There are two ways to be angry. One can ruin your life. The other can save it. During these difficult months and years, we’ve all probably felt both kinds of anger—which is fine, but not if we can’t tell one from the other. We may mistake destructive anger for constructive anger and end up creating a world of hurt for ourselves and others.
I learned this recently from an old friend of mine. I mean an oooooolllld friend. Like, he recently turned 756. But for someone so aged, not to mention so dead, he’s been a vibrant source of guidance for me my whole life. His name is Dante Alighieri, and his epic poem, The Divine Comedy, is an incredibly rich source of wisdom. I don’t share Dante’s 13th-century religious beliefs, but damn, the dude was a whiz with psychological metaphors. Here are some ideas I got from him that changed my life.
TWO KINDS OF ANGER
The Divine Comedy describes Dante going on a fictional journey down through hell (the Inferno) and up to heaven (Paradise). Near the bottom of the Inferno, Dante encounters a river of boiling-hot blood. It’s full of former people who lived lives dominated by their own violence. They swim around hating their situation and each other, trying to bite each other’s faces off. Let’s call this kind of anger “blind rage.”
Later, after Dante has passed all the way through the Inferno and is headed up toward Paradise, he encounters another, much less horrifying kind of anger. Various wise souls teach him to deal with injustice or trouble by perceiving problems, making free choices, gaining information, and acting to change upsetting situations. Let’s call this “discerning anger.”
THE BLIND RAGE BRAIN
You can read more about these two types of anger in my next book, The Way of Integrity, which is coming out in April 2021. While researching the book, I learned that blind rage comes from something psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls “the righteous mind.”
There’s a fairly primitive part of our brains that flips into “fight” mode when we feel threatened—even if the threat is only imagined, or if it’s triggered by a total stranger on the internet who happens to disagree with us.
Once this area of the brain takes over, we get angrier and angrier even if nothing changes around us. We may join together with others who share our anger and talk one another into a true fury. Blind rage can turn a group of perfectly normal people into a murderous mob. It gives us one single instruction, no matter what’s happening. That instruction is “ATTACK!”
When this kind of anger is driving us, we KNOW WE ARE RIGHT, and nothing will dissuade us. In fact, if you show righteous raging people solid evidence that directly contradicts their beliefs, their beliefs get stronger, not weaker. Of course this makes no logical sense. But the part of our brains that does blind rage has no access to logic—only to the white-hot conviction that we are ABSOLUTELY RIGHT and others are ABSOLUTELY WRONG and we must keep attacking until EVERYONE AGREES WITH US.
THE DISCERNING BRAIN
Where blind rage is all about passing judgment, discerning anger is about making judgments. When our discerning minds experience something that triggers anger, we don’t dive immediately into that river of boiling blood and start biting faces. Instead we take a deep breath and a closer look. We get curious. What are the facts at play in this situation? What really happened? Why are people arguing, and what do they really want?
Often, the discerning mind finds unexpected information, opens up new perspectives, allows compassion for others, and invents creative solutions that actually solve our problems. It lacks the punch of self-righteous satisfaction that comes from blind rage. But it makes our lives—and the world—better.
If you decide to react to upsetting situations with blind rage, you may enjoy that initial plunge into boiling blood. It may thrill you to post a shaming, judgmental Facebook post, or spend hours gossiping with a friend (who probably gossips about you with others, since gossip is a blood sport people often play for pleasure). But the good feeling won’t last. Blind rage gives us the kind of energy people get from a hit of cocaine. Discerning anger gives us the kind of energy people get from healthy food.
BLIND RAGE VERSUS DISCERNING ANGER: A QUICK COMPARISON CHART
When we’re caught up in the moment, it can be hard to tell which kind of anger we’re feeling. Here’s a list I created for myself and included in The Way of Integrity. It helps me recognize whether I’m raging or discerning. I hope it does the same for you.
|BLIND RAGE||DISCERNING ANGER|
|Passes judgment very quickly
Motivates actions that increase anger
Sees all people as “us versus them”
Resists new information
Never exercises empathy
Insists on its own infallibility
|Makes judgments very carefully
Motivates actions that reduce anger
Sees all people as connected
Seeks and absorbs new information
Always exercises empathy
Acknowledges it is fallible
Staying out of the left-hand column and spending our angry time in the right-hand column can be the difference between a life in the Inferno and a path to Paradise. So how do we get out of blind rage and into discerning anger? Here’s a step-by-step process that works for me.
EXERCISE: SWAPPING BLIND RAGE FOR DISCERNING ANGER
Step One: Recognize Blind Rage
The first step in escaping blind rage is recognizing we’re in it. At some point during a ranting volley of enraged emails with a family member, or a physical mob that turns violent, or decades of fondling the same hidden resentment, we realize, “This is not getting me to happiness. It’s just wearing me out.” We may have a moment of manic glee when we manage to hurt someone we hate, but it’s not joy, and it doesn’t last.
Once we’ve recognized that our anger is hurting us, rather than making us happy, it’s time to switch from blind rage to discerning anger. Here’s one way to do that.
Step Two: Focus on Your Core Values
Psychologist Steven Hayes discovered that when we stop focusing on other people’s “badness” and look instead at our own values, we shut down our “fight” response. In effect, we climb, blinking, out of our own boiling blood.
Hayes suggests defining our values by joining two words, a verb and an adverb. This two-word combo should summarize a value you want to live: Loving unconditionally, seeking constantly, teaching inspirationally, or whatever works for you. Think: What verb+adverb combination describes a core value you hold right now?
You may notice that just thinking about this, coming up with a value statement, shifted you to a more thoughtful, less reactive mindset. You’re already succeeding! Go you!
Step Three: Make Something Helpful
Once you’ve got a firm mind-hold on your values, ask yourself this: “In relation to the issue that upsets me, what is the most useful thing I can create?”
Let the answer come up on its own, without too much thought. You may end up doing almost anything: adopting a stray cat, cooking a meal for a COVID-trapped neighbor, running for office, cleaning garbage off the roadside, setting up a meditation spot and using it.
DESTRUCTION VERSUS CREATION
Getting out of blind rage and into discerning anger is key to creating better lives for ourselves and a better world for everyone. No matter what our opinions are, no matter what we’re arguing about, staying out of blind rage and in discerning anger is the difference between living in the Inferno and heading toward Paradise.
Speaking of ancient stories, there’s an old Zen parable about a samurai who, after much spiritual seeking, goes to question a great meditation master. The samurai bows deeply and asks the master, “Please tell me: Are heaven and hell real?”
“Why should I tell you that, you freaking moron?” says the master (or words to that effect). The samurai’s face goes beet-red. He draws his sword and screams, “I’ll kill you!”
The Zen master just says, “This is hell.”
It takes a moment for the samurai to get the point. The moment it does, he sheaths his sword, kneels, and places his forehead on the ground in a gesture of humility, respect, and gratitude.
The Zen master just says, “This is heaven.”
Let’s follow advice from wise folks like Dante. Even when we’re angry, let’s not topple into that river of boiling blood. Let’s examine problems and create everything we can to solve them, rather than using all our energy just to hate and attack our enemies. Whenever we’re faced with a choice between discerning anger and blind rage, between heaven and hell, let’s choose heaven.