The Wise Use of Anger – A Lesson for (Us) Namby-Pamby Liberals

Rafferty VideoIn my last two posts I have counseled thoughtfulness, caution, and compassion in our speech and actions as we navigate our new political environment. That’s my job, as a priest and Zen teacher.

However, the other day I watched this video, Aftermath 2016 by Tess Rafferty (click here for 3.5 minute version), and something in me recognized a truth I can’t ignore. In sharing this video, part of me worries that as a priest I shouldn’t associate myself with anything embellished with f-words and opinionated passion. Part of me wants to stay in safe, neutral territory and talk only about love, acceptance, and compassion. But another part of me cares deeply about this world and doesn’t mind taking risks in order help us wake up out of our slumber.

I’m not endorsing everything Rafferty says, or the way she says it, but I’m glad she’s saying it, and I’m glad she’s saying it the way she’s saying it. There’s something skillful and appropriate about standing up and speaking with passion and conviction – even if it’s tinged with anger and you’re a liberal who aspires to moral perfection.

Part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in, as I see it, is that as liberals, or progressives, or whatever you call us, we have ended up appearing namby-pamby to our opponents because of our fear of being wrong, judgmental, angry, attached to our views, etc. We’re too ready to deflate the point we’re making by saying, “Well, it’s just my opinion…” or “I realize this is just my view…” or “I don’t know for sure what the answer is…”

What do I mean by namby-pamby? “Lacking in character, directness, or moral or emotional strength; without firm methods or policy; weak or indecisive.” (Definition from Dictionary.com)

We have ended up appearing namby-pamby because we haven’t been speaking the language of our opponents. We’ve been acting like a kid who gets beat up at school every day, who hopes that the beatings will stop if he just appeals to his bully’s better nature, or tells the teacher. It’s great to try the path of reason and diplomacy first, but when that doesn’t work? When those approaches actually just make things worse? Isn’t there a time when it’s okay to stand up and punch the bully back with everything we have?

The obvious question for those of us who aspire to wisdom and compassion is this: How do we let our anger motivate and strengthen us without succumbing to its intoxicating poison?

There is no easy answer to this, and we may have to struggle with the question every single time we speak or act, but one thing’s for certain: we have to let our anger motivate and strengthen us without succumbing to its intoxicating poison.

As to the “how” of our question, here’s what I’m thinking today:

Anger arises when we perceive that something needs to be protected. How can we respond to it wisely?

First, we make a judgment call – quickly enough to allow us to act effectivelyWe may or may not be right that something needs protecting, so we need to check our information and question ourselves. We may not know the best way to go about protecting something. But sometimes things do need protecting, now. We’re not always imagining it. Then what? We can’t wait until we’re morally perfect, superhuman, enlightened, an absolute expert, or have the buy-in of everyone involved. If it looks like that guy is about to hit his girlfriend, we intervene somehow. If it looks like a corporation is about to endanger the sacred lands and water of indigenous people purely for profit, we obstruct their activities. If our president elect says he’s going to register and target a whole group of people based only on their religion, we find whatever ways we can to stop that from happening. Or we can sit on the sidelines waiting to be absolutely sure we’re right and above reproach while the world falls apart.

Second, we stay connected to our desire to protect. We need that energy in order to face opposition and stay the course. We need that passion in order to speak with conviction and move others. This may mean flirting with anger, and that may sometimes cause us to speak and act in ways we regret. Then we correct ourselves and apologize.

Third, we keep our minds and hearts open even as we keep moving forward. If the situation changes, or if new information comes to light, we have to be ready to change our response. We know we can never be Absolutely Right. That’s one thing most of us liberals are pretty good at remembering. As long as we don’t let that knowledge prevent us from acting, we are decently inoculated against arrogance, blindness, self-righteousness, vilifying others, and all the other scenarios we’re so scared of.

Each of us has to navigate our own way between passivity and aggression, but we should remember that our religions don’t just give us guidelines about what not to do – they also lay out what our responsibilities are. In my tradition of Buddhism, we take a vow to “save all sentient beings.” If we take that vow seriously, we can’t ignore or suppress our anger. We have to find a way to channel it wisely.

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