Transmuting My Righteous Anger into Understanding

Wednesday, March 1, 2017 - 5:00 am
A man sits in contemplation.

Transmuting My Righteous Anger into Understanding

The fiftieth (or was it the hundredth?) time I saw it, I knew what I had to do. This year, I resolved the other day, I will give up anger for Lent.

“It” was a photograph on a news website of the president of the United States speaking in public, his features contorted in anger: mouth scornfully atwist, eyes narrowed vindictively, right index finger self-righteously upraised. To see that image is to see anger at its least attractive.

Naturally, I have other reasons for giving up anger: family, physical stress, a general biblical sense that it is something we all could use a little less of. But the sight of that presidential perma-anger sealed it. By giving up anger — by becoming less angry — I could be less like him.

So I’ll try to give up anger for Lent. OK, but what might giving up anger mean? Personal anger, vented in one’s own life, is one thing. But what about social anger — the anger we feel in our communities over the rigged economy, the divided country, the broken world, the unfairness of existence?

Does our anger make us stalwart opponents, principled and committed to a long fight for what is right? Or does it make us prisoners of anger, co-dependents of the angry people we set ourselves against?

Is it wise to give up such anger, and if so, what is there to replace it with?

In a new book, Pankaj Mishra suggests that ours is an “age of anger”: the anger of young people around the world who are educated, ambitious, worldly, yearning to claim the freedom and opportunity promised by a global commercial society, but lacking actual freedom and opportunity in their own countries. In Britain, France, India, and Turkey, angry politicians have channeled that anger and ridden it to electoral victory. Now it is the rest of us — the prosperous, privileged elite — who are angry.

Mishra, born in northwest India in 1969, lives in London and reports for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books from points worldwide. In several books, culminating in From the Ruins of Empire — an account of the intellectual roots of modern Asia — he has explored the “temptations of the West,” the limits of globalization, and the hopes and fears of people whose awareness of human possibility runs up against the limits of their poor, broken, corrupt societies.

Every angry populace is angry in its own way, but Mishra argues convincingly that much of this anger has a common source: the ressentiment identified by Rousseau and named by Nietzsche. This anger is rooted in the resentment of “young provincials . . . who seethed with resentment against a largely metropolitan civilization of slick movers and shakers that seemed to deny them an authentic and rooted existence.”

Again and again in modern Europe, this resentful anger formed the backbone of “neo-traditionalist backlashes to the smug bourgeoisie.” It is the free-range envy Kierkegaard observed. It is the “mimetic desire” (in Rene Girard’s term) of the people V.S. Naipaul called “the mimic men”: people who want what other people have because it promises to give them the “being” that they feel those people have and they themselves lack.

Age of Anger — subtitled A History of the Present — is a rangy, brilliant, penetrating analysis of the long run-up to the age we are now in. It is intellectual history to the third power. Mishra shows globalization and its counter-reaction as an amplified echo of industrialization and its counter-reaction. He brings huge tracts of Western philosophy and social history to bear on the rest of the world (as in From the Ruins of Empire he brought the intellectual history of the “East” to bear on the West). By doing so, he makes globalization freshly intelligible and so explodes the idea that it is a new thing in the world, a phenomenon without precedent.

Early in the book, Mishra cites Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“Today’s individuals are directly exposed to [the shocks of globalization] in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields, where it is easy to feel there is no such thing as either society or the state, there is only the war of all against all… The result is, as Arendt feared, ‘a tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody’…”

The passage is suggestive on several levels. On one level it suggests, ominously, that we could be on the threshold of a new age of totalitarianism akin to the one Arendt addressed in the middle of the last century, except this time on a global scale. On another, it suggests that any narrative of mounting social calamity doesn’t easily apply, because such anger is sufficiently common across time and space as to be universal — and will always be with us as a byproduct of modern developed society.

Photo by Andrew Burton (Getty Images / © All Rights Reserved)

What, then, to do with our anger? In an “age of anger,” is it really prudent to try to put away one’s own anger, leaving anger to the demagogues and the dispossessed people who form their political base?

Should their anger be met with a turned cheek, with forbearance, or with temperate action, as the New Testament, at different points, would suggest? Or should anger be met with anger — the righteous anger that builds movements and fuels opposition?

It can be argued, from recent history, that progressive anger left untransformed into structures is fissiparous and ineffectual. The Occupy Wall Street movement of the fall of 2011 dissipated after its ouster from Zuccotti Park, and by the next May Day it resembled the post-New Left left, a too-big tent of causes and interests. The movement that coalesced around Bernie Sanders during the presidential campaign was unable to press even a single lever of power and convince Hillary Clinton to name Senator Sanders — or Elizabeth Warren, another voice of progressive anger — as her running mate.

It can be argued that anger was useful in itself and that the cessation of anger was the problem — that the left let down its guard. Sanders was a candidate of anger, and some people have observed that for this reason alone he would have been a better Democratic presidential nominee than Hillary Clinton — because he expressed the anger of the electorate. Andrew Sullivan was a blogger of anger — albeit anger that Sullivan often regretted later, wishing he could be more like no-drama Obama. Jon Stewart was an entertainer of anger — of anger at once leavened and spiced by comedy. One way or another, their anger kept the unrighteous anger of the hard right in check. And when their anger was withdrawn — Stewart went off the air, Sullivan went offline, Sanders stepped aside — unrighteous anger prevailed.

Now it sometimes seems that anger is all the left has left. This anger has a certain purifying quality. Sure, CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, freshly set against “truthiness,” is better than it was as a 21st-century chat show. Sure, it’s satisfying to turn to an article in The New York Times and to know that the president is so obviously in error (his claim that the Russia story is “fake news,” for example) that the article is a Listerine shot of hard facts. Sure, there’s a certain clarity in knowing that these are dangerous times and the country is up for grabs. But such anger is practically unsustainable, unless you are Michael Moore or Bill Maher; and even if it were, such anger, it seems to me, is morally unsustainable. The angry person fixated on the mote in his enemy’s eye, so to speak, will miss the beam in his own.

Mishra, concluding his long book, offers no simple prescription about what is to be done. Nor does he fan the flames of apocalypse, claiming that the massed anger of thwarted young men worldwide will lead to violent revolution. Rather, he suggests that the situation is perilous, not calamitous. And he suggests we must begin to lower the temperature, as it were, by recognizing the situation we are in and understanding it.

This is where Lent comes in — and where Mishra’s argument comes to resemble that of Pope Francis, whom he calls “the  most convincing and influential public intellectual today.”

Traditionally, Christian believers “give up” something for Lent in order to detach ourselves from it personally — and, at a deeper level, to gain a better understanding of the structures of need and want, sustenance and pleasure, gain and deprivation and exploitation, that shape our desires.

For those of us in the prosperous pockets of our societies, Mishra proposes, recognizing the situation we are in means recognizing that the majority of the world’s people regard present global society as founded on illegitimate premises: the heedless pursuit of profit, the concentration of power, the enrichment of the elites, and the exhaustion of the earth’s resources.

This state of things should make us angry, yes; but at the same time, it should make us penitent. Mishra explains:

“…it is no longer sufficient to ask ‘Why do they hate us?’ or blame political turpitude, financial malfeasance, and the media. The global civil war is also a deeply intimate event; its Maginot lines run through individual hearts and souls.

We need to examine our own role in the culture that stokes unappeasable vanity and shallow narcissism. We not only need to interpret, in order to make the future less grim, a world bereft of moral certitudes and metaphysical guarantees. Above all, we need to reflect more penetratingly on our complicity in increasingly everyday forms of violence and dispossession, and our callousness before the spectacle of suffering.”

In this strong, nuanced, wise book, Pankaj Mishra has transmuted anger into understanding. I am still angry, but I hope, soon enough, to set aside anger for a few weeks, hard as it may be, and go and do likewise.

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a senior fellow in Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own and Reinventing Bach, and of essays and articles for the Atlantic, New York Times, Vanity Fair, Commonweal, and other periodicals. He blogs regularly at Everything That Rises.

Share Your Reflection


  • gapaul

    “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.” -James Baldwin from “The Negro in American Culture,” Cross Currents, XI (1961)

    The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin – Garrett Keizer

  • Ellen Collins Schaffer

    I too, am attempting to give up petty anger for Lent. Thank you for broadening my self-centered view about anger, much to contemplate. Mishra’s words you quote at the end are timely and powerful “We need to examine our own role in the culture that stokes unappeasable vanity and shallow narcissism.”

  • Gabby

    Intolerance of injustice is important., particularly for those for whom it is all too simple, really, to rest in their personal security and their easy ability to protect their own children or parents or loved ones..

    I can see why people who are truly vulnerable often get angrier when safe people urge calming practices upon them.

    The frequent problem with anger is that it often becomes for people a replacement for doing anything truly constructive, as if being angry and showing anger is somehow enough. Raging anger interferes with the sort of clear thinking that is necessary, though not by any means sufficient, to solve difficult problems.

