I’ll be honest … I have a bit of an anger problem. I have a very long fuse but when I finally blow my top the results can be devastating. When my stoic Icelandic shell finally cracks, an inner Nordic berserker is released on an unsuspecting world. Far too often, those who bear the brunt of my anger are not the ones that deserve it. There is a lot of collateral damage.
When my mother passed, for example, I found myself consumed with a lot of unresolved anger. It took every ounce of willpower that I had to not lash out at people whose only crime was in expressing their condolences. When someone who had met my mother once would remark, “I am so sorry for your loss. Your mother was such a lovely woman,” it was extremely difficult to smile gracefully and thank them. What I wanted to tell them was, “You have no idea what kind of woman my mother was. If you did, you wouldn’t deign to say that to my face.” So intense was this internal rage that I starting seeing a therapist in the hopes that I could learn to control it, or even to let it go. It was also the reason I re-started my long-forsaken practice of daily meditation. I’ve also been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy, including the works of Thict Nhat Hanh and Jack Kornfield.
What I have found is — while a lot of Buddhist teachings describe anger as a negative and destructive emotion — it can be intelligently controlled and constructively channeled. That is currently what I am trying to do.
For instance, this was a particularly challenging week at work. I was extremely frustrated by the failure of some of my colleagues to meet their professional obligations. When I discovered that the people responsible for administering one of my grants had failed to submit my annual progress report in a timely fashion I was furious, even though this did not have any adverse impact on me or my grant-funded project. When I learned that another of my reports had been lost by the National Institutes of Health because of a computer glitch — costing me, perhaps, an additional four hours of time in reconstructing and resubmitting the report — I was equally enraged.
Similarly, as a political progressive who spends a lot of time teaching, writing and working on issues of social justice, it is difficult not to become extremely angry about the efforts of our current political leaders to repeal the Affordable Care Act, restrict reproductive rights, legalize discrimination against the LGBT community, and stigmatize an entire religion by banning visitors and immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries.
But what working with my therapist, delving into traditional and modern Buddhist texts, and practicing mindfulness daily has taught me is this: anger can be harnessed. Anger can be redirected and used to achieve some good. Anger can strengthen resolve and spur people to engage in positive action.
Rather than lash out at my professional colleagues, I have instead started working with them to establish a clear set of policies and procedures that are meant to ensure timely submission of grant applications, renewals and progress reports. This not only benefits me directly but also helps others at the university who struggle with the same problems. Moreover, in doing so we realized that one of the problems is a systemic one: the lack of institutional resources and support for the Research Office. I am now working with these colleagues collaboratively to come up with a proposal to address this problem by training my assistant in grant management and shifting some of her responsibilities (and salary) from my department to theirs.
My frustration with the current political system in the US has also lead me to take action. I have gotten directly engaged in the political process by calling my local, state and national representatives to express my concerns. I have also begun to look at other ways that I can become more directly involved, be it through participating in protest and demonstrations, attending city council meetings, and even looking at opportunities to run for office.
All of this has taught me not to fear, to suppress or to dismiss my anger. Rather, I am learning to embrace it and turn it into a force for good.