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As a Fire Burns a Forest – 11/6/2011

A man stands in the bread aisle of a super market, wearing a wrinkled, bedraggled tuxedo. He selects a bag of hot dog buns from the shelf, tares open the plastic and pulls out four of the rolls, tossing them back on top of the unchosen buns. Satisfied, he twists the bag closed again and tosses it into his cart.

This image comes from the movie Father of the Bride – the Steve Martin version – in which the titular character struggles with all the possible, and some seemingly impossible, frustrations and indignities of being a, well, Father of the Bride. Steve Martin’s character has reached his limit: the house full of unwanted guests, the prospective son-in-law he disdains, the ballooning cost of the whole affair – he just has to get away from it all. And so he has escaped on an errand to the local super market.

One of the market’s employees sees the customer doing this and asks him what he’s doing. With the tension in his voice rising, the father responds, “I’ll tell you what I’m doing. I want to buy 8 hot dogs and 8 hot dog buns to go with them. But no one sells 8 hot dog buns. They only sell 12 hot dog buns, so I end up paying for 4 buns I don’t need. So, I am removing the superfluous buns.”

When the clerk is unsatisfied with this response, the angry customer launches into a rant about the root cause of this injustice: collusion between the manufacturers of hot dogs and hot dog buns. An assistant manager is summoned, the irate customer escalates the matter further and finally tries to make a break for it, pushing his cart the whole time, before crashing into something or other and landing in jail.[i]

While I have never started a one-sided shouting match with a supermarket clerk, there have been times in my life that I have gotten angry or upset about something just as ridiculous as this. I look back on those moments and a shudder to see myself as such a fool. Its not enough to stop my getting angry again in the future; anger is a powerful emotion, and I find that I can still be goaded into it by some silly and petty things. But it does make me shake my head, and feel a little sheepish.

You see, I was raised a Unitarian Universalist, and while we are not all of us pacifists, we are generally a peace-oriented movement. We highly value love, trust, reconciliation and forgiveness, and in this setting anger was not an aspect of my self that was encouraged. Particularly as a male, there was a sense that my anger was a dangerous thing; it needed to be tightly controlled and maintained, and it wasn’t appropriate in basically any situation or context.

Now, each of us has had our own upbringing and experience, but I would venture to guess that many of us here today have an uneasy relationship with anger. Because the idea that anger needs to be tamped down and restrained is a very common one. For people who grow up female, especially, there is a message that pervades our culture and says that showing anger is not appropriate or acceptable or polite – its not what good girls do. In the Simpsons movie from a few years ago, daughter Lisa is understandably angry with her father for his senseless pollution of a local lake. Her mother Marge tries to change the subject. “But I’m just so angry.” Lisa responds. “You’re a woman, you can hold onto it forever,” her mother instructs.

Nonetheless, anger is a part of each of us. And because it is a hard emotion to endure: both on the giving and the receiving end, many of us look for ways to reduce our anger’s ability to shape what we do and how we live our lives. In fact, many religious traditions offer ways of addressing or transforming the anger we have within ourselves. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist teacher and peace activist has devoted much of his public work to encouraging others to move through and beyond their anger. In one striking image, he counsels his students to approach their anger as a mother would treat her infant child. When we become angry, he instructs, we must not ignore or suppress the feeling, just as a parent would not ignore the cries of their young child. We must respond by embracing it and giving it our full attention – this will help to relieve our anger, as a child is relieved to be held in its mother’s arms. In that embrace, we can learn from our anger what is wrong, what needs to be addressed. Ultimately, the goal is to express anger peacefully and carefully.[ii]

The teaching in Buddhism, in fact in most religious traditions, is not to run away from anger. But in the context of a our wider culture, strategies like Thich Nhat Hanh’s can sometimes be oversimplified and misrepresented as ways of overcoming our anger. So when in our work of prayer or meditation or yoga or any other spiritual practice, we encounter our anger, we may attempt to misuse these tools to do away with something that we deeply need to feel.

The necessity of anger, its purpose and its meaning, is a lesson that took me a long time to learn. I had to address it, however, as part of the process of my own justice work, of seeking to affect positive change in myself and others. Compassion is a powerful force, and listening to someone, holding their hand and affirming the best parts of them while offering sympathy against their worst habits and inclinations – that can sometimes help folks to become kinder, and more loving and understanding. But used all on its own, compassion has its limits; it can only take you so far.

