‘educate and heal the world constructive response?’ From the stomach-acid producing self-hating internalization of anger to the I’m-going-to-pick-myself-up-and-show-the-world-how-magnificent-I-am mode?
Stated differently, how do we get to that moment like in the 1996 movie, The First Wives Club, when Diane Keaton, Bette Midler, and Goldie Hawn end with the sweet revenge within their grasp and force their ex’s to fund a center for abused women instead?
As a part of my research for this sermon, I turned to a close friend who happens to be an exquisitely patient and hardworking nun with just this question. How does really angry anger get turned from bad to good? Her response was to share with me a pamphlet with a remarkable story about the founder of her order of French speaking nuns in North America. The pamphlet was about the title wave of Irish immigrants who reached our shores during the infamous Potato Famine. One thing that I did not know was that, fleeing decades of squalor and starvation, thousands of the incoming refugees were already dying of typhus even as they reached our shores.
As you may recall, this was already the age of signs on doorways that read, No Dogs, No Jews, No Isrish. This policy was re-enforced by the strictly -run Catholic hospitals.
On the back of the pamphlet is a picture of this founding mother nun. One look and you can clearly see she is neither a singing nun nor is she a flying nun. She is an angry nun. I could easily imagine her thundering into hospital administration and saying, ‘What do you mean, you don’t serve the Irish!’ When she thunders out again, it is not to take a baseball bat to the front window or to eat a box of benais at the convent. Bucking the whole of the New England Catholic establishment, she gathers her handful of nuns around her and together they find the money and the equipment and the building space, and the doctors and the medicines they need to minister to two thousand dying Irish. This is an anger that gets things done, and twice as fast than if she was just happy.
My friends, this is anger at its best, anger as a spiritual path, and we all need to know how to get it. We all need, and the whole world needs for us to learn how to turn our anger from destruction to construction, from hurting to healing, from tearing down to building up, from dead end to new life, from fleeting personal catharsis to shared redemption, from massive community demolition to massive community rebirth.
I call this transformation from bad anger to good anger a spiritual path for two reasons.
- One, when we make this change from destruction to construction we are moving from the expression of our baser selves to the expansion of the work of our spirits, and of The Spirit, I mean God.
We are engaging our higher selves, we are offering what is terrible and hard in the world around us up for positive change. We are sacrificing self for a manifestly greeter good. We are taking all that insanely energetic MAD coursing through our veins and reciting along with Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility” to fight injustice, feed the hungry, to heal the world.
- More important, however, I call this Anger as a Spiritual Path because I believe that in order to make this change, to eschew angry cursing and resentment and violence for hard-won tikkun olam, we need to be on a spiritual path. We need to know how to transform and direct and control. We need to learn how to focus our anger upon a task at hand, be it battling racism or saving trees. To transform anger into world healing we need to know how to do the transformation, and then know how to become physically, mentally, financially and organizationally effective in our fight. That knowledge and ability requires both spiritual wisdom and practical experience. Utilizing our anger to catalyze spiritual work on earth requires of us ongoing and focused spiritual work inside. We need to cool our anger to simmer. Once we have done that, cooled our anger, used it to focus our energy, organize ourselves into an army, plan our campaign, once we have done all these things—like Gandhi and Martin Luther King—then we will be 1000 times more effective (shall we even say dangerous?) than any raging acting out fool.
I call this work of justice and of the Spirit a path because for the vast majority of us this transformation does not come naturally. A spiritual path is not a spiritual experience, like walking outdoors and seeing the sunset. It isn’t a pleasant and perhaps insightful yearly meditation on the Chanukah candles and it certainly isn’t that euphoria experienced after really great performances of Les Mis. Walking a path begins with a decision to walk that path and continues on with walking perhaps for the rest of our lives.
You might say, Rabbi, why would we walk anything having to do with anger? isn’t anger just entirely bad? Aren’t we supposed to get rid of it and not have any at all? I thought that was the message of all the world religions?
I don’t know about all the world religions but that is not what, for example, Judaism teaches about our destructive inclinations. Judaism tells us that for each person there is what is called a Yetzer ha-rah and a Yetzer ha-tov, or an evil inclination and a good inclination. Because we are created Betzelem Elohim, in the image of God, everything about us must have the potential to be for good, even the evil inclination. For example, we would think ‘lust’ to be an inclination that is all bad, yet, channeled properly into a loving relationship, lust leads to babies and mostly we all like those squirming, burping little creatures. I know I do.
