- Freedom in Thought
- Conquer Your Anger, Before it Consumes You
Conquer Your Anger, Before it Consumes You
Despite what the world may have always told you, anger is not good or useful at all. No, not even a little bit. And most of us feel anger—myself included. But any anger we feel is a pull towards evil. To realize this fact is to acknowledge the evil within us and face it head on, but to reject this fact is to ignore the evil within us and allow it to grow.
Anger is like a fire that must be extinguished as soon as possible, because if it’s allowed to grow, it eventually grows beyond all hopes of getting it under control, causing immense damage to those around it. When speaking about anger, the Roman and stoic philosopher Seneca said,
The hellfires of anger
I know my stance is strong, and some people will think they already have a response. But any response you have right now is likely just a way to escape from having to deal with the arguments I’m about to present.
Some of you might try to take the easy way out by claiming that anger has been around for as long as humanity has and that it’s “natural”, but you might just as easily recognize that murder has been around just as long and is just as “natural”. Just because humanity has always struggled with a vice, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth trying to overcome that vice within yourself.
Some of you might say that anger helps us realize when we’ve been hurt, and to that I would agree. But anger doesn’t help us fix our hurt. Once we realize we’ve been hurt, it’s best to let go of anger immediately, and when we can, take action from a place of calm.
And lastly, to the masses, the point of view that Seneca and I take will seem radical, because they believe there is something good or useful in anger. They believe that anger produces justice, but I will show them that what is truly good is produced without anger, and what anger produces is not good.
Anger is Evil
So when lovers of anger offer the terrible emotion their support, they often claim that anger is useful for producing justice. If anger has any real goodness or usefulness in it, it must be for producing justice. So if we can prove once and for all that anger does not produce justice, but rather its opposite, we strike at the very foundations of anger and give it no legs to stand on. By proving that anger takes no part in goodness, we destroy any grounds it has for support. So I’m going to share with you several stories—some historical, some mythical—that once you combine them all together, show you the monster that anger really is.
The Death of Socrates
Socrates being sentenced to death
Rather than producing justice, anger makes us commit injustice against others. This is incredibly apparent in the death of Socrates.
In 399 BC, Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, was sentenced to death for impiety and corrupting the youth.
Impiety means disrespecting the gods. But ironically, Socrates viewed it as his God-given duty to philosophize with the citizens of Athens. He viewed it as his God-given duty to search for wisdom and to help his citizens become better people—even if that meant he would live in poverty. As he said in Plato’s Apology,
So why would the Athenian citizens charge Socrates with impiety when he clearly believed in God? And how was he corrupting the youth? According to Socrates, these charges were simply drummed up as a way to get rid of him. As he said in Apology,
According to Socrates, the citizens of Athens were angry with him because he made them feel foolish. Whenever Socrates met a person who thought they were wise, he would ask that person a question. That person would then confidently give Socrates an answer. So Socrates would probe deeper into that person’s answer and subject it to scrutiny, and by doing so, he often exposed how what someone thought was true was actually false. He exposed people’s ignorance. He showed people that they weren't as wise as they thought they were. Naturally, because people don’t like to feel like fools, this made them very angry.
Socrates questioning Athenian citizens
But Socrates’ never intended to make people angry. In fact, he thought he was helping them understand the world better and to become better people. As he said in Apology,
He wanted to show people how the things that they believed in were not true and that the things they valued were not as important as their own characters. He viewed it as his duty to help his fellow citizens overcome delusion and move closer towards truth and goodness. He viewed it as his duty to help them perfect their souls and characters.
But as Socrates went around making people feel foolish, a collective anger grew towards him, an anger which was not made any better when the youth of Athens started to imitate him. Young men, typically ones who came from wealthy families and had a lot of free time, watched Socrates question the citizens of Athens and expose their ignorance. These young men wanted to be like him, so they began imitating him—questioning the adults around them and exposing their ignorance. These imitators of Socrates made the Athenians feel foolish, and this made the citizens of Athens even angrier at Socrates.
