I Have Seen the Enemy and it is Me. Or is it?

Early on in my marriage, I claimed the last session of General Conference as my own.  After a busy weekend of tag-team parenting, the final session has always been a special time of reflection.  I go alone and I sit alone. I like to hear from speakers who are less known to me and enjoy the feeling of ritual completion.

The final session of April 1998 General Conference really stands out in my memory.   I was just finishing up the first trimester of my third pregnancy, my husband was just finishing up his second month of being a new bishop. I was feeling overwhelmed and irritable.  During this session, Elder Lynn G. Robbins gave an address entitled, "Anger and Agency".  He spoke of how we actually make a conscious choice to become angry, how we often dissociate anger from our agency and illustrated how there is no scriptural defense for any expression of anger.  In his conclusion, he issued a challenge, "… we can make that choice today, right now:  I will never become angry again." 

The challenge weighed heavily upon me — to commit to never becoming angry again seemed very serious, almost impossible.  Over the years, I have pondered these words, particularly at moments when roses are not blooming beneath my feet.

In the LDS world, anger is an enemy that we must conquer.  Brigham Young, who declared that there was "no man who had a more indomitable or unyielding temper" than himself counseled the Saints to overcome it, to "throw a cloak over it and subdue it", to cast it from their hearts or to actually "smother angry feelings to death until they were gone".  Similarly, Joseph Smith declared, "We shall go on from victory to victory and from conquest to conquest [and] our evil passions will be subdued."  This type of imagery is familiar to us.  Prophets throughout this dispensation have called on us to conquer ourselves in the battle for self-mastery.  Several of our hymns are militaristic anthems of fighting our foes.

In my quest to never become angry again, I discovered a different vision of anger that radically changed my perception of the battle.  In Anger:  Wisdom for Cooling the Flames Thich Nhat Hanh presents an opposing view:

"Embrace your anger with a lot of tenderness.  Your anger is not your enemy; your anger is your baby.  It’s like your stomach or your lungs.  Every time you have some trouble in your lungs or in your stomach, you don’t think of throwing them away.  The same is true of your anger."

Responding to the cries of a baby is something that I can relate to. Instead of smothering our anger, we smile at it.  Our anger is part of us — we hold it and take care of it so it doesn’t spew forth.  We don’t cast it from us or throw a cloak over it.  It is in this compassionate moment that we can transform our own anger and can see the suffering of those who are angry with us. Perhaps I am odd, but I find that when I cast my anger from me, I frequently use the arm of flesh. Tenderly caring for it, on the other hand, requires humility and divine assistance.

There are some who may worry that by embracing our anger, we may become casual about its existence and less vigilant in restricting its expression. But I think it is a better way. I wonder about the costs of the war against the “natural man” and suspect that we might be able to apply Jesus’ charge to love our enemy to our dualistic nature.

Who is right, Brigham Young or Thich Nhat Hanh?  In the end, some may ask, does it really matter if we choke or embrace our anger as long as we don’t consume others or ourselves in its flames?  Perhaps not, but I prefer the way of peace and look forward to the time when the lamb lies down with the lion — then, perhaps, we can stop making war on ourselves.

Comments

  1. DK Landrith says:

    That’s really, really funny, Rosalynde. Even so, air-headed Stepford? What do you take me for?

    But in any case: She’s a real doll, ain’t she?

    (FYI: She has her own computer and posts whatever she wants to under whatever moniker she chooses. She’s her own chick, and she is one hot babe.)

  2. Millennium approaches.

    Not only does DKL advocate restraint and will in managing the male libido, but his wife (still nameless) makes an appearance, and a funny and intelligent one at that, proving that despite DKL’s best efforts to create an image to the contrary, he is not married to an air-headed Stepford.

  3. DKL's Wife says:

    LOL, Rosalynde. Thanks for the warm welcome.

  4. DKLs Wife, we are doing our best to educate him ;)!

  5. DKL's Wife says:

    Kristine, it is truly astonishing that DKL still doesn’t understand that part of being a rational human being is realizing that your wife is always right and shouldn’t be argued with.