Similarly, anger, definitely a Yetzer ha-rah, can be channeled into good purposes. If God can be said to get angry in the Torah, and I think we can say that without argument, then the plagues against Egypt might be considered angry yet measured attempts at communication with the Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go. And that would be a good thing.
Similarly, the war of the Maccabees against Rome, catalyzed by rage at the desecration of the Holy Temple, became a struggle for national liberation against pagan foreign powers that we still celebrate today.
It isn’t only Judaism that teaches this perspective on anger. Consider this biographical story Gandhi told about the first time he experienced raging anger, and discovered the power of harnessing this emotion:
As a young, unknown, brown-skinned lawyer traveling in South Africa on business, Gandhi was roughly thrown from the train because he refused to surrender his first-class ticket and move to the third-class compartment. He spent a cold, sleepless night on the railway platform.
Later, he said this was the turning point of his life: for on that night, full of anger because of this personal injustice, as well as the countless injustices suffered by so many others every day in South Africa, he resolved not to rest until he had set those injustices right. On that night he conquered his anger and vowed to resist injustice, not by violence or retaliation, but through the loving power of nonviolent resistance, which elevates the consciousness of both oppressed and oppressor.
As Gandhi himself explained: “I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power that can move the world.”
What I find most remarkable about this story is that the anger that Gandhi stores and transforms is not merely anger over the poor treatment of his fellow East Indians in South Africa. It isn’t anger once removed, pity, or umbrage. He is a well-dressed respectable businessman riding first class against all the warnings of his country people, enduring the stares and whisperings of the white people around him. He is arrested and roughed up like a criminal, humiliated in front of everyone, men, women, white, brown, and black, and actually thrown off the train. He is physically injured along with receiving deepest of wounds to his personhood and his pride. His very manhood had been brought to question.
That, my friend, brings on the a level of anger that is right up there with a woman scorned. This kind of injury, of body, mind and soul is the kind that makes for revolutionaries, terrorists and early deaths by suicide and heart attacks.
Gandhi spends a painful and lonely night lying on the rough planks of a dangerous and deserted train station, wrestling with his rage. In the morning, he rises up with enough anger still coursing through his veins to liberate his homeland through non-violent protest.
It needs to be underscored that this ability to channel his anger into a power that can change the world does not come easily, as he explained to a pushy newspaper reporter:
“It is not that I do not get angry. I don’t give vent to my anger…. But I only control my anger when it comes. How I find it possible to control it would be a useless question, for it is a habit that everyone must cultivate and must succeed in forming by constant practice.”
There is not time this morning to outline an entire spiritual path for those of us seeking the transformation of anger into the fiery energy necessary for today’s tikkun olam. The writings of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rabbi Abraham Heschel and many others can inform our path.
Here, are a few do’s and don’ts to get us started on our way.
Do – Understand that feeling anger is different than acting on it
Do Not – Believe for one minute anger has to control you
Do – Discover those actions and/or phrases that help you refrain from acting in anger
Do Not – Use those actions or phrases only when you feel like it
Do – Use those actions and or phrases every time, and if they fail understand you are in a learning curve and try again
Do Not – Give up if you fail to control your angry actions every time
Do – Remember that the Transformation of Anger takes practice like learning to shoot baskets, hitting home runs, or whatever people try to do when they are playing Jai Alai
Do Not – Pretend you don’t have anger when you really do
Do – Allow yourself a measured amount of physical activity if necessary to stop your arms and legs and mouth from doing something bad
Do Not – Use that angry physical angry energy against any living being
Do – Identify the true source of your anger as opposed to the immediate source (i.e. a system of prejudice vs. the officer that threw you off the train)
Do Not – Let go to a belief that people can be entirely and unredeemably evil
Do – Use part of your transformed anger energy to form a concrete plan to address the original source of your anger (be it prejudice or corruption or loss of the ozone layer )
Do Not – Create a plan that offers more catharsis than social change (i.e.Rambo vs. Martin Luther King)
Do – Make sure this plan has the possibility of a practical positive outcome as oppose to just simply doing something
Do Not – Think for one minute that you have to work alone
Do – Bring everything that is strong and good in and around you into the fight
Do Not – bring your chainsaw
Do – Transform, store, and use your anger wisely, fight evil and pursue justice, cagey as a fox, organized as a bee hive, unstoppable as an angry nun, resolute as a little brown man from India, strong as a prophetic rabbi marching across the bridge at Selma.
Do Not – This Yom Kippur, Do Not leave this sanctuary neutral
Do – Stay angry and organized, like our teachers before us, until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream