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  • Thomas Bien

Anger as a Motivator for Change

Can Anger Be a Motivator for Change?

In these days of great social unrest, some have proposed that anger is a good motivation for change. Perhaps that is so, but there are also a number of problems with anger.

First of all, when we talk about anger as good, I think we are talking about righteous anger, which is related to compassion in that it has the welfare of others at heart. This is not the kind of thing where we bump our heads and then punch a hole in the wall, making a bad situation worse.

Still, anger is fractious. It elicits a response in others that may not be what we intend. When people are confronted with anger, they may feel shame, fear, more anger, or defensive. They are unlikely to change their point of view, even in the case of righteous anger, but can become even more entrenched in their own. So, I think the interpersonal results of anger are often dangerous.

The personal consequences of anger are also dangerous. There’s a saying that being angry is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will suffer. I understand this to be true scientifically. When we spend time being angry, stress hormones are released that cause us harm, being associated with high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes, to name a few. (Loving feelings do the opposite).

In the New Testament (Ephesians), “Be angry but sin not.” Sin is a difficult word for us nowadays, but the word in New Testament Greek is hamartano. Hamartano is an archery term meaning to fall short of the mark. In other words, we might say, you’re not being all you can be.

When Jesus was asked about the center of the Torah, he riffed on the Hebrew Bible where we read “be holy as God is holy.” The Hebrew word for holy is qadosh, and it involves an ethic of ritual purity. (Later rabbinical Judaism interprets this differently). To be holy in this sense, one avoids contact with unsavory characters like tax collectors (or, in the absurdity of the time, women!) because you risk becoming ritually impure. Instead he responded, “Be merciful as God is merciful.” Jesus spoke Aramaic, and the word for merciful here is rachamim. In both Aramaic and Hebrew, it is actually the plural of the word for womb. How should we be with others? Be womblike! That is, embrace and shelter and nourish them.

Love is less risky as motivating factor, and can cause less harm in the long run. For those, like me, of a liberal bent, we had a lot of righteous anger about Viet Nam, which is I think very understandable and appropriate. But still, I think this anger caused, in part, a reactionary backlash that has had results we would not think so positive.

Some of us are suspicious of words like love and compassion. They just somehow seem a little squishy, though we accept readily words like anger and aggression without the same skepticism. Why is it that we are inclined to consider these things more real? Perhaps it is because words like love have been abused, and have been used in a manipulative way. As theologian Paul Tillich suggests, we may need to heal the word in order to use it as an instrument of healing.

It may also be because our English word love carries a heavy load, meaning everything from non-attached spiritual love, to sexual attraction, to how we feel about hamburgers. In ancient (Attic) Greek there were 12 words for love, and in New Testament Greek there are three. So one of the problems may be that we use the word in such a careless way.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh came to the West to speak about the war. Such protest I think was motivated by love. He wanted the bombs to stop falling on his people. When someone told him during an address that he should go back to Viet Nam, he was filled with anger. But he didn’t want to respond from that place. So he actually left the stage for a few minutes to breathe mindfully and calm himself before responding.

In Darwin’s book, The Descent of Man, we find words like aggression a few times. But he also used the word love over 90 times, because, unlike our parody of Darwin, he thought we survived as a species primarily because of our capacity to watch out for each other and care for each other.

Psychologists tend to favor positive reinforcement over punishment. There may be a need for punishment paradigms, but the reponses they cause in lab animals (or us) can be problematic.

It is clearly simplistic to say that anger is always wrong or that it doesn’t have its uses. Right or wrong, anger is a human fact of life. But I would like to suggest that love and compassion, properly understood and cultivated, are an at least equal source of motivation, and have a lot less risk associated with them.

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