Peacemaking and anger

Gene Stoltzfus
By Gene Stoltzfus
14 Jan 2008

Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way... that is not easy. - Aristotle

Blasts of raw emotion that can best be named anger occasionally overcome us when we think we are doing good. Usually it surprises us. Our muscles, heartbeat, colour, and physical appearance is affected. This is true in the work of peacemaking even though very wise people teach us that anger is a disastrous position from which to solve human problems.

In warfare soldiers are taught to integrate anger into a state of hatred of the enemy. Just because we are peacemakers does not mean we have overcome the frozen state of hatred. It takes embarrassingly long for people like me to learn that anger is a gift for transformation.

In Iraq, Palestine, Philippines, Viet Nam and elsewhere I have listened to the stories of prisoners after their release or escape who were arrested, beaten and often tortured. For about 85% of these victims their manner is calm, reflective, restrained and even occasionally humorous. The remaining 15% continue to be angry and lash out at me or others during the conversations and at their community and other nations. Their anger has been frozen into hatred.

Over time I learned that most of us, although we are not tortured, are tempted to the permanent state of hatred. I suspect but cannot prove that those whose lives take on a persona of hating had preexisting experiences that made hatred the only credible mode for survival.

In view of the pain and trauma of their experiences I have been repeatedly impressed with the calm demeanor of former detainees. When I question them, I am told that anger and its cousin hatred doesn’t help. Hollering or attacking guards makes things worse. And, now after release they want to get on with life in a way that no one else will have to suffer.

Occasionally I have received profound insights into life from some of the former captives, on the level that I had once noticed in the stories of martyrs.

In my childhood, anger was viewed as usually wrong, an emotion that is best suffered alone and in silence. However, this view was moderated by a competing and emerging notion that anger should be talked out. I learned that bottling things up choked off energy, made me tired and suspicious of the world. I never could sustain long periods of sealed anger. But letting it out in uncontrolled outbursts accomplished little.

The notion that it might be possible to get comfortable with anger was still fighting for a place in my mind in the same region that lodged spiritual beliefs that anger was bad. My conversations with former political prisoners helped me take another look.

As I grew in the work of peacemaking I noticed that about once a month a person would enter my life who made me mad - by way of a telephone call, a visit, or an email. I was actually quite impressed with the power of my anger. Usually the source was not from the war makers or torturers. It was from the people who I thought I should be working with.

Over time, I learned that my immediate response was not my best. When I went home, despite my best efforts to conceal my outrage, my wife would see the signs in my speech or my body within moments. When she inquired, my first response was denial. After an interlude of two or more hours, some very useful conversations were possible.

Eventually I learned to get over it by talking about it, and by writing an angry letter to whoever did it to me, for no one else to read, and then rereading the letter a day later. By giving myself a day I had time to regain some composure. My body language returned to normal and I could vacillate between laughter and embarrassment at the letter I had written just twelve or twenty-four hours earlier. The letter was expunged or edited and I was able to organize myself to respond to the source of my anger.

I learned that raw anger is devoid of creativity but with distance and perspective I am able to organize a healthier response.

Over time I learned that anger was my ally, an ignition for firm truth telling. By maturing through my occasional bouts of anger I could see how the lack of mellowing can lead to a state of hatred where no one grows or wins. Hatred is not the base for a workable society.

Anger turned inward prohibits joyfulness and just relations. Generations of anger turned inward can create a stifling culture. I wish I would have had the ability to integrate anger into my life 40 years ago. I might have been able to help groups who got stuck on manners, convictions and behaviours (sometimes described as politically correct) to get to the next step of real connections.

-----------

(c) Gene Stoltzfus. The author is a founder of Christian Peacemaker Teams, an initiative of the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Quakers) with support and membership from a range of Catholic and Protestant denominations. Supporting violence-reduction and transformative nonviolence efforts around the world is its mandate. Gene writes regularly at http://gstoltzfus.blogspot.com/ - on which this article was orginally published. Reproduced with grateful thanks.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.