    And while DKL is not without grace, charm and devilish good looks he is just dead wrong about anger. Anger is a necessary and beneficial emotion that should be used sparingly and always be carefully controlled.

  6. DK Landrith says:

    DKL’s Wife, aren’t you supposed to be in bed?

  7. DK Landrith says:

    Point taken.

  8. There’s a lot of wisdom here.

    It reminds me of something I was thinking about yesterday. I’ve never used seatbelts because they were a nuisance and a bother to put on. But I came to realize how childish it was, and decided to overrule that impulse to skip it. I think that’s what humility is, doing what our Heavenly Father asks even when we don’t feel like it. Anger is one of those things that can only be overcome by having the Spirit as our constant companion, and that only comes through habitualizing the things that invite him.

    Until we can overcome flashes of anger, we can apologize quickly when it passes. Eventually we will learn to see that part of ourselves the way we view our little children now.

  9. DK Landrith says:

    Logan: you’re welcome to treat [your anger] however you’d like

    Thanks, Logan. If I could get that in writing, it might come in handy next time I have an argument with my wife.

  10. DKL, isn’t part of being a rational human being realizing that your wife is always right and you shouldn’t argue with her?

  11. DK, I agree with you that we should control our anger, but that may be as far as we can get. With regards to the way we should go about controlling our anger, I have a feeling our positions are based on much deeper views about human nature, and I doubt it’s worth hashing those out for the sake of this discussion.

    Meanwhile, though, I’ll continue to treat my anger like I would a baby, and you’re welcome to treat yours however you’d like.

  12. DK Landrith says:

    Perhaps you’re right, Logan. I certainly didn’t mean to come across as angry :-). But I think that neither guilt nor self-loathing are good substitutes for anger, though they well may be easier on your casual acquaintances. You ask what you should do when you feel angry? Try doing something that you would normally do only when you feel really happy; e.g., laughing.

    And even ancient ideas can be trendy: Witness Madonna’s Kabbalism.

    But as far as Hanh’s ideas, rather than treating anger like a baby, we should treat it like what ends up in a baby’s diapers. (Great post on that kind of stuff over at FMH, btw.)

  13. Danithew, while we both use it, to my knowledge Bob invented the term “superlative disorder.”

    DK Landrith, I think you misread Hanh. I certainly don’t interpret him to mean that there’s anything “unique or special or deserving of praise or defining about anybody’s anger.” (“Healthy” could be debated, but whether or not he meant that is, I think, irrelevant to his point). When he talks about treating our anger like a baby, Hanh is referring to the gentle manner in which we should treat anger and ourselves when anger rises in us as we work to calm it. As for “. . . the post-modern, radically tolerant chic . . .”, these Buddhist ideas have been around thousands of years. So whether or not you agree with them, I don’t think it’s accurate to call them “chic” (by which I assume you mean “trendy”, or “a passing fashion”).

    I think it is “tolerable” to feel anger. It is of course much less acceptable to act out of control because of our anger. Obviously I’d like to not even feel it, but if I do get angry and I haven’t yet learned how to calm myself down, what am I supposed to do? Pretend I don’t feel angry? Hate myself because of it to punish myself? I think those would cause as many problems as they would solve.

    As you’ve said, of course we all can and should learn how to control our anger instead of letting it control us (although I think it’s more difficult and complicated than you suggest with your lamp analogy). But while we’re in the process, I think it’s healthier to be gentle with ourselves.

  14. I’ve forgotten who exactly … but Bob or Logan wrote some time ago about the idea that many people in the church (sometimes general authorities included) have a superlative disorder. In the Church it is often true that people will elevate whatever principle or program that is being taught about to an exaggerated status. Family Home Evening isn’t only important, it is the most important program for families to abide by if they want to be happy. No, it’s eternal marriage. No, it’s church attendance. No it’s family scripture study. No, it’s family prayer. The fact is that all of these are important and hopefully none are utterly neglected …

    I think that the idea that a human being should resolve to never feel anger again is another manifestation of the superlative disorder. The person suffering from superlative disorder will teach that something is so evil or so good that it should be embraced or rejected entirely. The problem with this type of perspective is that it doesn’t think about every situation that should arise. For example, some might sincerely believe that faith is always good and doubt is always bad. A bit more thought though and we realize there are obviously times when skepticism appropriately trumps belief.

