What can be said about the meaning of anger; and what role does anger play in our eventual recovery from grief?

We know that, as humans, we are capable of experiencing a full range of feelings, and that each of our emotions is inexorably connected to its opposite. We know that an honest life insists upon the wholeness, as well as the integrity, of our emotions, thus an attachment to one feeling at the expense of others can have damaging effects on our growth. We understand that sorrow, pain and intolerance have a place in our lives, and we expect that, at times, they will be rivaled with joy, humility and compassion.

Anger, too, has its place in our emotional world; and once explored and understood, it may indeed meet its own negation.

Like all other emotions, anger is a unique subjective experience. It is a reaction to our perception of specific events and the conclusions we draw from them. Regardless of whether our view is accurate or distorted, we know that anger’s impact on our inner world is profound.

For most of us, it generates changes in physical sensations, including increased heart rate and muscle tension, shallow breathing and disruptions in sleep and appetite. For others, anger promotes feelings of guilt, shame, self-loathing and even depression. Neurophysiology research suggests that anger can create cognitive changes, such as errors in reasoning or judgment, poor concentration, and strong feelings of helplessness. Anger also engenders changes in our social world, prompting withdrawal, bigotry or racism.

However, anger can have a profound impact on our spiritual development as well. Many angry grievers among us are likely to experience a reduction of faith in oneself, in religion, in God, or in a general sense of meaning and purpose in life.  Anger forces us to confront the contradictions inherent in our existence; that we are strong and weak at the same time. Bereft and angry, we are challenged to forfeit, at least for a while, our belief in a neatly arranged world where order and justice prevail.

Our prayers have been ignored, and we feel no reason to believe anymore. “What kind of God lets this happen?” we ask. The answer is unclear, and in the absence of meaning or pattern, anger leaves us spiritually dissatisfied and helpless.

This does not mean that anger in itself is a base and unacceptable emotion. Quite the contrary, anger may become the motivating force for noble and valuable action, and eventual enlightened thought. Indeed, the Bible is abound with examples of stern, even ruthless action taken against injustice; as in the story of the ten plagues in Egypt and the flood that caused Noah to build his ark.

Whether understood as direct teaching, or as metaphor for the totality of the human emotional experience, the Bible is suggesting to us that ire, when left detached and unexamined, is damaging to the soul; whereas active opposition, initiated through righteous anger, is a core component of a sincere and honest emotional life.

We know that the whole range of the emotional spectrum is present in each one of our affective experiences. Anger, like all other emotions, is a multifarious state of arousal whose own negation rests at the opposite end of the emotional continuum. Left unexamined and confined within the self, anger can cause us to withdraw and to remain isolated, never allowing our lives to become suffused with moral significance or healing potential.

Like any emotion in isolation of its opposite, unexamined anger will preempt our human ability to experience the full cycle of affective life. As Rabbi Soloveitchik asserts, we must indeed know how to love; but we must also understand the art of hating, resisting and opposing injustice; and in the words of Golda Meir, “Those who don’t know how to cry with all their hearts don’t know how to laugh either.”

Understood in this way, anger, along with all other disjunctive emotions, carries within it the seeds of its own repair. Indeed, psychologists have long studied the nature of guilt and its charge as a gateway to a greater and richer life; and the experience of remorse has been the catalyst of emotional and spiritual renewal for many religious groups. What, then, is the antithesis of anger, and what is required of us in order to achieve its nobler end?

The answer may lie in the Judaic tenet that critical awareness of our emotions ultimately endows them with meaningfulness. In our desire to be like God, to “walk in His ways,” (Deut. 28:9), we must fashion our deeds after Divine design. We are not a people who keep our feelings and actions confined to ourselves, but rather, we are asked to direct our emotional life toward the other, or the “Thou,” as Martin Buber asserts.

A self-centered emotional life begs enlightenment; introverted and confined emotions must mingle with the outside, or we will lose our ability to see others as who they truly are. And, as the Talmud says, if you want to be seen, you must first see; if you want to be known, you must know others. But, in order to know others and find meaning in the world, we must first know ourselves.

In wrestling with our anger, we ultimately learn that the earthly wish to be seen is only granted once we achieve the heavenly goal of seeing first. Only once we direct our eyes inward, and retreat into the abstruse darkness of the self, will we be able to see our anger as a cover for other disjunctive, more unwelcome feelings. And only once we direct our eyes outward toward the world and its people, with all of their fears and vulnerabilities, their sorrows and insecurities, will we be able to successfully transcend our anger, embrace our foe, and see the face of God.

One mourner, who lost her mother suddenly, describes this transcendence in the following way:

“I see my anger as loving, pure and honest. It is the crescendo of the story of my grief. I am open and vulnerable and fresh and true to my mother’s love. It is the most committed love there is, present in heart and ancient in understanding, like words that float off of a page hovering and connecting me to two worlds. I look for that love in the eyes of others; her friends, my friends, people who shared my mother and who see me as I truly am. And when I am in the presence of such a person, I realize that my other sees me still.”

Tags: , ,
Norman Fried

Norman Fried

Norman J. Fried, Ph.D., is director of psycho-social services for the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Winthrop University on Long Island, New York. A clinical psychologist with graduate degrees from Emory University, he has also taught in the medical schools of New York University and St. John's University, and has been a fellow in clinical and pediatric psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Fried is a Disaster Mental Health Specialist for The American Red Cross of Greater New York, and he has a private practice in grief and bereavement counseling on Long Island. He is married with three sons and lives in Roslyn, New York.

More Articles Written by Norman