The power of anger

Philippine Star

Sunday Life

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Last Sunday, entering an uncle’s house to greet him on his birthday, I landed in the middle of a “speech” by an old priest. He was there to say Mass but had volunteered to do the homily first since we were waiting for my aunt, who had just woken up, to join us. I found a quiet place beside my sister who had arrived earlier.

The priest was a crusty old guy whom I remember listening to as a young man when he gave a talk to my high school class about poverty and how we young Catholics should respond. Last Sunday, (some 40 years later), I realized that very little had changed. The priest talked of other things but mostly, he stressed the great disparity between the social classes in the Philippines and how callous the rich are towards the poor. He talked about how the wealthy among us can strut around with nary a care while people sleep in the streets or scrounge for food. Even if the theme was the same, there was a striking difference, and it was the tone and tenor of his speech.

This man did not mince his words, much less parse his message. He was an old, angry man. He talked disparagingly of the Church whom he accused of being unable and unwilling to challenge the flock because it has become too soft and accommodating. In his view, many of its leaders had compromised themselves by receiving “donations” from the government and from the business community in exchange for their silence on pressing issues.

As he went on to tackle a range of other things, it was striking to listen to him because he showed no fear nor hesitation as he called by name certain world and local leaders, labeling them as murderers for engaging in senseless wars, and/or stealing public funds which could otherwise have gone to food and welfare programs that could ease hunger and improve living conditions everywhere.

Here was an old man who has devoted most of his adult life to living with the poor and dedicating all his efforts to alleviating their living conditions. I imagine how he wakes up every day with a fire in his heart and zeal in his soul doing every big and small thing he can to make a difference. He belongs to a big organization — his priestly order, and an even bigger one —  the Catholic Church, which he must love dearly to be able to commit to, embark on, and keep his course steady in pursuit of his mission as he has done all these years. But at his late age, he realizes that they have failed him. And these days, he is frustrated, angry, even pointedly cutting as he lambastes his superiors.

I looked around the room and saw many of the older people listening quietly and, I imagined, somewhat passively. In contrast, I found myself nodding in agreement as he looked me in the eye. He was, to me, not a demagogue or a crazy idealist, but an angry man who had not surrendered or tempered what he feels his faith demands just because his superiors are not on his same intense wavelength. In my mind, I could hear Albert Camus’ exhortation to people who had a vision, a mission to accomplish which went against the grain of things: “Between you and the world, second the world.”

This crusty old priest is intent on not going gently into the night. He intends to rage, rage and rage further against the dying of the light so that his own breath will ignite what is left of the embers of compassion.

I thought of the emotion of anger and the power that it has over our internal and the external world. Anger can be a very uncomfortable feeling to have. When it hits you in a strong way, it feels like your very being is on fire and there is a great compulsion to spread this fire by expelling it and lashing at other people. Definitely, it calls you to action, to something drastic if it is to simmer down and disappear.

If an emotion like this can be powerful enough to move us out of our selves and act on the world, surely it must have some positive use even if it is unpleasant. For one thing, it is definitely a wake-up call. How? Because  it shakes us violently from the slumber of comfort to remind us that our world, our boundaries have been invaded and violated.

You wake up and realize that you’re just not going to take it anymore. You’ve had it. You will not sit quietly and continue to keep it all in. You will act!

The positive thing about healthy anger is that it tells you that you can’t continue to live life the way you’ve been living it. You realize how stupid you have been to be blind or unforgivingly tolerant of how others have treated, disappointed or hurt you and you will have no more of it. Something’s gotta give and it’s not gonna be you.

“Sobra na! Tama na! Palitan na!” Remember marching to EDSA then and feeling how your sense of decency, morality or expectations had been trampled upon? The millions who came all felt pretty much the same way, enough to take the time to march, shout and even risk their lives to express how much they wanted no more of the status quo and demanded change.

These days, one need not look very far to see how our sense of anger has been hijacked. No matter how shocking the revelations we hear about our officials, people hardly express themselves in a way that can constructively strike fear in the hearts of those who mock us. I would even go further and say that not only has our anger been hijacked, diverted or misdirected, we are using this anger against ourselves. There is an internal fire all right, but instead of directing the raging flames of wrath against the objects of our contempt — the corrupt, the brazenly calloused liars and thieves who rule over our lives, we have kept it all in to burn our own spirit so that the transformational power of our anger has turned into a consuming hopelessness.

“What’s the use?” I often hear people (including myself) say when asked  why we do not march in the streets or do anything against our situation.

A comic once said in jest that depression is anger without enthusiasm. How true, how true. Instead of outward action, our anger is kept in. This is the unhealthy way to deal with this powerful emotion. Our silence hurts us more than we know as it emboldens the enemies of our ideals to further violate the rules they swore to follow.

It is important to pay attention to what makes us angry even if just to remind ourselves that we have not lost our sense of outrage, or even our conscience. It is even better to act on it constructively.

How does one act constructively when angry?

There is a difference between acting on anger, and acting out our anger. The first is directed, pointed action that is thought-out and planned. The other is plain raging. Like a flame, acting on anger is like heat applied to metal to shape it into something we want. It is measured, purposeful and even constructive. Acting out is an uncontrolled conflagration. The priest I listened to last Sunday urges us to act on anger, do what needs to be done, regardless of how much or how little support is behind us. To not do anything is to allow oneself to be consumed by one’s own flames and turn this useful emotion into an enemy. 

Let us then, at the very least, properly acknowledge our anger. There is anger that needs to be acted on. But sometimes, all that is asked of us is to merely notice it even if in the end no action follows. At least we know we are feeling it, and not denying it.

As I said earlier, many of us avoid anger because of its unpleasantness. It is important to know ourselves, to discern when acting on our anger is not in our best interest at a given time, or whether it is a true friend expressing itself for our own good.

Apathy, indifference — now, those are the real enemies that kill our spirit and strengthen our tormentors.