Anger and Power - Boiling Over vs. Digging In

Whether it is in your newsfeed or your personal life, or both, you can probably find specimens of power, anger and rage, as well as grief before you break a sweat. Or maybe you were already sweating… So what is the strange equation that ties them all together? And with it, what alchemy must we apprentice ourselves to in learning what connects them?

A basic distinction to begin with - anger points us to where we need a healthy boundary - a limitation on power. Rage points us to where anger (and it’s boundary-assertion capacity) have not been allowed to work, and have reached a volatile tipping point. How and where anger gets distilled into rage are questions that reach even further into power, as expressed in social norms and taboos. Bonus - see Karla McLaren's article for more on anger.

Impotent rage is especially visible in the world these days, as it ties directly into the issue of power. When confronted with situations of powerlessness, this rage is one reaction. It is somewhere at every protest and counter-protest. Some act it out there, some take it elsewhere to play out in less recognizable form. It’s not unique to any political leaning, religion, ethnic background, or gender, though these all influence how it gets acted out as well as the consequences for those who do. What shows through the contours of rage is the landscape of power and privilege in our society.

“When the powerful begin to feel their impotence, when the masters begin to feel their captivity, we have reached a point where we are finally becoming conscious that the social system we have all conspired to create is victimizing us all.” Sam Keen, Fire in the Belly

While we look for it reflexively in politics or the media, power is woven into the fabric of every relationship in our lives. It’s here that we often deny its presence, but that we stand to wield it with the grace so often expected of our politicians, celebrities, or other public figures. But to do so requires humility. This humility, as its root - humus - reminds us, is in connecting to the soil, the earth beneath our feet. In other words, reworking our relationship to power involves both digging and falling.

Digging In

The movement of anger and rage is up and out - it aims toward whoever or whatever we suspect has taken our power. Follow the thread the other way - digging down to its roots, and it points to where we feel powerless or vulnerable. Here, we find our grief, the medicine that a blazing rage calls for.

Digging our hands into the layers of our personal and collective stories, we quickly reach beneath the surface-level stories of a globalized culture.  Too often, these don’t touch on the literal connection between people and the earth - where they lived, what they took, what they gave back, and how they kept a balance. In most cases, any sense of powerlessness stretches back much further than the personal narrative we might have - to a time when our own ancestors lost their deep connection to the land where they lived. Many then moved on elsewhere - damaging the rooted power of the people they found where they settled or colonized. In our digging, we find pain over what came to our people, and in many cases over what they brought upon others. 

Looking at grief through an indigenous perspective, along with its relationship to revenge, connected strongly here with rage, author and storyteller Martìn Prechtel tells us that “…a lot of cultures who claim to ‘know’ their history know it very selectively and use it to rationalize their present policies of revenge against their former oppressors,” or I would add, against anyone deemed a threat to their policies. “Better that people remember how in the past the freezing of grief into revenge made a people who cannot stay out of eternal binges of loss, violence, killing, hatred, and a sense of righteous victimization.” (from The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise). Breaking the cycle of violence calls for us to ‘thaw’ the grief where it has frozen in our histories, and to begin letting it soak into our actions.

Several days ago marked Holocaust Remembrance Day and we’re now a few days into Black History Month. As these and other recent news call up the question of who belongs where, they connect us to several millennia of history of displaced people. Anger of various forms can captivate the collective attention. Ugly as we may judge it to be, it has the appearance of “doing something” in a culture that prizes “doing something”. There is a seductive whiff of righteousness and power to it (even if it is only in reaction to someone else’s power). Grief, on the other hand, often looks suspiciously like doing nothing. But taking this pause - whether it’s in meditation, therapy, time in nature, or time with an attentive loved one - is essential to metabolizing the intensity of learning a different paradigm of power.

Anger and rage are in fact a call to take action in our lives. The vulnerability in grief calls us to listen for how we can act in ways that tend to what has wounded us and our world, rather than magnifying the wound and passing it off to another generation.

How are you called to action today? What calls you to grieve?