Anger is one of the sinews of the soul. ~ Thomas Fuller
In his excellent STORY course, which I attended earlier this year, Robert McKee made an interesting observation about what compels us to trust or distrust a character in a novel or story. We won’t trust any character, said McKee, until we’ve seen them under pressure, to see what they’re really made of. And we certainly don’t trust any character who “seemingly” makes a sweeping change in his personality or behavior in the absence of any pressure to make him do so. He said people have an intrinsic understanding that we human beings don’t change without pressure. That’s why we don’t trust evil characters in stories who suddenly claim to be good, and we don’t believe good characters who suddenly claim to be evil, unless we see them experience the pressure that has forced them to make that change. Now pressure can come to us through love (2 Corinthians 5:14), or outrage, or heartbreak, or loss, or just about any form of suffering. But if that suffering, that passion, that compelling pressure is denied or suppressed or minimized within us, it serves only to keep us right where we are. We don’t change.
When it comes to making a significant change in your life, the basic rule of thumb is this: As long as you can tolerate it, you will tolerate it. And that’s why, to make any real change happen in your life (or in the world), you need to get in touch with your anger about the way things are. You need to let yourself get pissed to the bone. You need to be fed up. You need to feel your outrage, the sting of the injustice of it all. You need to get to the place where you can look squarely at the thing you do not want, see it for what it is and the impact it is having on your life and decide that you absolutely cannot and will not tolerate it for one more day. You need to let yourself feel that pressure. (And by the way, if you prefer not to call that “anger,” and would rather call it heartbreak or passion or some other word, that’s fine. Whatever you call that emotion that leads you to experience a profound unwillingness to tolerate the way things are, that’s it. That’s what you need. And that’s what I’m talking about here. It just so happens that I experience it as anger.)
Now anger gets a bad rap these days. We tend to think “adult” behavior is all about feeling calm and peaceful and using your inside voice. And truthfully, anger is a dangerous emotion and can be easily misstargeted and misused. But anger, like all emotions, serves a vital role in the healthy development and care of the human soul. Anger is the “no” of the emotional world. The purpose of anger is to separate us from anything that threatens our well being. We need anger to break free of relationships, situations or behaviors that are damaging to us. It’s the voice of anger that declares, “Enough! I am done. This ends now.” When you’re going after a change in your life, it’s just as important to know what you are saying “no” to as it is to know what you are saying “yes” to. And both your “yes” and your “no” need to come from a place of emphatic finality.
One word of caution here: Before taking any action, make sure your anger is focused on the situation or issue you want to change, and not on people–including (most especially) yourself.Nurturing anger against a person (including yourself) or a group of people will only lead you to become either a judgmental attacker or a powerless victim. Neither of those options will lead to meaningful change. However, healthy anger focused on an issue or situation that you want to change will lead you to become an effective activist, and a passionate advocate for others suffering the same plight.
So how do you cultivate this kind of transformative anger? Here are some thoughts that have helped me or my clients. (Please feel free to share your own ideas or techniques in the comments below, or on Facebook.):
- Make a list of all the things that you want in life that you don’t have because of the current situation. Tape it to the bathroom mirror or the dashboard of your car. Read it every morning for a few weeks.
- List all the ways you numb yourself so you can tolerate things the way they are. For example, do you numb your anger through movies, food, video games, alcohol, or television? Whatever your preferred techniques for numbing your anger, stop doing them for two weeks…and let yourself feelwhat you’re feeling.
- Keep an anger journal. Take some time each day for the next few weeks to write about what really pisses you off about your current condition. Find your angry voice. Express your rage.
- Make a point of noticing people who have made the change you want to make. Read their stories. Put yourself in their shoes. Notice how you are just as capable as they are, and just as worthy of the effort and the cost. You are just as smart, and just as passionate. Really consider: How long are you going to keep selling yourself short?
You’ll notice I’m recommending you do these things for only a few weeks. There’s an important reason for that. See, as essential as anger is to the process of change, it is not the long term fuel that you will need to get to your goal. That fuel is borne of faith and love, which I’ll address in future posts. Anger is like the solid rocket booster on the belly of the space shuttle. It’s essential for launching you off the pad, but once you get momentum, the boosters are no longer needed, so you drop them off, and rely on another kind of fuel to carry you to your goal.
That said…without your anger, you’ll never get off the ground.
Let the wars begin, let my strength wear thin
Let my fingers crack, let my world fall apart
Train the monkeys on my back to fight
Let it start tonight
~ Switchfoot, “Let Your Love Be Strong”
What do you think about this post? Do you agree that anger is essential to change? Why or why not?