A Poison Tree
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole.
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see,
My foe outstretchd beneath the tree.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
An old Grandfather, whose grandson came to him angry at a schoolmate who had done him an injustice, said, "I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do. But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. I have struggled with these feelings many times. It is as if there are two wolves inside me; one is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him and does not take offence when no offence was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way. But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He wishes to fight everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit."
The boy looked intently into his Grandfather's eyes and asked, "Which one wins Grandfather?"
The grandfather answered quietly: “The one I feed”
There can be no doubt about the destructive potential of anger. Like a sudden sword-thrust, a burst of anger can penetrate its target, wound and leave a scar that never completely fades. The scriptures of Jainism tell us “Anger dissolves affection.... Therefore man should subvert anger by forgiveness.” The bible heaps praise on those who are able to resist becoming angry. In the book of Proverbs, it is written that “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who takes a city.”
We know that forgiveness is good. We know that anger can destroy, but it’s not as simple as all that. So, let’s begin to explore anger, what it does to others, what it does to us, and how, in some ways, it might not be as bad as all that…
Religion – and particularly Christianity – has thoroughly disapproved of anger. It has gone further than that to condemn those who become angry! In the New Testament gospel of Matthew, Jesus is reported to say:
“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘…everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”
According to the scripture of Christianity then, anger, which is one of the seven deadly sins after all, is not only a bad idea, it is not only harmful, it is punishable by eternal damnation!
Lest you think that it’s only a religious issue, anger has been soundly trounced by secular sources too. Albert Einstein, for one, condemns it vigorously. “Anger” he says “dwells only in the bosom of fools.”
With all this denunciation of anger, you might imagine that there would be none left – we’d have excised this evil from our hearts and we would now be living in an anger-free paradise, right? Well, no… of course not. And the effect of trying to make it so can create problems of its own. For many of us – those who try their best to be kind and understanding to others – anger has been forced to go underground. Sometimes it goes so far underground that we don’t even know when we are angry.
Pushing away anger does not help. In our first reading today, William Blake describes how when he “told his anger” it ended but when he “told it not”, it simply grew, bringing forth the poisoned fruit that left his foe lifeless. Ignoring anger often has the paradoxical effect of strengthening it as Emily Dickinson captured in two simple lines: “Anger as soon as fed is dead - 'Tis starving makes it fat.”
Not only is it actually counterproductive to ignore or stifle anger, it is actually OK to be angry. It is not a sin. No matter what you were told in church or what your parents said, you will not be punished for feeling angry. We would do well to follow the counsel of Rumi’s poem, The Guest House, that each thought and emotion should be welcomed in – none should be turned away like an undesirable visitor.
But, as we said, anger can be a very destructive force. When anger is not faced constructively, its poisonous fruit begins to grow and ripen – it can make enemies of friends, turn understanding into suspicion, and bring war where there is peace. Anger’s poison destroys not only its target though.
The Buddha described holding on to anger to be “like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” We have all known people who have kept an anger or resentment alive for years - perhaps for a whole lifetime. Perhaps we have done it ourselves. Too often we fail to see that the anger we hold, harms no one but ourselves.
Does anger serve any useful purpose?
Some would say it does not.
These words are from the Hindu scriptures:
Why, sir, do you get angry at someone
Who is angry with you?
What are you going to gain by it?
How is he going to lose by it?
Your physical anger brings dishonor on yourself;
Your mental anger disturbs your thinking.
How can the fire in your house burn the neighbor's house
Without engulfing your own?
But the anger described here is anger that is not acted upon. This certainly can not be of help, but can anger not move us to useful action?
Bede Jarrett - an English Dominican Friar known for his willingness to engage with the challenges of this life considered anger to be a necessity: “The world needs anger.” He wrote. “The world often continues to allow evil because it isn't angry enough.”
Anger can rouse us from our complacency. It can be a messenger that shows us things that are wrong and can give us the energy to do something about it. Henry Ward Beecher, a 19th Century Congregationalist minister believed anger to be essential to ethical living. In his words, “A man that does not know how to be angry does not know how to be good.”
In this way, anger can be a gift.
Religious practice has long been thought to exist in two modes: the pastoral and the prophetic. The pastoral mode appears in care and community. Whatever our conception of God, we may understand that it is the sacred power of love that undergirds our pastoral impulse and action.
Prophetic religion is embodied in speaking truth to power. Prophets are those who tell us what is wrong with the world - they cry out against unfairness. They open our eyes to unnecessary suffering. They decry greed and cruelty. They call the people to righteousness and justice.
Love plays a role in the prophetic mode of religion, but anger is essential too. If love is a message from the divine, is anger not also?
And so, we need not be ashamed of our anger. Indeed, we can be proud of it for it motivates us to right the wrongs of the world. Right? Well, not so fast…
Consider these words from Frederick Buechner:
“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savour to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back -- in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
I recall being involved in a very heated dispute. It lasted over a period of several weeks. The situation upset me, of course. But it did something else too. Each conversation, each confrontation, each angry email message brought a feeling of excitement and strength. It made me feel strangely vital and alive.
At last, I found my centre again and began to treat my new enemy with compassion and understanding. The confrontation soon ended amicably. This was the outcome I wanted and so I expected to feel peaceful and satisfied about the happy end of this clash. I did. But I also felt in a way disappointed - I found myself missing the energy and exhilaration that came with battle.
Anger can be deceptively alluring. Often, it replaces or cloaks other feelings that are too hard to experience of themselves - feelings of shame or guilt or grief or fear. Certainly, this is something of which we must be cautious.
In the end, though, we can not simply get rid of anger. We can not prevent it from arising. Anger, on its own, is not wrong or right - it simply is.
What we must consider is not vanquishing anger, but using it, harnessing it. Like fire, we must learn to know the properties of our anger and how to use it to pursue the good for ourselves and for others.
I suggest that there are two ways to respond to anger: with judgement or with curiosity.
D.H. Lawrence wrote this: “The only justice is to follow the sincere intuition of the soul, angry or gentle. Anger is just, and pity is just, but judgment is never just.”
Anger is just. Pity is just. Judgment is never just.
Judgement is the quick way out of the discomfort that anger can bring. Judgement says “you are responsible for my anger.” Judgement seeks revenge. Judgement seeks to cause pain. Judgement wants victory rather than peace.
Curiosity is the other response to anger. When we are curious, we do not fall into our anger. The curious response is to notice the anger that has arisen and to enquire of it: what message does this anger have for me? We can ask: Why has this anger appeared? What external influences have played a role? What is it in me that has responded to those influences? What can I do about this? What should I do?
Curiosity gives us room to learn about ourselves and others. It gives us the space and the perspective we need to understand the world around us.
Rumi writes: “Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
Curiosity allows us to understand our anger as a message – an inspiration – a guide – a revelation. It can turn us from a path of vengeance, to a path of growth and justice.
There are two wolves battling within us. One seeks judgement and vengeance. The other is curious, and leads to the path of harmony.
Which will you feed?