    For me, this idea that we could resolve to never feel anger again is another manifestation of the superlative disorder.

  15. I think it is odd to tell a human being that any emotion they potentially experience is completely wrong and should be repressed or psychological re-absorbed. I wouldn’t tell a person that it is always wrong to smile, to laugh, to cry, to feel fear, arousal, etc. My perspective is that every emotion we have, including anger, has at a minimum a potential legitimate purpose. Why would we be endowed with a emotional response that has absolutely no purpose or proper context?

    Perhaps human beings are less capable of appropriately expressing the anger that they feel. I’m willing to consider that. But the challenge to never feel anger again is in my opinion quite nutty. What happens if a situation arises where I am actually supposed to feel angry — where anger is the only appropriate emotion a person could feel?

    There are numerous scriptural examples where the Savior, Moroni and other righteous personalities express feelings of anger. We are told to reprove sharply only when influenced by the Spirit (and to compensate with love afterwards). We are told to defend our families, our religion and our freedoms even to the shedding of blood (if necessary). Is it possible to do these in a completely pacific emotionless way?

  16. that should be posted by kris w.

  17. Nice clarification, Kris: anger as suffering vs. anger as evil or sin. Very Buddhist (and very communicative to my soul).

  18. DK Landrith says:

    Elder Lynn G. Robbins couldn’t be more right if he were Moses or Abraham.

    It’s funny that Brigham Young said of himself that there was, “no man who had a more indomitable or unyielding temper.” It’s also very typical. Many, many people view their anger as something special or unique. Statements like Young’s are their way of saying, “My anger is better than yours!” But it isn’t. It’s all the same animalistic excrement.

    The way I read Thich Nhat Hanh, he’s plain wrong (though I don’t disagree with some of the other readings offered here; e.g., Geoff Johnston’s reading). There’s nothing healthy or unique or special or deserving of praise or defining about anybody’s anger, any more than there’s anything healthy or unique or special or deserving of praise or defining about a man’s libido. And it’s infantile to such mundane and pedestrian things as indulgences in hidden or forbidden pleasures. Moreover, assurances that such things are tolerable is parcel of the post-modern, radically tolerant chic: whatever you are makes you special.

    We can turn our emotions on and off like a lamp. What’s more, we should. We’re human—we’re the rational animal. Embrace you’re humanity and leave your unfettered appetites in the jungle.

  19. I’ve read a fair amount of Thich Nhat Hanh (and I’ve loved it), and I think you’re describing his view relatively well, Steve.

    What I wanted to say, though, is that metaphor by its very nature loses some of its meaning in interpretting it, and as (not only a Buddhist but) a Zen Buddhist I think Hanh would be particularly resistant to efforts to scrutinize and interpret his metaphor too literally.

    Usually when Hanh uses the imagery of taking our anger, weakness, fear, selfishness, etc., in our arms as we would a baby, his point is that we should be gentle with ourselves as we work to overcome it. Hanh would hope that we wouldn’t feel frustrated or angry with ourselves for feeling anger, but that we would acknowledge the anger in us, smile at it, and calm it.

    To me, Brigham Young’s and other Church leaders’ teachings imply a sinfulness or failing in us when we’re angry. They counsel us to repent in order to be more in line with God’s commandments, whereas Hanh counsels us to calm our anger to free ourselves from its power over us. In many ways the differences are subtle, but like Kris I find Hanh’s approach much more empowering.