  • Lynette K. Conat

    I appreciate the article and it makes some important statements regarding our current state of being in this political global arising. I believe I would enjoy Pankaj Mishra’s book very much. Thank you for all the thoughtful and well worded elucidations in what is a broad and integrated commentary. I enjoyed the landscape created by reaching into classical and contemporary political commentary to act as a bridge between the political and the personal. It is laudable as well that you would work to transmute personal anger into something more healthy. I was struck, however, by a few lines that felt discordant with the rest of the piece, “But such anger is practically unsustainable, unless you are Michael Moore or Bill Maher; and even if it were, such anger, it seems to me, is morally unsustainable. The angry person fixated on the mote in his enemy’s eye, so to speak, will miss the beam in his own.’ This seems a rationalization for non-action, a cleaving to powerlessness; to turn a phrase, a spiritual bypassing of a personal call to action. There can be no argument, certainly ponder your own beam. It’s a given. But do we not owe some allegiance to the missives sent from our Temples? Is there not direction in the emotions that plague us? It is convenient to call them demons and caste them out but I fear we miss the opportunity to create political and community transformation with such an action; more personal, could we perhaps even be in danger of missing the opportunity to engage the fullness of our soul longing for itself as we dismiss the cry of our own violation as a pesky, un-wanted, immoral feeling? It is a ponderous, slippery dilemma.

    Drawing on wisdom from other disciplines may shed some light though. In the somatic world of the body/mind, anger is a protective response to violations of person-hood, violations and hurt at and to the heart of us. Something or someone has struck us at the core of our feelings of self, we stand demeaned as humans perhaps, not worthy of care, prosperity, dreams, ability to care for our children or provide a viable means for their potential to flower. For each of us as individuals, self reflection would draw the causal edges of the feelings of violation. It is from this individual felt frame that we would find the next step toward what for each one of us would be specific corrective action. That corrective action would in turn enable a feeling of contribution, empowerment, and meaningful change. What that action might look like can take many forms.

    While it is true most of us do not have large public platforms can however find a way to express our ‘anger’ that can be meaningful to us and the people in our lives. Standing up for what we believe to be appropriate and ‘right’ action in our daily lives can be powerful to the people around us and can be as large a change on the personal level. The decision to shift from a daily life of status quo dis-empowerment and the incumbent resentment, to a personal world of empowerment where small change is meaningful in the larger frame of an unfolding personal power and action trajectory is a powerful antidote to corrosive, seething anger. The domino effect has not lost it’s power and collective small actions do change the world. Connecting to neighbors, short caring conversations in the small stolen moments of our days, and authentic displays of personal power and compassion in the face of indifference; taking time with children for authentic care, conversations, and discovery; reaching out and crossing comfort zones into the land of the other; all are small ways to begin to step out of the status quo, think for ourselves, reacquaint ourselves with our own interiors, and answer the call of anger to ‘do’ something that speaks to our own sense of personal power. The helplessness and hopelessness that is part of the generative engine for this ‘anger’ is answered with action. Anger has a message, it is feedback from the relationship between us and the territory of our lives. Do not let your anger go. Put a saddle on the anger and ride it; let it take you to a more empowered place; to a you that thrives in a more meaningful connected world.

    In this context, it is not about the mote in your brother’s eye, it’s about answering the swift but lingering kick of personal anger with conscious action; it is about contributing to a conscious, caring, reasonable, and practical political and economic world that allows everyone to live with their basic needs met, including you. Yes, pathological anger is ugly. And it feels dangerous and explosive when it is within us. But anger unmanaged and used as a non discriminating weapon is not the truth of anger. Anger is the demand for the articulation of a lost voice. The strength to say ‘no I don’t like that stop,’ and then to catch the hand that moves to strike or rend. It is powerful because it lends needed strength to action. When we use suppression and disassociation to maintain an unsustainable situation we cut ourselves off from the very thing that was sent to pry us loose from the inertia of our demise. This is a pathology that we see daily gesticulating from the podium with the small hands of an angry child impacting our global reality with fear and contracting our personal and collective freedom. Indeed, suppressed and disassociated anger is dangerous.

    And that leads us rather organically into more global terms. Mahatma Gandhi framed the idea of passive violence. I have come to understand it as the indirect suffering caused to many by the unconscious often frivolous consumption and waste of resources by the privileged few. Oddly, most of us able to read this article qualify as the privileged. Perhaps, “the ressentiment identified by Rousseau and named by Nietzsche” when lifted from the territory of the social contract and nation state, and dropped into a global setting, begin to bubble up within the privileged but now struck powerless whom feel the violation of passive violence of our personal resources, both tangible and intangible, for the first time. Such anger far from being ‘morally unsustainable’ is a moral imperative for action. This identification with the feelings of the oppressed may well be what saves the planet and and the all of us. But only if we answer our anger as a call to action. So let go of the seething, absolutely, but let the letting go be of right action, not a convenient disallowing of an uncomfortable demand from the heart of all of us.

    • Andrea Stevens

      This response is exactly correct IMHO! Thank you for your deepening of the issue of anger!

