On Anger

on anger

By Troy Headrick

I’ve been thinking a lot about anger recently.  In fact, I’ve been looking at the topic long enough to be ready to put my thoughts on paper.

For a person interested in studying anger and the angry response, this is a kind of perfect moment.  There’s so much anger out there, being expressed in all sorts of contexts by all kinds of people, that there’s plenty of grist for the mill.

I can’t speak to what’s happening to other peoples in other countries right now, because I haven’t been traveling recently, but Americans (I can say with utmost certainty) are living in an Age of Anger.  There’s great frustration with political leadership.  There’s tremendous polarization which has led to anger between competing political camps—some have referred to these camps as “tribes.”  There’s nearly unprecedented economic hardship which has been caused by a pandemic that is being grossly mismanaged by lots of American “leaders” who are supposed to be protecting us.  There are many examples of racial injustice and, unfortunately, racial animosity.  For all these reasons and many more, the country feels like a tinderbox.  I sometimes get the impression, as an American who’s lived in countries that have had revolutions and showed signs of being “failed states,”  that this nation is heading in that same direction, but it doesn’t have to be this way.  This realization, that so much of this has been self-inflicted, has made me angry too.  So, not only have I been a student of anger, I have also been experiencing it.

When we look at anger, we must realize that it almost always has a source or a cause.  In most cases, anger doesn’t just come out of nowhere, meaning that it doesn’t just spontaneously occur for no apparent reason unless we’re talking about anger that is rooted in mental illness.  There are certainly people who are chronically angry but don’t have such disease.  In cases of this sort, there is still a catalyst or a fountainhead.  People want to be content.  Being unhappy and angry takes extra effort and goes against our natural inclination.  So, for a burning kind of anger to exist, there must first be a spark.

Anger is an emotion, and we often think of emotions as being irrational.  However, certain kinds of anger are very rational.  Righteous anger, for example, is a response that happens when we go through the analytical steps needed to see that an injustice has occurred and that the only appropriate response is a kind of outrage we might can indignation. For this reason, righteous indignation is certainly not knee-jerk.

A good example of righteous anger is the emotional response that comes from witnessing an unjust murder, like what happened in the George Floyd case or the more recent Rayshard Brooks murder, or when injustice happens to a whole class of people for no other reason than they’ve got the “wrong” skin color, religious affiliation, gender, or sexual orientation.  If we witness an injustice but don’t feel righteous anger, there’s a problem.

On the other hand, there’s misdirected anger.  This type is irrational because it’s misguided and thus misses its mark.  Such anger is frequently a result of a kind of logical fallacy called “false cause.”  For example, the angry blaming of people of color during an economic recession as the cause of the financial downturn.  (Just because one event happened before the other or that both happened at about the same time doesn’t mean that there is a causal relationship between the two.)  Being angry with something or someone who is blameless is irrational and illogical and thus misguided.  Misdirected anger often manifests itself as scapegoating.

When we think of anger, we also must think of the way it’s expressed—the effect of the anger.

Anger can be expressed in healthy and unhealthy ways.  Anger that seeks to manifest itself in ways that are constructive and designed to correct an injustice can be said to be healthy.  Anger channeled in ways that lead to personal growth or enlightenment can also said to be life-affirming.  In both instances, the angry person has gained control of the anger rather than being controlled by it.

Anger is extraordinarily dangerous because its expression may cause us to act in ways that mimic the very injustice that angered us in the first place.  For example, a person who responds to racial injustice by looting businesses is perpetuating injustice.

This is why I have long been against the death penalty.  If killing a human being is unjust, then the state must not do what it condemns individual citizens for doing.  A hypocritical government immediately loses the moral high ground once it acts unjustly.  In this case, the government is allowing its collective anger to express itself in vengeful ways.  Anger expressed unjustly always creates more anger and injustice.

Thanks very much for reading my piece.  I look forward to hearing from everyone who feels the need to respond.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

52 thoughts on “On Anger

  1. Great post. One of the problems I see with the evolution of how we deal with anger at least in the states is, the willingness to assign its cause to other people. I see many blogs go on and on about Trump, they blame him for literally everything. While he bares a lot of blame, its too easy to ascribe it all to one person. It doesnt get to the roots of the problem and thats what we really need to do. A lot of these issues have been around long before the current president.

    1. Absolutely! I don’t want to be overly reductive in my thinking on anger. I do agree that people like to shift blame away from themselves. (No one wants to admit to acting in unattractive ways.) Many of our greatest problems could be solved if we quite thinking in black and white ways, if we quite seeing things through the lens of “us versus them.” Thank you so much for your comment.