  20. The Return of Logan!! All hail!

  21. What can I say? I’ve got a weakness for Buddhist principles.

  22. Logan, I’ve got a whopper of a post coming for you, sometime next week. I’ll email the title to you so that your girlish squeals don’t ruin Kris’ post.

  23. Well, I’ve been away all afternoon and now there is so much to catch up on. I think that both Steve and Logan have picked up on what I was trying to get at in a somewhat inarticulate way.

    Geoff, where I may differ from you is that when you smother the flames of the fire you are just getting rid of it. With the baby analogy, you have to find out what is really wrong. Sure you could just keep sticking a soother (do you call it that in the U.S.?) back in its mouth, but you are most likely postponing dealing with the real issue.

    John W. — Elder Robbins said, “Anger is an uncivil attempt to make another feel guilty or a cruel way of trying to correct them. It is often mislabeled as discipline but is almost always counterproductive”. I’m not sure that pretending to be angry, but not feeling it works for me. I think assertive and angry are different. I don’t know if I’m ready to make any definitive statement on how this applies to the Saviour.

    Julie — I think that Brigham might say to the hypothetical woman, “Never let anger arise in your heart. No,never let anger arise in your heart, never, never!” But where does that leave her — still tired and headachey and then add guilt.

    Thich Nhat Hanh might say, “Your anger … needs to be cooked. You cannot eat raw potatoes. Your anger is difficult to enjoy, but if you know how to take care of it, to cook it, then the negative energy of your anger will become the postive energy of understanding and compassion.” Does this sound too woo-woo?

    I like Hanh’s idea that anger is suffering vs. anger is evil and that is that. When I see one of my children having a temper tantrum and I think they are being a little ridiculous, I have very few charitable feelings towards them. When I see them as suffering, I have more compassion, even when I don’t understand what the big deal is. Similarly, when I feel angry (which is a secondary emotion — in your hypothetical example the primary emotions may actually be exhaustion, frustration, fear, etc.) and try to explain myself in terms of suffering, a peaceful resolution seems to come more easily.

  24. Going back to the hypothetical spouses who set early alarms and then repeatedly hit the snooze–I think that is a very good hypothetical. I would find that EXTREMELY annoying–hypothetically speaking. I hope I wouldn’t have the kind of spouse who dismisses my complaints as so much whining.

  25. Doh! And I was feeling pretty good about my interpretation and use of those analogies… Which part(s) do you see as inappropriate stretching, Steve?

  26. Geoff, you lost me with “Brigham was not implying that wood or all flammable materials should be done away with.”

  27. Interesting. I thought that part was much less of a stretch than my take on the TNH quote. Brigham says to throw a cloak on the anger to smother it, so it sounds very much like a fire. But I was implying that the anger was the crying of the baby where the TNH quote implies that the anger actually is the baby — crying or happy. But I went ahead and compared the crying to the anger rather than the baby because Kris went that direction in the original post…

    I like the idea of the anger being the cries of the baby rather than the baby, but it seems like the general harnessing analogy could work either way — the potential energy of both a baby and fire could be useful or destructive (at least that is true after the baby matures…)

  28. Geoff, you are stretching those analogies past their recommended tolerances, IMHO.

  29. John W, I’ve sat here for a minute or two trying to think of an instance in which some feeling or thought could best be conveyed in anger, and I can’t do it. It seems there’s always some better way.

    This discussion is interesting in light of Matt Evan’s recent musings on “The Road Less Traveled.” I read that book in college and don’t remember a single word of it except for this thought: every time you lose your temper, it’s a choice. You may think it’s simply an emotional reaction, but each time you act in anger, something in your brain gave you permission to do that. If you look for this tiny moment, you’ll realize that you decided to do what you did.

    To me, that’s a powerful truth. Don’t know that it speaks to how we internally manage anger, but it does point out the reality behind our outward expressions of anger.

