October 22, 2019

Why is everyone so angry?

Rage is all the rage. Anger is “in.”

Minorities are angry because of discrimination. Majorities are angry because they have been passed over in favor of minorities. Students are overcharged and outraged; teachers overworked and simmering. Men are emasculated, women objectified, children ignored, the elderly shunted aside. Drivers are stressed, pedestrians and bikers crowded off the major pathways, a finger pointedly outstretched. Combatants of all sorts around the globe are angry enough to kill. And voters, ah, the voters — which means citizens 18 and older — they are angry for an unfathomable number of reasons. We are fed up and don’t care who knows it.

Writer Damon Runyon wisely said that life was 6-5 odds against. There are always reasons to be angry: Things don’t work, people are indifferent or rude, our expectations are frustrated and our dreams quashed. Sit down in satisfaction and life will put a thumbtack on your chair. It is amazing, sometimes, that we don’t simply stay in a state of fury from our first early morning alarm to the wrenching local news at bedtime.

Fury has a good, Jewish pedigree. It goes all the way back to the beginning. God is often angry in the Torah. Sometimes God’s anger has dire consequences, resulting in the death of many who incur the Divine wrath. And our heroes take their cue from their Creator. Moses becomes angry, smashing the tablets and rebuking the people. Samuel is angry at Saul for disobeying God. Jonah is angry at the Ninevites for their barbarity. The examples are not all high-minded and prophetic. There is plenty of familial fury, too — Michal gets angry at her husband, David; Jacob at his Uncle Laban; and Jacob’s sons at their brother Joseph.

Yes, Jews get miffed. Except that our tradition is very leery of the consequences of anger. The rabbis insist that while God can control anger, anger controls people. They compare it to a kettle that boils over, since you never know who will be burned. An angry person by definition is a person not entirely in control. Just remember the last time you were really angry; how your throat tightened and your blood pressure spiked and your hands balled into fists and you felt as though you would explode. Rabbi Eliezer says, “Do not be quick to anger” (Avot 2:10) and Proverbs tells us that “one who is slow to anger is better than a strong man” (Proverbs 16:32).

Anger is a great fuel and a lousy GPS. It gets us going, to be sure, but is distorting about direction. How often have you been convinced, absolutely convinced, of something in anger that you later don’t believe at all?

We are in the angry election season. Every article recounts the vitriol spilled on commentators by one another as though each could insult their way to victory. But no matter whom you support, listen to the words of our sages: “If a wise man is angry, his wisdom leaves him” (Pesachim 56b).

Why is anger so enticing? First of all, it is a reaction of ego. We feel slighted, ignored, diminished. We have lost face or been embarrassed. It is natural to want to blot out the source of our pain.

Second, anger is like argument. Arguments are generally a process of convincing ourselves we are right. Rarely do people enter arguments (as opposed to discussions) and emerge believing the other person has a valid, interesting point of view. So it is with anger. When we are angry, we feel justified, correct, validated. And that is a good feeling. No one likes to be wrong, and anger means you are right. 

The problem is that anger is boundary bursting. It cannot be curated the way other emotions can. It is explosive, uncontrollable. Think of a face distorted by rage and you will recognize that it has been possessed in a sense, that anger is virtually a force independent of the person.

So in public, we get a discourse of competing anger and none of the sides seems able to imagine the view of the others. I try to read media from the left and right, and I am consistently struck by just how unwilling each is to credit the other side with a good idea, a worthy initiative, a sage comment or even a credible position on some issue. We are blinded by the rage of rightness, and the unshakable anger of opposition, which relies on any argument so long as it is not “theirs.” Sometimes I am reminded of Lord Ronald in Stephen Leacock’s story, who “flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”

So what will happen when someone wins? The anger will not dissipate. First, the losing side will swell in rancor because people they have derided beat them. The “winners” will now expect their anger to be vindicated by future triumphs that are very unlikely given the divided state of our politics. In other words, in public life as in private life, rage continues to feed on itself until suddenly the scorched earth startles people back to some semblance of sense.

Maimonides makes two seemingly contradictory statements in his great code of law. In De’ot 1:4 he says, “A person should not become angry except over a great matter that is worthy of anger.” And in the very next chapter (2:3) he writes, “Anger is a terrible trait and a person should distance himself from it. One should teach himself not to become angry even over a matter that is worthy of anger.”

Several commentators explain that Maimonides is referring to personal as opposed to communal or halachic (Jewish legal) matters. Even though it is worthy to be angry if someone insults you, don’t. But if you believe that anger will help right a wrong, or persuade others of your belief in a correct halachic position, then it is permitted, even though it is also perilous.

But perhaps we can also read Maimonides more dynamically. His first thought is that one should get angry over something worthy. But as he writes, and thinks, and observes, he goes back. He doesn’t want to eliminate the possibility, because anger can sometimes serve a good purpose. But he knows how easily and often it is abused, so he also writes that you shouldn’t do what he earlier permits. The chances of getting anger “right” are real, but so small that he cannot in good conscience completely outlaw it, but neither can he leave it at the simple statement that it is allowed in matters of great import.

This seems to me the wise and Jewish position. Take every step to avoid anger: Wait before you react; realize that other people’s actions are about you far less often than you may think; acknowledge the elements of ego in your feeling; know how often in the past you’ve reacted in anger and regretted it; give some trust to God and relieve yourself of the burden of control.

You can be righteous without anger, have convictions without having tantrums. There is much to do in this world: Deliberation, determination and hard work are better recipes than rage. May you be blessed with a healthy, wise and calm disposition in the New Year.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.