This is the third part in a series. The previous two reflections were quite philosophical, looking at Martha Nussbaum's recent book on anger and forgiveness. When I read it I saw that we were saying the same thing, and that she articulated background reasons for what many of us know by instinct: in part one that anger is not good for us, and in part two that forgiveness is somehow not the right alternative.
on from the previous reflection and the example I used, if a person comes to me because they are suffering after a betrayal, I will explore with them what they have lost and the grief it arouses. We will do grief work. Often we see that a central part of this loss regards value; what matters to them has been devalued. This may include their identity, their worth, the worth of their relationship, and the identity and character of the one who betrayed them. The main coping strategy many people use to escape this devaluation is anger. They try to deal with the loss of value by lowering the wrongdoer or paying them back, as though the wrong will be righted somehow. This is a common and understandable reaction, but it is wrongheaded. For not only have you been wronged, but your reaction further erases value from your life. As the ancient saying goes, When you set out to enact revenge, make sure you dig two graves.
Nussbaum is analysing the ideals by which we ought to live. Many people will object that we cannot live strictly according to the ideal. Of course Nussbaum knows this. Ethics is an expression of how we ought to act, more than a description of how we do in fact behave. Our lives are an interweaving of both, but as Iris Murdoch once said, “Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble that picture.” People who aim low become low. To a betrayed person who makes such an complaint against Nussbaum, I would point out that their wrongdoer was not at fault for feeling tempted, but rather for acting on the temptation in a circumstance where decency and fidelity demanded otherwise. They should have risen to the ideal standard rather than give into the base desire. It matters that we strive to live by our ideals, rather than always giving into our impulses. We need clear ideals that enable love and make life worthwhile, and we need to push ourselves to live by them. While always acknowledging, of course, that we will fail in myriad ways and that we need to be patient with ourselves and one another. This is precisely why, as Nussbaum recognises, unconditional love and generosity is so important.
Just looking at your anger will arouse it. But "the only way forward is through." It requires repeated practice: practising cognitive, emotional, behavioural and spiritual or philosophical techniques to disperse it and habituate a transitional, loving way of being. Nussbaum's is not a therapeutic book, not a how to, but rather an analysis of how we ought to. It examines how we should live and then leaves us to do the practical work. It is well worth doing that work. Anger can ruin your life. Love makes life - and pain - worthwhile, because they occur in a context of greater meaning. I help people move on from anger through the categories of techniques just mentioned, suited to them, which in every case involve shaping your life around your deepest values. It is these which have been contradicted when you are angry. But you cannoyt control the actions of others. You can however control your own actions, and it is a question of whether you too will betray your deeper values, or whether you will assert them in the face of any attempt to deny them.
It is devaluation that created your anger. You end the anger by doing the opposite, by creating value. You choose to become more than the anger, and make that real in the world. In doing so, not only do you overcome your anger, you become a better person. A person of virtue and character, living a life of value.