  30. Rusty: I don’t know what others thought, but I thought your post was funny.

    Kris, Steve: Let me defend my assertion that the two approaches are actually the same approach in different terms. The problem is focus within the metaphors — with BY the problem is the fire that should be extinguished; with TNH is was the crying that needed to be extinguished. Brigham was not implying that wood or all flammable materials should be done away with and TNH certainly didn’t imply ridding ourselves of the baby. In both cases, the solution is the same, though. Nip the fire and the crying in the bud or they can get out of control.

    If we use fire the fire analogy further we can understand Christ’s anger as well. Fire is not a bad thing in itself, it just can be destructive when un-harnessed but very useful when harnessed (think internal combustion engine). I believe if a perfect Christ used “anger” it was in a completely harnessed and controlled state to accomplish righteous purposes.

    Julie: I have a suggestion. You could funnel your “anger” to creativity and come up some sort of rational consequence for the behaviors in your husband you can’t take any more. Agree with your husband that every time he does that annoying alarm thing to you he will owe you something you really want and he isn’t fond of giving you (maybe doing all dishes for a week or some gift or some other chore you’d be happy to pawn off.) If he agrees (I assume he will since he loves you) then you can be internally sort of pleased when he screws up again because you don’t have to do any dishes that week (or something…) There are nothing like consequences to change behaviors — isn’t that how God displays his “wrath”? Plus you have done the Christ-like thing and harnessed your anger. Everybody wins!

  31. I liken anger to physical pain. Pain isn’t our enemy; it tells us that something is wrong. We would probably agree that ignoring it is not productive. Anger also can be a symptom of another problem, and bottling it up will probably just lead to stress-related illnesses later in life – like kidney failure or something.

    I like the metacognitive approach implied by TNH. Feeling anger doesn’t necessarily mean we have to go kill someone or vandalize something, but we should recognize our anger, give it an outlet, and deal with the underlying issues.

    On the other hand, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with acting angry. When I was a military officer, there were occasions when subordinates would make poor choices. Acting angry (even when I didn’t necessarily feel angry) often communicated more to the troops – especially in terms of a sense of urgency – than just telling them “I’m angry” or “I’m disappointed” or “you could have done this better” in my usual, impassive tones. If a child is playing in the street, you might seem angry in your attempt to convey to them the dangers of playing in the street and the urgency of returning to the yard. I think about Christ’s anger in the temple in those terms: it’s sometimes impossible to communicate a sense of something’s importance and/or urgency without being assertive and seeming angry.

    Maybe it’s all really about not losing control.

  32. Julie, do you have wire cutters? I suggest gently, lovingly cutting the cord of the alarm clock.

  33. Julie, I’m not sure how to explain those except for psychobabble or misty phrasings. Kris may be better situated to explain the two. That being said, here goes nothing:

    It seems to me that Brigham’s approach is to master anger, control it, so when you start to feel angry, you consciously engage in a control mechanism, like when Bruce Banner fights his transition into the Hulk.

    Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach is to recognize our anger and accept it as we would accept any emotional response that we generate: as a natural part of ourselves. When we start to feel angry, we can look at ourselves and try to meet that anger with love and humility. That’s a little ambiguous — maybe what I mean is that instead of mastering our anger, we come to understand our own natures a little better and amp up our levels of love and affection in response.

    One approach bricks up our emotions: the other would seem to divert the flow. I have no idea if that makes sense in any concrete way, but it sounds good!

  34. Julie in Austin says:

    ok, steve, what are those internal workings?

  35. Julie, I think it was something about lighting your baby on fire… or something.

  36. Julie, I think that these approaches may not always elicit different outward responses when faced with anger. Both views would seem to say, “don’t act in anger.” However, there is a substantive difference between the two that should manifest over time.

    I have been thinking about the EXACT SAME hypothetical — only let’s say it’s a husband who gets up later than his wife — and there’s a real difference between repressing the anger, stifling it, and meeting that anger with love and affection. The outward reaction may be the same — hugging your spouse instead of strangling — but the approaches have very different internal workings.

  37. Julie in Austin says:

    Maybe I a just having a stupid of thought this morning, but neither fire nor baby is doing much good for helping me actually figure out what I would do or what I might feel in a situation.

