By Carolyn Baker at Speaking Truth to Power
Anyone who doesn’t feel angry, make that enraged, about what is being done to the earth community by its human inhabitants and what they are doing to each other has been totally anesthetized by the soporifics of civilization. If you aren’t angry, not only are you not paying attention, as the bumper sticker adage goes, but you really need to ask yourself what you have done with your anger to cause your numbness.
Not only is anger one of the sanest responses to our predicament, but we need to find ways to express it that do not harm others. Impassioned service in the world, blogging or other forms of writing, artistic expression, or making an agreement with another trusted person to vent in their presence while they witness the expulsion of anger are all channels for externalizing anger energy and not simply, toxically holding it in the body. We should not vent at people, but certainly we can vent with them or witness their venting with us.
The more conscious we can become of our anger, the less harmful it is to ourselves or others. The less conscious of it we are, the more it is likely to become lethal to our own bodies and impede our relationships. I believe that beneath all anger about our predicament is deep grief, but that does not for one moment invalidate the feeling of anger or our need to express it. What is also true is that the relief we ultimately experience from feeling our anger and expressing it over and over again has diminishing returns. Unless our feeling and expressing anger takes us to deeper places within the psyche, we end up spinning our wheels and cycling and recycling through a redundant pathway in the nervous system that really is not unlike spinning the wheels of a vehicle in an attempt to become “un-stuck” from mud or snow.
Something in the psyche—call it soul, spirit, the deeper Self, the sacred, our core, something greater, inner wisdom, consciousness—whatever we choose to name it, wants to take us into more profound places of awareness. We share in common with other animals a nervous system that needs to discharge anger from time to time, but what do our fellow earthlings do after they discharge it? They return “home” and focus on feeding the family, nurturing their young, or just lying around in peaceful repose. Unlike humans who possess conscious self-awareness, they do not need to make sense of their anger or their predicament. They live only in the moment, and despite all exhortations by spiritual teachers to do exactly that, it is not possible for humans who live in a body to “be here now” every second of their human experience. We need, not just want or desire, to find meaning in our experience. In order to do that, sometimes we need to consider the past and future. We are inherently creatures who make meaning. Perhaps that is the fundamental difference between ourselves and robots who merely receive and report information.
And before you argue that life is meaningless, consider the brilliant men and women throughout human history who have demonstrated the opposite through their art, music, drama, poetry, prose, and storytelling. Yes, even our friend Friedrich Nietzsche, who is frequently quoted in order to reinforce the notion that life is meaningless, said that, “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
So why is the owning and naming of our anger not enough? And in fact, how do we prevent our anger from having a deleterious effect on ourselves, other humans, and the earth community? How do we avoid the trap of so-called “righteous” anger in a mad, homicidal and ecocidal world?
Every emotion contains its own unique set of biochemical components that impact the physiology. Anger releases adrenalin (epinephrine) and also norepinephrine, and these are experienced in the body much like an amphetamine. On the one hand, anger can feel energizing, but after a huge surge of these chemicals, one may feel depressed or lethargic.. When we consciously feel our anger or vent it, we understand the chemical rush that it evokes, and in the aftermath, we are able to take care of ourselves, rest, take a hot bath, meditate, and overall “chill” for awhile. However, when we aren’t conscious of our anger and its effects, we might feel the surge of anger, then feel depressed afterward and use a chemical stimulant or perhaps another angry outburst to elevate our mood once again. This is precisely the dynamic that occurs in PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and it explains how some soldiers become “addicted” to war or some first responders become “addicted” to the drama of emergency scenarios.
More common is the harboring of resentment which from the Latin root simply means to feel anger over and over again. It is a state of chronic anger which we may or may not be aware of. It is very closely connected with despair in that we may feel that holding onto resentment is the last defense between ourselves and depression or giving up.
Sometimes when people read or hear my comments about holding the tension of polar opposites, they do not understand what I am saying for a number of reasons. First, very little in our culture supports this notion. Industrial civilization blatantly demands a binary perception of life. Things are either “this” or “that.” For example in terms of the collapse of industrial civilization, one may believe that “Either I have to be angry or resentful, or I’m a wus, a clueless person in denial, or a sychophantic twit who doesn’t ‘get’ how bad things really are.” So when someone like me comes along and says, “You can really acknowledge how hideously bad things are and at the same time create beauty or walk a spiritual path or recite poetry or immerse yourself in joy and play from time to time,” the chronically angry or despairing person may immediately become more angry at the suggestion (and at me) that there is something for her/him to experience besides anger and despair. Often my comments are erroneously labeled “New Age,” but if only the person making this accusation understood what New Age actually means.
The notion of holding the tension of polar opposites in one’s consciousness is anything but New Age. The philosophy of life which has come to be labeled New Age originated in the Transcendentalist movements of the late-nineteenth century. Some of the purveyors of this perspective were Mary Baker Eddy, Ernest Holmes, Emmanuel Swedenborg, Alice Bailey, and others. To their credit, all of these individuals departed dramatically from Judeo-Christian theology and the notion of a vengeful God of judgment and eternal damnation. However, they chose to embrace instead, a perspective of living only in the “light.” One of the hallmarks of a truly New Age perspective is the notion that goodness and “light” are true realities, and evil and “darkness” are illusions. Thus an authentically New Age person would deny the reality of the collapse of industrial civilization and name the concept as “error” or “negative thinking,” essentially denying its validity. Additionally, a genuinely New Age perspective assumes that anger is a “bad” emotion which one should not feel, but rather that “love and harmony” should replace feeling angry. He or she would never, ever assert that, for example, anger and joy or anger and compassion can be held together in one’s consciousness—polar opposites residing in one psyche and one body.
