Working With Anger In Troubled Times

“Being angry all the time is exhausting and corrosive. Not being angry feels morally irresponsible.” @timgrierson

For many of us, it seems, this tweet concisely characterizes the emotional turmoil we’ve been experiencing for the last 18 months or so. 

I’ve certainly been wrestling with this tension, so I thought I’d share a few of the ways I’ve found that mindfulness can help relieve some (though by no means all) of the stress.

The first part has to do with the anger and outrage that arises when we learn of the latest act of injustice. If we’re at all engaged, it’s nearly impossible to avoid those initial feelings of rage, frustration, fear and/or sadness. Emotions arise spontaneously, and there’s little we can do to stop them.

We can, however, learn to step away from them, to give ourselves breaks, to not remain fixated. 

A few simple practices:

  1. Consume less news. There’s only so much information we need to be informed; beyond that, we can start to feel overwhelmed.
  1. Be aware of your communication. If, in conversations (including on social media),  you regularly talk about how angry/sad/hopeless you feel, those feelings will be magnified. Similarly, avoid non-constructive arguments.
  1. Stay in the present. Rather than focussing on how awful things “will be” in the future (and we really can’t be sure), put your energy into addressing what’s happening right now.
  1. Find ways to engage constructively. Learn about and connect with others who are doing the same. Celebrate the little victories.
  1. Practice gratitude. Especially for those of us whose rights and safety aren’t under immediate threat, take a moment to appreciate our circumstances. Then find a way to use our relative good fortune for the benefit of others.

Now, as soon as I think about doing these things, the “morally irresponsible” part shows up. I start to feel guilty. “How can I relax for a minute,” I think, “when things are so awful?”

I approach this mostly from a pragmatic perspective, and I ask myself these questions:

  1. Is keeping myself in a perpetual state of emotional turmoil actually helping?
  1. Under what emotional conditions am I most effective – calm and determined or furious and reactive?
  1. Am I substituting feeling outrage for actually doing something?

And then there’s one more question that often arises: Am I doing enough?

The answer I’ve found is twofold: No, I’m not doing enough, because no one person can ever do enough; and yes, I’m doing enough, because every action makes a difference.

If you’re engaged, anger is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be constant, and in fact, we may be more effective if we learn to take a break from it now and then.