Your perspective is the core ingredient of all change in your life. What you do and how you feel is dependant on how you see things. This is why practical philosophy - thinking with clarity and depth - is so important. Today I apply this fact to the question of anger. Should we accept our anger, or move beyond it? If we move beyond it, should we cultivate forgiveness instead? One of the world's leading philosophers, Martha Nussbaum, gives a surprising answer: we should reject both anger and forgiveness. She argues a compelling case that anger is bad for our lives and that there is a third, better option.
Nussbaum makes the case in her latest book, Anger and Forgiveness. She is well aware that anger is normal and serves psychological functions, but she questions whether it is good for us. There is a long tradition in moral philosophy which claims that anger is good, so long as it is a rational response to wrongdoing, in which case it expresses self-respect and a sense of justice. Nussbaum disagrees.
Nussbaum starts by pointing out that emotions expresses attitudes. A lot of people assume that emotions are merely feelings, but in fact they are perspectives which resonate in the body as sensations. To feel anger is to hold the opinion that some wrong has been done. Nussbaum says that anger expresses two different versions of this opinion. One is focused on social status, on how another’s wrongdoing has lowered me socially (or lowered those I care about), for example by disrespecting me in front of others. While an initial moment of anger is a protest against that, she thinks that sustained anger involves the desire to see the other lowered in turn. The second version of anger tries to undo the wrong done through payback. This is the morality of an eye for an eye. We imagine somehow, without reflecting on it, that we can take back what was taken from us by inflicting a similar wound.
An important thing to understand is that we don't reflect on these opinions. We just hold them and act them out. This is the case with much in our lives: we act out many beliefs that we don't even recognise we hold. This is one of the reasons counselling is so powerful, because it examines these beliefs and changes them.
Nussbaum assesses these two forms of anger. She says that "status" anger is coherent as an attitude, but is morally questionable. It is narcissistic. I agree with her, the person who is wrapped-up in status anger is the opposite of somebody who is wise and humble, somebody who is self-possessed and whom we admire. It is important to overcome status anger, just as we should overcome status anxiety. For it matters less what others think and more what kind of person you are. And when you give into status anger you become in that moment a lesser person in terms of your character.
Nussbaum then turns to "payback" anger, and shows that it contains the opposite flaw. She notes that it is morally more respectable - we want to right the wrong - and yet it is incoherent: two wrongs do not make a right. Destroying or devaluing does not create or heal, it just does more damage. It is a fantasy to think we can change the past.
It seems to me that most anger is a mixture of these two kinds.
Nussbaum notes that anger is backward-looking, focused on to the wrong done. She suggests that while it is psychologically understandable, yet from the point of meaning and values, of striving to become a better and happier person, of building a good life and good society, you should leave anger behind as quickly as possible, and transition to focusing on the future: on making things better, on healing, restoring, rebuilding, and insuring against further harms.
It can be so hard to move on from anger when we have been deeply wounded. Often I remind angered people to be patient with themselves precisely because of this, and yet I think Nussbaum is right. We should work hard at transitioning from anger to healing, creating, and asserting value, if we want to live good lives and create a better world. Anybody who has suffered from anger in the face of a betrayal or abuse may find Nussbaum's book challenging, but it is exactly the sort of thing they need. For while many people defend anger in theory, yet as a counsellor I can say that most people who suffer from it long to be free of it. It is like acid in the soul. Those who simply embrace it become bitter, and this leads to physical, psychological, and social damage in their life. To take the physical aspect as an example, I think of certain clients whom I saw for an extended period, who managed their emotional pain by embracing anger. If I tried to dissuade them from this path they would get angry at me. In time I predicted that each would develop a medical condition as a result, and each time I witnessed that happen, usually in the form of chronic pain. The link between their anger and their medical condition was usually pointed out by their specialist, confirming what I thought. Be warned, anger can destroy you.
It is important to recognise that anger is usually a secondary emotion. It functions as a distraction from something else. Nussbaum recognises this in her book, and points out that below anger lies grief. When a wrong is done to me, for example I am betrayed, the core of the experience is loss, violation, devaluation, sorrow, and a terrible helplessness. To feel anger in this context is often to fantasise that I am not helpless, that I can change things. It is a refusal to accept reality. We need to accept the truth of any situation before we can change some aspect of it. We cannot change reality through fantasising. So when we feel grief over a loss which follows on somebody's wrongdoing, instead of moving into anger we should - to reiterate an earlier point - tend to our wounds, and focus on repairing the damage and making things better. We cannot undo the past - payback anger - and we need the wisdom and self-awareness to see what lies behind our angry fantasies, which is the sorrow we feel.
So how do we transition on from anger? That is the topic of part two of this reflection.