Athenian citizens getting upset at Socrates
And according to Socrates, it was this slow building up of anger among the Athenians that resulted in his death sentence. When Socrates was sentenced to death, anger was present as his trial, but justice was not, showing us that anger does not always produce justice, but rather, it even produces its opposite: injustice towards others.
On the other hand, Socrates, who might be considered one of the most just men to ever live, did not show any anger towards his fellow citizens for putting him to death. As he said in Apology,
Socrates did not hold any anger towards those who condemned him to death, even though he believed that they did it just to get rid of him.
Socrates calmly receiving his death sentence
So on the one side, we have Socrates’ accusers, full of anger and injustice. On the other side, we have Socrates, full of calm and justice. Now consider how history views both of these parties. Who really won that day? On that day, it seemed as if anger and injustice won, but in the long run, did it really? Socrates didn’t fear death and happily looked forward to it. As he said,
As for the Athenian citizens, they lost the intelligence and company of a good man. Everyone, up to this day, remembers the name of Socrates with respect and honor. So it seems to me that, on that day, in the end, justice and calm defeated injustice and anger, although it wasn’t obviously apparent at the time—to anyone but Socrates at least.
But that’s enough about Socrates. We’ve seen how anger does not always produce justice, but rather, it’s opposite: injustice. Now, let’s see how justice can be produced without anger.
Martin Luther King Jr & The Nonviolent Movement
According to his autobiography, while battling segregation in America, Martin Luther King Jr said,
In order to successfully overcome and defeat segregation, Martin Luther King Jr believed that his movement had to occur without any anger whatsoever. It had to be completely non-violent. He wanted his fellow citizens to prove to the world that it was possible to make positive changes in the world through love and calm—without any anger whatsoever. When speaking to his fellow citizens, he said,
At that time in Montgomery, African Americans were not allowed to ride at the front of the bus with white citizens. They had to sit in the back. And even if there were no white citizens on the bus, African Americans were still not allowed to sit at the front, because those seats were always reserved for white citizens. And in fact, African Americans often had to give up their seats if none were left for white citizens.
African American sitting alone at the back of a bus
So eventually, the African Americans of Montgomery participated in a peaceful boycott of their local busing system, a movement which was led by Martin Luther King Jr. The philosophy behind the boycott was that justice could be established when good people refused to cooperate with an evil system. The African American citizens of Montgomery refused to ride the bus, opting to walk to work or carpool with each other instead. They organized their own systems of transport and refused to rely on the evil and racist system that existed at the time.
African Americans organizing car pools
And because the majority of bus riders in Montgomery were African American, this put a significant economic strain on the busing system. So the busing system was forced to take the boycott and the movement for desegregation seriously in order to survive. The busing system was forced to change in response to the boycott and end segregation.
So the citizens of Montgomery, led by Martin Luther King Jr, played a key role in bringing segregation and inequality to an end in America. But they actually did something far greater than that. They gave us proof that love could establish justice, and that change could be accomplished without hate and anger.
When you love someone, you refuse to encourage their bad behavior. You cooperate with the best sides of them and you refuse to cooperate with the evil sides of them. This is exactly what the citizens of Montgomery did. They were not angry or hateful, but rather, they refused to cooperate with an evil system, and they found ways to cooperate with each other instead. And they showed us that with love, intelligence, and a refusal to cooperate with evil, we can establish justice—without anger and hate.
And why does noncooperation work? Because evil is like a vampire that must feed on goodness to survive. When good people refuse to cooperate with evil, it cannot survive on its own. Goodness is self-sufficient, but evil is dependent on the good. That’s why the racist busing system could not survive when the good citizens of Montgomery refused to cooperate with it. It depended on them. We don’t need anger to establish justice. What we need is for good people to cooperate with each other and refuse to cooperate with evil. Without goodness, evil either changes to goodness in order to survive, or it starves itself to death.
Now that I’ve shown you that justice can be established without anger, and that anger often leads to injustice against others, I want to take you a little deeper. Let me show you how anger will also produce an injustice against yourself.
