On “righteous anger”


There’s a great piece in today’s New York Times by political cartoonist Tim Kreider on the seductiveness of hatred and indignation. He even mentions meditation. Here’s an extract, but I’d recommend reading the entire piece (which continues below the accompanying cartoon — I was briefly fooled).

Kreider talks about how addictive anger can be, and how we can find ourselves in the position of seeking out things to be annoyed about.

A couple of years ago, while meditating, I learned something kind of embarrassing: anger feels good. Although we may consciously experience it as upsetting, somatically it feels a lot like the first rush of an opiate — a tingling warmth on the insides of your elbows and wrists, in the back of your knees. Realizing that anger was a physical pleasure explained some of the perverse obstinacy with which my mind kept returning to it despite the fact that, intellectually, I knew it was pointless self-torture.

Once I realized I enjoyed anger, I noticed how much time I spent experiencing it. If you’re anything like me, you spend about 87 percent of your mental life winning imaginary arguments that are never actually going to take place. It seems like most of the fragments of conversation you overhear in public consist of rehearsals for, or reenactments of, just such speeches: shrill litanies of injury and injustice, affronts to common sense and basic human decency too grotesque to be borne. You don’t even have to bother eavesdropping; just listen for that high, whining tone of incredulous aggrievement. It sounds like we’re all telling ourselves the same story over and over: How They Tried to Crush My Spirit (sometimes with the happy denouement: But I Showed Them!)

Outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out. And it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure. We prefer think of it as a disagreeable but fundamentally healthy involuntary reaction to negative stimuli thrust upon us by the world we live in, like pain or nausea, rather than admit that it’s a shameful kick we eagerly indulge again and again.

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • A great piece . . . I may have to print it out and post it somewhere where I can re-read it on a regular basis.

  • Hi Bodhipaksa:

    I play that game a lot with my stepdaughter and I am well aware of how seductive yet toxic it is.

    I also distanced myself from a meditation group I was sitting with in part because of the sanctioning of “righteous anger” in the teachings of their main guru ( Sivananda Yoga as I recall ). I actually got a direct taste of that teaching in action as the chief yoga instructor furiously berated another student in my presence for having walked into the class at an inopportune moment.

    It is clear to me that talking about righteous anger and indignation is just giving one’s self an excuse for the expression of anger that one desperately wants to feel or express. In my own case at least, the real object of my anger and hatred are me, at least that’s what it feels like when I allow myself to be consumed by these emotions.

    In the case of the Somali pirates I remember thinking that it would be hard to reproach those men for what they had become bearing in mind where they were from. I generally don’t watch the news but it is funny how they always report the maximum sentence that an accused person might receive and almost never raise the question as to what might make a given person behave so monstrously.

    At the moment I would have to count Kim Jung Il and Robert Mugabe as the two people about whom I am capable of feeling outrage. Tough to feel compassion for people who have been the cause of such suffering.

  • Hi Ed,

    Yes, I too am very suspicious of “righteous anger.” All too often it’s a thin disguise for hatred towards others and to oneself. I think anger can be a creative force — the harnessing of energy in pursuit of a goal, but it has to be handled very carefully and tempered with wisdom. The example you give of someone being publicly humiliated for transgressing a rule of etiquette comes nowhere near what I’m thinking of as an acceptable use of anger. In fact the anger in that case is more of a violation of etiquette than the inopportune arrival.

    I think you make a very good point about realizing where other people are coming from. When my 2 1/2 year old daughter is misbehaving (she sometimes hits or pinches when she’s frustrated) I remind myself that this is just the unfolding of forces in her developing psyche and I find that my heart opens in compassion for her — even at the moment she’s trying to hit me!

    Ekhart Tolle says in Stillness Speaks: “If her past were your past, her pain your pain, her level of consciousness your level of consciousness, you would think and act exactly as she does.”

    It’s also the case (as I’ve written elsewhere on this site) that the majority of people in prison have inherited personality disorders that make it hard for them to empathize and to consider the future consequences of their actions. We find it easy to have compassion for someone who has inherited a physical defect, like deafness or cystic fibrosis, but more difficult to sympathize with an inherited predisposition towards antisocial behavior.


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