Several years ago I became involved, really through a bumbling series of well-intentioned but wildly ignorant choices, with a campaign to support a group of hotel workers who were trying to form a union. These folks, who worked long hours for low pay in a very expensive and profitable hotel were being harassed, intimidated, and in some cases forced to quit their jobs by a management that was determined to keep them from using their right to bargain collectively. I found out about the case and I read up on it a bit. I went to meetings where I heard from the workers themselves about their situation and the wrongness of it. My compassion was fully engaged, as I nodded and shook my head and listened patiently.

Still utterly green-around the gills I went along on my first delegation: a trip with several other students to the hotel to find the manager or the highest placed person we could and challenge them directly to change their ways. It went alright; to be honest with you I don’t remember doing much other than watching and standing near the back. But then, some weeks later, when the hotel owners still refused to budge, it was time for a second delegation, and when the group gathered this time I found myself one of the people elected to lead it. You see, I was one of the few there who had actually been on a delegation before.

Now I was in trouble. To stare down that manager was going to take something more than compassion, and an intellectual understanding that his policies were wrong. I was scared. On the way to the hotel, I did my best to put on a brave face, and I thought about one of the hotel workers I’d met. She was in her early 50s; she’d worked the same job for more than 20 years. She’d been one of the earliest and loudest voices calling for a union, and when she ignored hints from her supervisor that she should be quiet, her job description was suddenly changed to give her a whole new set of tasks. Tasks that she’d never been asked to do before, and that, after decades working in a physically demanding job, she could not do without causing herself a whole lot of pain. It was clear that her bosses were trying to force her to quit in order to protect her health.

I thought about her story and I began to feel what it only made sense to feel about it: angry. It was a feeling I was very uncomfortable having, but since I was already in an uncomfortable situation, playing the appointed expert at something I’d only ever seen done once before, I didn’t have much time even to choke it down. And that, it turned out, made all the difference. We met one of the managers – when 30 people show up in your lobby talking about worker rights, you usually have to send somebody – and I had to do the talking. He didn’t break down crying or anything; he didn’t have some sort of hallelujah conversion moment. But I got through what I had to say. I didn’t hang back and listen politely to his counterarguments, I was mad, we all were. And I let him know that, civilly but forcefully. And while I wouldn’t flatter myself with any credit, I did feel some satisfaction weeks later when goal of forming a union was finally accomplished.

The activist and poet Audre Lorde talked about the uses of anger, saying that anger results from the experience of oppression, and can be useful against those oppressions. “Focused with precision,” she wrote, “it can be a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.” She drew a critical line between hatred and anger, “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.”[iii]

There are two reasons why we are taught to fear and crumple up our anger. The first is the good and vital reason that anger can become hateful, and when we act out of that feeling all we can do is harm, emotional, spiritual, physical – to others, and to ourselves. But the second reason is that anger: the warning bell that tells us something is wrong, and the fuel that helps us gain the strength to fight to change it; anger like that is a challenge to the status quo.

We are living in an angry moment. It is an anger that has been building for some time. Folks who have bills but no jobs. Folks who have jobs, but no health care. Folks who have jobs and health care but live life with the creeping awareness that they could lose it just like that. The Tea Party and the Occupy Movement are both signs of the power of anger.

As we look to anger as a tool, and even as a companion, in some ways, our most important work becomes the matter of discernment. “Anger is a grief of distortions between peers,” Audre Lorde reminds us. Anger points out the distortion, the imbalance, the injustice, but it is up to us to look at the situation carefully, to assess what is out of order in the system in front of us, and what needs to change in order to fix it. We must remember that much of the time, when we shout at someone we love or find ourselves raving about hot dog buns in the middle of the grocery store, the person most in need of change is us. The great prophets were well acquainted with the power of anger to foster transformation, but even they could misdirect it. In one episode in the Gospels, the teacher Jesus approached a fig tree, hoping to find some tasty fruit. “When he reached it,” says Mark, “he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs.”[iv] Angered by this, the story goes, Jesus cursed the tree to never bear fruit again. Let us reach out to anger for the power to change, but let us also remember our compassion for ourselves and each other, then. For even the prophets may act in haste. Anger is a powerful force, and it is not something to be treated likely. But let us always remember that our anger has something to teach us, something to propel us further onward to accomplish. We just have to take the time to listen to the fire within.

[i] You can watch this scene here:

[ii] Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, 2001

[iii] From “Uses of Anger,” in Sister Outsider, 1984

[iv] The Gospel According to Mark 11:13


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