The Tell-Tale Heart
Descending into madness
In his iconic short-story The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allen Poe tells the story of a man whose anger doesn’t just lead him to commit an injustice against another, but also, an injustice against himself.
The protagonist of the story lives next to an old man, and for whatever reason, he hates the way the old man looks at him. There’s something about the old man’s gaze—something about his eyes—that makes the protagonist angry. As he says in the story,
The old man’s eye
Maybe our protagonist felt judged by the eye. Maybe it reminded him of something else. For whatever reason, the old man’s glance made him angry. So after days of sneaking into the old man’s room at night, the protagonist caught the old man’s eye staring at him and said,
This fury led the protagonist to murder the old man, and the old man let out a single scream before collapsing. The protagonist then proceeded to hide the old man’s body in the house, under the floors. He did a perfect job of concealing his crime too: there wasn’t a single shred of evidence left behind.
But because of the scream that the old man had let out before he passed, someone had called the police. So three officers came to investigate the house while our protagonist was still there. The protagonist told the officers that the old man was out of the country, and he showed them around the house. The officers searched the house well but found nothing. They were satisfied with our protagonist's story, and they all took a seat together in the house—right over where the old man was buried.
The protagonist being visited by three officers
What happened next was shocking. Our protagonist began to hear the old man’s heart beat. It grew louder and louder, and he could no longer hear the officers talking. He was falling into some sort of madness, and he was overcome with guilt. He began to think that the officers actually knew that he committed the crime and were just making a fool out of him. The madness and guilt began to torment our protagonist until he could no longer bear it, so he confessed to committing the crime.
In this story, although it was obvious that anger made the protagonist do an injustice to the old man, anger also made him do an injustice to himself. Anger made him commit an action he could not take back, and this action led him to remorse, guilt and regret. And this is something few people realize about anger: anger makes us commit an injustice against our own minds and sanity.
And Poe’s story is not unique in this theme. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky tells a similar tale about a young man who commits a murder and then descends into madness, even though no one will find out about his crime.
The actions we perform out of anger often lead us to do damage to our own sanity and mental stability. We become overwhelmed with shame, guilt, remorse, regret, suspicion, and madness.
Now we’ve seen how anger causes us to commit an injustice against others and ourselves. And we’ve also seen how justice can be established without anger. Now let me tell one final story—an ancient zen story—where we can see all three of these themes combined together.
“Is that So?”
Once upon a time there was a zen master who lived in a village, and next to him, there lived a family: two parents and a teenage daughter. One day, the parents found out that the teenage daughter was pregnant, and they were furious.
They asked her who the father was, and at first, the daughter refused to tell. But since they were furious and kept asking, she felt it would be best to blame the zen master. Maybe she felt that that would redirect some of her parent’s anger away from her, because the zen master was much older, and he was known for being good and wise.
So rumours spread around the village that the zen master had gotten the teenage girl pregnant, and his reputation was completely tarnished. And when the baby was born, the parents went over to the zen master’s house and scolded him for getting their supposedly innocent daughter pregnant. The zen master patiently heard all that they had to say and simply responded with, “Is that so?” The parents were fuming, and they said, “Since you’re the father, you take care of him!” They left the baby with him.
Zen master caring for baby
The zen master took in the innocent baby and cared for it—feeding it, playing with it, and making sure that it was well taken care of. It had done nothing wrong to deserve punishment.
But over the next year the baby’s mother—the teenage daughter—was tortured by her own conscience. She could no longer bear the pain of telling such a large lie. She could no longer bear the pain of abandoning her kid. So she confessed her lie to her parents. “The zen master did not get me pregnant,” she said, “it was actually a teenage boy.” The person who got the girl pregnant was a local boy who worked at a nearby fish store.
Young girl confesses to her parents
Upon hearing the truth, the parents apologized to the zen master and asked for forgiveness. They felt incredibly ashamed for getting angry at him. They explained the whole situation to him about their daughter and begged for the baby back
The zen master peacefully heard them out and replied, “Is that so?” He handed the baby back to them without any further questions.