  2. Very well articulated…yes anger should be for a right cause ..be a rebel with a cause…have the anger to bring in the change for better…not to destroy….

    1. If you haven’t already done so, you should look at “Sudrakarma’s” comment below. He quotes Johnny Rotten who called anger an energy. I would agree with that. It can be an all-consuming fire, but we don’ want to be burned up by it. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Excellent post Troy 🙂 Especially the distinction between contiguity (one thing occurs and then another unrelated thing occurs) and causality (one thing occurs, and CAUSES the other). The more I read about Buddhist psychology and the importance of non-violence, the more I think we are deluded here in the West. xxx Anne

    1. I looked at your educational background on your personal blog and saw that we studied about the same things. When I was working on my PhD in literature and literary analysis, I also studied rhetoric as one of my sub-specialties. This gave me an opportunity to study logic, philosophy, politics, culture, argumentation, thinking styles, creative/artful thinking, and other things. One of the greatest challenges facing humanity is the widespread inability of many to think very well. Just about every big problem we currently face would have a better chance of being solved if more knew how to think artfully. I think superstition is making a big comeback right now. What are you thoughts on this?

      1. I 100% agree with you, and am a follower of Socrates on this one (for whom we don’t do evil intentionally but out of ignorance). However, the more the years go by, the more I grow wary of Western rationalism and positivism, and the more I agree with Buddhist teachings about impermanence and the importance of compassion over conceptual thought. It’s really ironic: I’ve spent most of my life and career doing a lot of conceptual analytic thinking, and now I’m at a point where I think we overthink ourselves into unnecessary problems, and should instead try and cultivate capacities such as empathy or other virtues 🙂 So I guess y position is yes: we need to learn how to think in more refined ways, but thinking is not all of it. We must not become cut off from our hearts and our values 🙂 xxx Anne

      2. Do you ever read the Stoics? I like to think that the Stoics were Buddhists before Buddhism was cool. I really enjoyed thinking about your comment. I think I see something interesting in what you said. Is it possible that the development of your analytical skills gave you the intellectual equipment you needed to make your pivot away from a very Western way of thinking? Is it possible that your pivot wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t honed your ability to observe and parse and such? I think we can find our hearts by finding our minds first. I know that sort of happened to me. I also think we can find our minds by finding our hearts first.

      3. Yes I remember Epictetus’ Manual was my all time favorite in high school in France. I would carry it everywhere and have it on display on my desk in philosophy class, hoping to get the teacher’s attention (not very Stoic). Stoicism is deeply engrained in the ways I see the world. Yes I agree with you. I don’t think my education helped me pivot AWAY from Western thought as much as it has allowed me to think more critically about what we so easily take for granted, and find elements in non-Western traditions that complement/compensate for what we lack in the West. I never understood why we don’t teach Confucius or Taoism in French philosophy high school next to Epicures and Schopenhauer… beats me 🙂 xxx Anne

      4. Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, has got to be on my list of top ten book of all time. In fact, I’ve referred to it in several of my blogs here. We are still very Eurocentric in our thinking. Have you ever considered living and working in a country where you could live with Buddhists and really immerse yourself in a different way of seeing the world? I have lived in several countries, including Poland (when I was in the Peace Corps), the UAE, Turkey, and Egypt. I taught at the American University in Cairo for seven years and was in Egypt during the 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak, an experience that was exhilarating, terrifying, and transformative. Living in what we think of as the “Middle East” for so many years actually was one of the most important things I ever did spiritually and intellectually because it allowed me to be in a part of the world that is so misunderstood.

      5. Wow impressive background ! Teaching in Cairo must have been especially interesting. Yes, I was actually born in Nepal, and lived in Vietnam for 7 years so I am familiar with some of the paces in which Buddhism is an integral part of the culture. I feel people are more peaceful there, but obviously their lives come with different disadvantages than those we have in the West. I think understanding that this small Western “we” is a fraction of the actual experience of most humans is crucial 🙂

    1. I really appreciate the Johnny Rotten reference. Lately, I’ve really been expanding my horizons by listening to the psychedelic bands of the late 60s. (I just discovered a group called The Electric Prunes, for example.) Those groups were ahead of their time. I know I’m a little off topic here, but I don’t suppose a person can very far off topic by talking about good music. Peace, man, and thanks for stopping by.

  4. Well said. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I also am against the death penalty. Seems wrong to kill a human being IF killing a human being is against the law. Also, it hurts my heart to think of how the families of those being executed must feel. A mother, losing her child in this way IMO is inhumane. 💕

    1. Not to mention that we’ve discovered that some of those executed were actually innocent of the crimes they were imprisoned for. Governments should never act out of anger. Governments are designed to be very deliberative (and non-emotional) bodies. For government to act in the same way a mob would act is just plain wrong. Thanks for the comment.