    Let’s take a hyp-o-thet-i-cal example. Let’s say, in the past, you have told your husband how you hate it when he sets an alarm and then lets the snooze go off over and over and over again, which wakes you up EVERY time and makes you feel headacky and cranky the next day.

    Let’s say he does this AGAIN. Let’s up the ante by pointing out that your sleep was also disrupted by (1) a hungry three month old and (2) a three year old who woke you up to inform you that he was planning on using the bathroom–just for your information.

    Let’s say you are ANGRY with your husband.

    Now, what did BY and Hanh want you to do, again?

  38. Maybe the seemingly opposite approaches have to do with being different people in different times.

    Brigham Young’s ways seems to be a “don’t analyze it, just get rid of it” sort of thing. Very pioneerish (sorry, I know that’s not a word);-). In fact, it probably wouldn’t even have occured to him that a feeling, any feeling, should be analyzed. Godlike emotion = keep, non-Godlike emotion = purge.

    But, Hanh has a totally different way of thinking obviously) and so, for most of us today, who have been exposed to the idea of accepting our feelings and dealing with them, it resonates more with us and seem a more gentle approach.

    I don’t know. I’m still working with the idea that I shouldn’t get angry. :-)

  39. erg… permit me to go back and fix that. Slip o’ the keyboard.

  40. The exclusivity of the approaches seems to be a particular challenge in scenarios where we deal with threats to our way of life or to us as a people. I think of the pioneers as an interesting case study in this type of anger management.

    Psychologically, I think the ‘baby’ metaphor for anger sounds a lot healthier — I’m inclined to favor that perspective because it doesn’t involve the repression of emotions that can have long-lasting repercussions — but I do think there are uses to the mastery/subduing metaphor, particularly for adolescents or for those dealing with new emotions. Perhaps there is a minimum level of mastery we should seek, beyond which we can engage in nurturing?

  41. Geoff on one level they are both saying the same thing — basically the message is don’t get angry. But the fundamental approach is so different to me — from an LDS persective anger lives within the realm of the “natural man” and thus is always our enemy. A Buddhist might say that anger just “is”; Hanh talks about “composting” the anger into love not just throwing it out or getting rid of it at all costs. It seems this goes beyond imagery.

    Steve (by the way, my name is Kris in case you have already forgotten!), I’m not sure about the cleansing in the temple. The account in John seems to portray more “anger” then in the other Gospels. It seems that the idea of righteous anger applying to us creates more problems than it solves. It is interesting that in the JST of Matthew 5:22, we lose our justification for anger. Similarly, JST of Ephesians 4:26 poses the question: “Can ye be angry, and not sin?”

    The more I think about it I think that these approaches are exclusive. When we perceive an essential part of ourselves as the enemy, I think we always live with a tension, or contention, which is kind of like an undercurrent of anger. Or maybe I’ve just been a mother too long and want to take care of everything :)

  42. Geoff, I’m not sure it’s that simple — fire is something we inherently fear and seek to master or extinguish; a baby is a part of ourselves and represents the potentiality of the future. It’s not that easy for us to say that BY & Hanh are saying the same thing….

    although I do like the idea of approaching anger from each of these perspectives.

  43. Who is right, Brigham Young or Thich Nhat Hanh?

    Well, probably both. Aren’t they are saying the same thing using different imagery?

    If anger is a fire, then we throw a cloak over it and smother it before it grows and spreads and destroys. If anger is a crying baby, we run to her rescue and pacify her before the episode grows and gets out of control.

    Both sets of advice seem to jibe well with section 121 and our instructions to use “gentleness”.

  44. Kris, what a great post, with some very challenging ideas. What would you make of Christ’s moment of righteous anger in the temple? Or of other scriptural moments of “righteous anger”?

    Are these approaches to anger necessarily exclusive? For example, in the days of the pioneer, fear/anger with regards to the “other” was a way of life, and a motivator for tight community-building. I can see anger in that context as being both embracing of anger and subduing it simultaneously.

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