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.