In this story, we can see the harm caused by anger, and we can see the benefits of not being angry. But before I can show you the harm and benefits, you need to clearly understand all of the characters in the story.
Basically, there are five characters in this story: the daughter, the parents, the zen master, the baby, and the villagers. And of these five characters, three of them were filled with anger: the daughter, the parents, and the villagers. Let’s call these three The Angry Party. Let’s call the other two, the baby and the zen master, The Calm Party.
The Angry Party caused injustice to those in The Calm Party. The zen master was blamed for something he didn’t do, and his reputation was also tarnished. The baby was abandoned by his own mother and grandparents.
The Angry Party also caused injustice to themselves. The daughter who had gotten pregnant was tortured by her guilt. Her parents were tortured by shame for blaming an innocent man for getting their daughter pregnant, and they were tortured by remorse for forcing him to take care of the baby. All of the villagers who got upset with the zen master, believing and spreading around the rumours about him, believed in a lie. And anyone who takes a lie for the truth is delusional. In other words, everyone from The Angry Party was inflicted with guilt, shame, remorse, regret, or ignorance.
On the other hand, The Calm Party ended up better off. The baby found its way into the arms of someone who could actually care for it without judging it. The zen master, who did not get angry with anyone, was able to remain just towards the innocent baby, and in the end, justice itself kept him safe. In the end, his reputation was redeemed. And while everyone else was suffering with guilt, shame, remorse, regret, and ignorance, he alone remained wise and happy. And on top of that, the zen master was able to spend his year with a calm and innocent baby—the best person in the entire village besides himself.
So from the tale of Socrates, we see that anger causes harm to others. From The Tell-Tale Heart, we see that anger even causes harm to ourselves, because the actions we take out of anger often lead to guilt and remorse over what we’ve done. And in both the story “Is That So” and the history of Martin Luther King Jr., we see that justice can be established without anger.
So what room is left for anger? Not only is justice possible without anger, but anger often leads to injustice! And this is an important point: a thing cannot simultaneously produce opposite effects in another thing. If a thing heats you up, it can not simultaneously cool you down at the exact same time—that would be a contradiction. We’ve seen that actions taken out of anger are a direct cause of injustice, so they cannot simultaneously be the direct cause of justice. So if it’s justice that you want, if it’s goodness and peace wherever you go, if it’s healing and not harm, then you want to act without any anger at all.
And as Seneca points out, when a thing is truly good, we never place a limit on it. You can never have too much justice, too much wisdom, or too much courage. Things we place a limit on are usually bad, like junk food and alcohol. Anger is like the latter. Anger is something that is never good in excess, because it’s not a truly good thing. And just like a diet that relies too much on junk food, a mind that relies too much on anger creates more problems in the long run than it solves. And just as it's better to have a diet without any alcohol if you can, it's better to have a mind without any anger if you can.
Anger may help you realize when an injustice has been done to you, but it will not help you fix it. Anger is a useful stimulus for realization and self-reflection, but it is harmful as a tool of action. Once you realize that you have been wronged, it’s time to let go of anger and—with a calm mind—work on fixing what’s wrong.
So now that we have seen how anger is not good whatsoever, we can move on to discussing how to overcome it.
While anger can be overcome, it can never be overcome completely. There will always be some minor trace of it in the mind. As Seneca writes,
As I said before, this minor trace of anger is useful for realizing when we’ve been hurt, but it’s not useful for fixing that hurt. So it’s important to give anger the absolute minimum amount of power we can over our minds. That said, here is my ten step process for conquering anger.
The first thing to do when you’re feeling angry is to delay action. As Seneca writes,
Time naturally reduces anger. If you can delay taking action and give your anger time to calm down, you will already win half the battle. Once you’re calm, move on to the next step.
Monk finding peace in the mountains
Now that you’re calm, you have to understand what just happened. We feel anger whenever we perceive that someone hurt us. With a calm mind, try to form an accurate judgment about what just happened to you. Did someone actually hurt you? If not, then there’s no reason to be angry. Move on. But if someone did hurt you, move on to the next step.
