When one becomes angry, what is it that one wants at an essential level? One wants to break or to hurt something. Generally, especially if one is prone to “lashing out,” the nearest thing to hurt, is one’s self. Is then the fundamental drive of anger to bring about a pain which has a clarifying and dissipating effect on anger? For if one, for instance, punches a wall while angry, is not one generally met with a feeling of personal pain which leads one to a reflection on the power of pain to affect one’s mind and actions, and often with a feeling of shame at “losing control”? What, then, is the reason or teleology (purpose) of anger? Is the point to act quickly, and without thought, or is it to learn more about one’s self and steel one’s self against that which upsets one? Essentially, does anger exist to give one the power to harm what one does not like or to understand what one does not like in a rational manner so as no longer to be subject to anger?
Consider it, if one generally simply causes one’s self additional pain and effort while angry, obviously the point of anger is not to be angry. Even the physical or temporal end of anger is clearly not the same as its purpose. Say one punches a wall, or says something “out of left field” and cruel to a friend, or sits and stews in anger after striking out in baseball game and refuses to say “good game” to anyone for several minutes at a time. What, exactly, do these actions accomplish beyond straining or breaking some relationship or another without one’s reason signing off on the action? Nothing beyond offering one the opportunity to “let the anger pass.” Therefore, the point of the anger is not the anger itself, but what came before and what comes after.
In recent articles, we have been considering the value of mistakes. And this is what anger has to offer in the way of teleology: that which makes one angry, a look, word, action, or situation that causes one to lose control and act out of spite or in anger tells one very valuable knowledge: what causes one to lose control. One may then dispel one’s anger in any manner of healthy and unhealthy ways and then after, one must deal with first the consequences of one’s anger–what one did while “out-of-control”, and if these happen to be very minor, then one can get to the business of reflecting on why the anger occurred in the first place. The teleology or purpose of one’s anger then is to (1) figure out what caused one’s anger, and (2) reflect on why that event or action caused such a strong reaction. Perhaps one has been on edge lately, or a problem has finally escalated to high a level, or perhaps something much more deeply seated. In any case, after one has been angry, one then has the opportunity to examine one’s self, and in so doing one may realize a fundamental fact about one’s self and how one, and likely others, operate.
At an effective level, one can then “correct” the mistake by either removing one’s self in the future from the company of such an individual or from being in whatever situation caused the anger. Such solutions are superficial, however, because how can one predict, really, when one will be upset by a word, action, or event unless one goes through the trouble of really understanding why the stimulus creates the reaction it does? In order truly to learn, then, one must look to the reason that “one’s goat was got”. Is one perhaps trying to force a situation or person to bend to one’s will? Is one failing to recognize a basic fact of human existence? Is one failing to make a personal choice and projecting it onto everybody one meets? The reasons, like the heads of a hydra, are countless, but the situation of being angry is universal and therefore an opportunity, when correctly perceived, to understand one’s self and therefore humanity. For as the Chandogya Upanishad says:
“As by knowing one tool of iron, dear one,
We come to know all things made out of iron:
That they differ only in name and form,
While the stuff of which all are made is iron–
So through that spiritual wisdom, dear one,
We come to know that all of life is one.”
(Chandogya Upanishad, 1.6: Easwaran tr. 2nd ed. 2012)
Know the reason for one’s anger, and know better one’s self. Know better one’s self and know better humanity.