      • Lynette K. Conat

        You are very welcome. And thank YOU Andrea. Your kind words are validating and I appreciate them very much. <3

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      Eloquently articulated, Lynette. I agree that anger can be a catalyst to ‘right action’; and your phrase, “Anger is the demand for the articulation of a lost voice” rings true for me from personal experience of confronting an abuser. I call it ‘clean anger’ meaning one has worked through the ‘seething’, the resentment, the victimhood and finally says what needs to be said. Interestingly, clean anger allowed me to move to genuine forgiveness. Other phrases in your post such as “Put a saddle on the anger and ride it; let it take you to a more empowered place” struck me as exactly the kind of self responsibility I need and want to take around speaking out for the principles in which I believe. Thank you!

      • Lynette K. Conat

        I love your phrase “clean anger” and yes, anger is our strong fence of resistance that often shields the more vulnerable aspects of our feelings, like violation, hurt, and heartbreak that deserve our reflection and self care. Anger can keep us stable until we can sort through the more vulnerable emotional responses that aren’t safe to take out and expose to the air quite yet. I confess I’ve worked through a fair amount of my own victims rage and now also work with clients healing these types of wounds. I love the way this article through the thread of dialogue has spawned a fertile unpacking of the distinctions between ‘petty’ or reactionary anger, and the ‘clean’ anger of self redemption and healing. Thank YOU for your kind words and the thoughtful additions you’ve made. It sounds like you’re walking down a path of great integrity and healing. Deep bow.

        • richardburdsal

          Lynette, I appreciate your reminder of the strength and purpose of anger and how we can use it. I also like the concept of “clean anger” suggested by Mary Lou. I believe, however anger doesn’t come “clean” until we own how we are participating in creating what we are angry about and become willing to allow that to change. Self-reflection is critical to the change/healing process and if I feel angry, it is a sign of my belief in brokenness or vulnerability to being broken. Therefore, I need to be willing to heal what’s broken in me.

          As an alternative to giving up anger, a mentor of mine, Rev Mark Anthony Lord, suggested giving up fear. Fear is often at the root of anger. It is said everything is either fear or love and we get to choose. I think these ideas are supportive of the intent of the original article and enrich all of our thinking, feeling and action, hence our being. Clean anger produces action guided by love. Thank you for contributing to my understanding and self-reflection.

          • Lynette K. Conat

            I would agree Richard that the need for self reflection and ever increasing levels of self-awareness, as well as self responsibility are very much a part of appreciating the originating nuances and often obscure meaning of our emotions, in this case anger. Of course, it is a given. (gentle smile) I do however disagree that everything is either love or fear. That dichotomy (either love or fear), perhaps taken from a domain where it is appropriate in context (spiritual perhaps with a specific lesson outcome?) and different than the one I work in, does not enable enough accuracy to actually address and release a great many emotions that inhibit and obscure our healthy self from fully unfolding into its highest potential of complexity and all manner of higher levels of performance that go with that unfolding. Shame, guilt, victims rage, anguish, self-loathing, hate, terror, grief…and others, minutely distinguished in the buried underground of our suppressed no longer knowing mind can be crippling to the conscious self in body, mind, and spirit. The more specifically we can locate and ‘name’ these exiled emotions, (psychology calls this exile process suppression, repression, and disassociation) the more we can identify, accept, and release them. It is powerfully healing work that transforms lives. So while there may be reasons to reduce the complicated array of emotional responses to our experience to an either/or choice point, for my work and for many working to heal their lives of psychological, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse and neglect, I will continue to endorse and maintain the full array of feeling states. Thank you for taking the time to further this discussion and for the opportunity to clarify my thoughts and commentary. I appreciate very much your contribution to the variety of perspectives on this topic.

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      Eloquently articulated, Lynette. I agree that anger can be a catalyst to ‘right action’; and your phrase, “Anger is the demand for the articulation of a lost voice” rings true for me from personal experience of confronting an abuser. I call it ‘clean anger’ meaning one has worked through the ‘seething’, the resentment, the victimhood and finally says what needs to be said. Interestingly, clean anger allowed me to move to genuine forgiveness. Other phrases in your post such as “Put a saddle on the anger and ride it; let it take you to a more empowered place” struck me as exactly the kind of self responsibility I need and want to take around speaking out for the principles in which I believe. Thank you!

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  • qxpch

    I liked all except two words of this essay: the two words where you called anger on the left “righteous” and anger on the right “unrighteous.” How can you possibly know this?

    Anger is anger. I do not believe there is any biological or psychological difference between righteous anger and unrighteous anger. Anger *always* believes that it is righteous. And anger *always* contains a seed of unrighteousness, if only because it focuses us on our own hurt and not that of others, and it puts us in an unreasoning state of mind.

    • richardburdsal

      Good point. Thanks for speaking out!

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