Why would you forgive someone for doing you harm? Because forgiveness is not passivity or weakness, it’s strength and wisdom. As Seneca says,
This is a principle that you have to understand about people: people always try to do the best they can with the knowledge they have. People are truly always aiming at what they think is the highest good, but what leads them astray is ignorance. They are wrong about what is truly good, and that is why they hurt others.
So don’t feel angry at your fellow human, but rather, feel pity. They are ignorant. They lack the knowledge and wisdom that you now have: that anger makes them commit an injustice to themselves and others. They don’t realize that their anger produces evil, not good. They don’t realize that their decisions are going to ruin their own lives and the lives of others—but you do realize that.
So what is there to be upset about? Isn’t it sad that they mistake evil for good? They think they are headed towards a treasure, but they don’t realize that they are headed for the edge of a cliff.
As Jesus said in the bible,
Man forgives world
Before you take any actions, make sure that you’ve healed your own feelings of anger. Once you have truly internalized forgiveness and given your anger time to calm down, you should feel more healed.
Once you are calm, approach the person you were angry with and explain to them how what they did hurt you. Help them understand why the way they acted was not good for your relationship. Help them get rid of their own ignorance.
Now listen to what they have to say in response to you. Just as they might have ignorantly done something to hurt you, you might have ignorantly done something to hurt them. Overcome your own ignorance by listening to their perspective.
Come to an agreement about how both of you should act going forward to avoid similar situations and problems. Both of you should walk away from the agreement feeling satisfied and wanting to do whatever it is you agreed to. No one should walk away from the agreement feeling like they compromised on what they wanted or are being forced to act a certain way: that will only create more problems in the future. But if you can’t come to an agreement that satisfies you both, then move on to the next step.
Couple educating, listening, and negotiating with each other over dinner
If you can’t find an agreement that satisfies the both of you, an agreement that is good for the both of you, then refuse to continue the relationship. If the relationship isn’t healthy for the both of you, it isn’t healthy for either of you.
As Martin Luther King Jr showed us, good people must refuse to cooperate with an evil system.
Just as it’s important for good people not to cooperate with an evil system, it’s also important for good people to cooperate with one another.
Discover and surround yourself with people who are virtuous, people who you can come to good and fair agreements with about how to treat one another, people who you can happily cooperate with. These are the people who you will actually be able to sustain long-term and good relationships with.
The tenth and final step is to harden your mind. As Seneca wrote,
If you can learn to value the simple things in life—if you can refuse to live with too much comfort, luxury, or indulgence—then you become less angry. Anger is more easily produced by soft minds that are easily hurt.
If you can find ways to make your mind stronger—to be less susceptible to small hurts, to learn to make fun of yourself, to value only your character—then you will be less likely to feel anger in the first place.
Pick A Side
So we saw that anger doesn’t produce justice or goodness, but rather, it produces its opposite: injustice. And anger doesn’t just do an injustice against others, it also does an injustice to our own minds, by making us do things that we will regret. And we also saw that justice can be produced without any anger whatsoever. And then we produced a ten step method for overcoming anger:
And although anger can’t be overcome quickly, it can be overcome with time, and it’s the mark of a great mind to overcome anger. As Seneca said,
Like an ocean that can’t be contaminated by small amounts of poison, a truly great soul is incapable of being moved into anger, while small souls are contaminated more easily.
And I can pile up wise man after wise man, warning you against anger.
The Buddha said,
Lao Tzu said,
And as we are advised in The Analects of Confucius,
And finally, as Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov,
The battle against anger is a battle against evil, and the battle is taking place inside of our own hearts. If anger wins, evil wins.
So on the one side, you have the masses, who will continue to argue for the goodness and necessity of anger. On the other side, you have Seneca, Socrates, Martin Luther King Jr, Jesus, Heraclitus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Dostoevsky, and Confucius.
It’s up to you: which side will you choose?