As my friend the mythologist Michael Meade says, the most distressing problem with the New Age is that it has disregarded ancient wisdom. Not only did it reject Judeo-Christian theology, but it overwhelmingly ignored the wisdom of indigenous, earth-based spirituality which for thousands of years has realized the necessity of acknowledging both the darkness and the light as equally real and equally present in human consciousness.
Thus, it is important to be cautious about how one uses the term, “New Age” because if a particular person or group reverences ancient wisdom and respects both darkness and light, then attribution of the term “New Age” is not accurate. Why have I chosen to elaborate on this point? Because often labels such as “New Age,” “air-fairy,” “touchy-feely,” or other terms do not arise as a result of reasoned investigation but often as a result of anger or resentment. And this is yet another reason for addressing them.
Cynicism is closely related to resentment. One definition of a cynic is: “a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.” In other words, compassion or selflessness do not exist. Every human being is looking out for his/her own interests, period. If one truly embraces this perspective, then one must admit to one’s on narcissism, and for the most part, that makes living with oneself quite challenging and meaningful relationships with other human beings next to impossible.
In ancient times, the cynics were a members of a Greek sect who championed self-control above all other virtues and sought to free themselves as much as possible from social control and the influence of public opinion. The word cynic at its root was related to the word dog, not only because of the cynic’s sneering sarcasm, but because it was said that the cynic was like a dog gnawing on the same bone incessantly until the bone had been consumed.
When I encounter cynical, resentful, angry people, I have to wonder where they would be without their cynicism/resentment/anger. What exactly is it doing for them? The fallacy they often cherish is that these emotions will serve and protect them in the throes of collapse, and there is a grain of truth in this assumption, but unless their bone-gnawing proclivities are tempered with grief, joy, beauty, gratitude, compassion, generosity, and humor, their survival is in fact, untenable.
Not surprisingly, some people react negatively to the notion of emotional and spiritual preparation for collapse. Given the betrayal and wounding many of us have suffered from religious or spiritual groups or from mental health professionals, this response is natural. Sometimes people have experienced such overwhelming, incomprehensible levels of betrayal that their ability to trust anything that might inspire or nurture their spirit is immediately scorned and the source of these viciously attacked.
Some individuals seem to have developed a fine-tuned combative radar apparatus in anticipation of any mention of emotional or spiritual preparation for collapse and are hyper-vigilantly predisposed to attacking the entire notion as delusional. Others are so heartbroken over humanity’s behavior which has brought us to this juncture in history that they admit feeling caustic rage toward their own species. I thoroughly appreciate how one might arrive at this level of contempt for humanity. Yet once again, this perspective represents one end of a polar opposite and does not reveal the entire spectrum of humanity’s constitution.
To detest all of humanity is obviously to detest oneself, and I do not believe I am exaggerating when I state that this perspective is a suicidal one. Moreover, it is a masochistic orientation to life in which one has determined that one does not deserve one shred of joy, beauty, peace, love, or well being because one is a member of that despicable species called homo sapiens, and one should only suffer as a result. With this dynamic, no amount of mea culpas is enough, and there is probably no chain saw on earth capable of cutting through this level of rage and despair. Nevertheless, we can be certain that beneath it lie inconsolable rivers of grief.
Many individuals who minimize or overtly deplore the notion of emotional and spiritual preparation for collapse do so for a variety of reasons, and anger is but one of those. If one is committed to ending one’s life, from my perspective that is tragic, but in the larger picture, who can know with certainty what is best for that individual even though I personally would not wish for their demise? What many collapse-aware individuals who do want to live have not yet come to understand is the degree to which their survival depends on feeling the feelings that the end of life as they have known it entails. As Jack Adam Weber states in his brilliant article “Radical Embrace: Breaking The Cycle Of An Unfertile Demise”:
This is not hippie talk; it is cutting edge survival strategy.
Resilience in the face of collapse is a skill that must be developed, but it cannot be if our anger occupies such an enormous space in the psyche that the benefits of feeling, making sense of, and sharing our feelings have no space to inhabit the psyche or body. What are those benefits? Wisdom, discernment, compassion, letting go, clarity, generosity, patience, loyalty, balance, and joy—to name only a few.
Questioning, distrust, skepticism, and remaining uncertain about a particular idea is a healthy, discerning response for refugees escaping the tyranny of industrial civilization. Yet at the same time we distrust, we need to inwardly explore the origins of our distrust—and what it feels like. What emotions does the new idea evoke? What incidents in our personal or family history may have served to engender the distrust in relation to this idea? And most importantly, what is the grief, underlying our skepticism? Ultimately, what is the most useful investment of one’s time and energy: attacking an idea and the person promoting it or investigating what dynamics within one’s own psyche are operating in reaction to the idea? Ah, but this, as Jack Weber names it is “Occupying Oneself,” and that, as you may have discovered, is the most formidable space on earth.
Anger is useful only if it works for us. When it works against us by keeping our minds and hearts sealed off from other emotions, then not only is it not enough, but it becomes profoundly toxic.
So back to our friend Nietzsche again, who was way more touchy-feely than we may have thought:
And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.