  5. “Anger is extraordinarily dangerous because its expression may cause us to act in ways that mimic the very injustice that angered us in the first place. For example, a person who responds to racial injustice by looting businesses is perpetuating injustice.” This paragraph has a whole lot of wisdom embedded in it. Thank you for releasing these thoughts, I really enjoyed it – inspiring, educative and motivating…

  6. Anger is. symptom, but a dangerous one not only in the actions it causes but also in the damage it inflicts on the psyche and body.

    Ultimately, we’ve had a declining standard of living in this country, which started around 1980. It’s been aggravated by wealth transfers that destroyed the middle class. Working people who aspired to a middle class life aren’t able to keep it, and instead of doing better, their kids are doing worse. The wealthy have either given token aid or encouraged them to blame minorities and immigrants for what the wealthy have caused. In this context, is the anger surprising? Work. hard for 35 years and get tossed like used furniture?

    The concentration of wealth is the most extreme it has been in America’s history. That led Bloomberg to speculate about the appearance of guillotines on Wall Street, and he wasn’t speaking figuratively. It’s also may be why so many of the very wealthy have built fortresses in remote areas — Colorado, Montana, Maine and Wyoming.

    In the past, a major depression has forced a redistribution of wealth to get the economy going again. That could be what we’re entering, and if it is, we could have a difficult decade ahead. No, not just a quarter, but a decade.

    Or like other countries, we could wind up with a military dictatorship and a command economy. And the guillotine.

    1. Wow! You’ve touched on so many important issues and made so many fantastic points. I think we’re either going to have to look at a way to make capitalism much more compassionate or simply move away from capitalism entirely. Our current system does a pretty good job of creating wealth (if you think there’s value in that sort of thing) but a very bad job of distributing it. I agree that this pandemic and the economic fallout is going to force us to rethink lots of things and that’s a very good thing. I’ve noticed that being forced to stay at home has helped many people reevaluate how they were living and what they were pursuing. (I’ve actually enjoyed working from home and not chasing around and being less of a “consumer.”) By the way, do you blog? If so, why not post a link here so that we can check out your writing.

  7. Great post sir…👌👌
    very beautiful. It’s a great thing to get aware of your view on death penalty. All the governments must rethink on this point. The state must on act angrily on the accused, who has committed a crime out of his weakness(anger)…🙏🙏

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. I checked out your blog and saw that you’re just getting started on it. Do a bit more writing there and I’d be really happy to have a look.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Anxiety, like anger, can motivate us as long as we’re controlling it rather than being controlled by it. Thanks for the link. I look forward to checking out your writing!

  8. Harnessing anger we feel for an uplifting purpose makes the world a better place to be. This is not easy when we are in the midst of feeling our emotions. I struggle with depression, less so in the past three years. Knowing I might be going to feel a particular way allows me to prepare to cope with it, and put energy into doing something about it. I hope people can do the same with the anger they fell in our current world.


    1. Hi. I absolutely agree with you. Anger is tricky because when we’re experiencing it it’s hard to be in control. Anger, by it’s very nature, consumes us. It’s like a raging fire. How do we keep from being burned up when it rages? I sometimes do an exercise when I’m feeling anger. I wait and force myself to stay quiet and still even though I want to lash out. The emotion burns through me and then sort of dies out. Once that initial emotional firestorm passes, I’m now ready to respond, and my response is generally less hurtful and more rational is such cases. Thank you so much for openly sharing your struggles with depression. We all have such struggles, so you definitely aren’t alone. Take care and be safe, my friend.

  9. I have been thinking of the roots of anger also.. My thought is that anger seems to stem from a feeling of being out of balance..when things are feel not fair, uneven, not equal or one sided.. this creates a disenfranchised angry feeling and a desire for rebalance …

    1. I like your notion that anger results from a kind of disequilibrium that we experience. I think that most folks have an innate feeling for when something is unfair and we want to right that wrong in some form or fashion (to establish “balance” again, as you said). The more I think about your idea of anger occurring when we feel out of balance and that anger is a kind of tool which allows us to reestablish balance, the more I like your way of conceptualizing anger. I much appreciate the insight you’ve provided with your comment!

  10. Totally understand where you are coming from…some of the people don’t even know what they are angry about. Some people are just looking for ways to vent their anger about staying locked down in their homes. Some have issues and just want someone to blame. This is a great article. Two Thumbs up! God Bless!!!

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