Raw Anger

“God, grant me someone or something at which I’m allowed to be angry. Amen.” — Me

“Yeah, anger doesn’t really work like that.” — God

Anger is in the news, and reading the news tends to increase the size of the pool of anger I manage day-to-day. Here’s a list of things about which I’m angry, along with reasons I use to talk myself down from that anger.

  1. I am angry at Covid-19, but as a virus, it’s really just doing its job. Viruses make copies of themselves, and it’s not Covid’s fault that it’s really good at finding its copiers.
  2. I am angry at those who are not already vaccinated. I’m also reading a fascinating a troubling book right now about the Sackler dynasty and Oxycontin. Patrick Raddon Keefe’s Empire of Pain is rocking my world, haunting my dreams, and increasing my empathy for those who don’t trust drugs or the doctors who approve and prescribe them.
  3. I am angry at governors who promote individualism when they’ve been elected to serve communities, while I’m also aware there’s a reason they got elected: they probably really are exercising the (wrongheaded) will of the people.
  4. I am angry that the Taliban has already retaken Afghanistan, but I also have a sense that this is where we would have ended up after 20 more years of US forces there.
  5. I am angry that our new academic year at Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School won’t look as much like the fall of 2019 as we’d hoped, even though it will still be freer than the fall of 2020.
  6. I am angry that I’m about to send my spouse and daughter off on a college hunting trip into a part of the country where I have to worry about wildfires, Covid-19, and airport chaos… and that I can’t go with them.

Above we have six examples of reasons I, who live an incredibly happy life, have to be angry. And yet not one of those reasons comes with a target at which I can aim those feelings and really blow my top. Shouting! Hitting with a baseball bat! Turning over tables and making a mess of the source of my anger! Nope. I just sit in the feelings while also observing the ways they are coming out in others.

I’m reading stories about air rage. I’m seeing altercations among colleagues, family members, and friends that are leading to hurt feelings, relationships, and reputations. Zoom and other ways in which we can communicate at a distance aren’t doing us any favors. In two dimensions, we can’t really work through disagreements; we can only start them.

As a Christian leader serving a Christian organization, I have heard much lip service paid to the idea that anger is okay. Jesus got angry. Moses did, too. They didn’t reserve their anger for enemies but often felt it about and directed it toward their most beloved friends, family members, and followers. I have also encountered precious few frameworks that have helped me to figure out what to do with the anger inside me, besides sit on it. Few though they are, I share them nonetheless.

  • We need to remember that anger is an emotion, not an identity. We say “I am angry,” when what we mean is, “I feel anger.” Just to create that modest separation between an emotion and our concept of self can help us see our feelings for what they are — valuable, worthy, but not in-charge — and think through how to resolve negative emotions.
  • We need to bear in mind that anger and its expression reflect and are shaped by culture, especially privilege. As a woman, my expressions of anger might indicate poor self-control or unstable mental health, even when expressed on behalf of a righteous cause. I might be labeled the dreaded “hysterical.” Black males’ anger might be used to justify why a police officer felt their life was in danger and pulled out a gun. Those with privilege are allowed tantrums that don’t taint their reputations or endanger their safety or lives. Anger isn’t an identity, but identity shapes or distorts its expression.
  • We need to understand the emotion of anger as something raw. We don’t throw away that which is raw; we process and cook it before serving it up. “Raw” is to be contrasted with “toxic.” Something raw can be treated with care and turned into something nourishing, like an egg. Something toxic? We shouldn’t touch it. Most toxic communal settings aren’t defined by people processing their raw anger, turning it into a source for greater focus or learning. They’re plagued with dehumanizing silence.

These three observations above are a roundabout way of saying we can’t use anger to justify lashing out at a scapegoat who provides us with an outlet. As our society as a whole stews on anger, looking for someone or something at which to point it, we are collectively missing the point. Discharging anger on a target of any kind doesn’t make our anger go away or feel better; it’s not productive. Acting out of raw anger just begets more anger.

I’ve heard it said and taught my kid that anger isn’t wrong; it’s what people sometimes do with their anger that can be. Here is what we need to do with our anger: sit with it, process it, and serve up the processed — cooked — version when it’s ready. Lashing out isn’t processing, and neither is stuffing or swallowing. Prayer, meditative reflection, conversation with trusted friends, journaling: these are how we process.

The Jesuits teach us that emotions are how the Holy Spirit communicates with us, and identifying our feelings therefore helps us know God’s will better. My husband Dan always says that anger is a mask for fear or sadness. I say it’s also an emotion in its own right, and we need to listen to it without taking marching orders from it.

Everyone’s tired of a global crisis that won’t quit, and when we’re tired, it’s easy to avoid processing and go straight to reacting. Therefore, leaders need to model that processing matters; no matter how tired we are, and no matter whether our emotions are “justifiable” or “fair.” We experience. We feel. We process. We make meaning. We reenter, and then we take action, or we don’t. But who we are when we reenter is a new and renewed version of us; a new creation, resurrected every morning with the sun.

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Sarah Birmingham Drummond is Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.

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Sarah B. Drummond

Sarah B. Drummond

Sarah Birmingham Drummond is Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.

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