Monday Over Coffee: "Anger"

Published January 16, 2023 by Greg Funderburk

A destructive passion is harnessed by directing that same passion into constructive channels.
— Martin Luther King

I heard a story once about a writer who landed an opinion column in a big city newspaper. While very pleased he got the gig, he immediately became concerned about coming up with compelling topics to write about twice a week throughout the year. A mentor suggested to him that if he focused his attention rightly, he wouldn't find this to be difficult at all. "At least a couple of things every week will anger you," the mentor said. "Write about those."

While we all regularly get angry, we don't readily associate anger with creativity and strategic thinking, but in reality it's a deep well for both. The key is to prevent the anger that we feel about events, people, systems, and even ourselves, from turning into rage, cynicism, or resentment. Rather, we should harness it instead for good, recognizing that while anger contains destructive potential, it also carries within it an immense constructive power. When channeled appropriately, anger can be a prolific source of passion, energy, and tenacity that can solve difficult problems and effect needed change like almost nothing else.

This is one of the most enduring lessons of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. King's legacy was founded not on denying, erasing, or even tamping down the anger that he felt viscerally from the racial injustices he faced, but rather it was built on controlling and deploying anger strategically and with creativity to effect a vital and profound evolution in our country. "A destructive passion," he once said, "is harnessed by directing that same passion into constructive channels." This is exactly what he did.

You probably don't have to look around too long to find something that angers you. What's wrong with the city in which you live? What's awry where you work? At your school? In your neighborhood? In your church? Within yourself? What angers you? Don't be afraid to let it burn for a minute. Feel it, but don't let it overflow. Instead, harness its force. Let it inform you about what really matters and what needs to change. Let its power animate you, motivate you, catalyze you. Let it do—perhaps not what it wants to do—but what it's supposed to do.

But don't stop there. Anger has another crucial benefit, one that requires another dose of moral imagination. Might we use our own anger to inform ourselves more fully about those with whom we disagree? What is it—even if it seems overblown, inconsequential, or mystifying—that reliably makes those we disagree with angry? Step into their shoes and into their minds a little more deeply. Settle into their lives, into their biography, into their experience, their joys and fears a little more closely. Are we being provocative to those with whom we don't see eye to eye? Are we doing it without intention? Or do we even care?

I think one of the main failures we experience in our sporadically earnest and often sadly diluted efforts to "do unto others as we would have them do unto us" relates closely to the fact that we're naturally sensitive about what angers us, but typically rather insensitive about what might anger those with whom we disagree. We've become blind to each other's hot buttons. Or maybe we're not blind to them but like to set them off occasionally because it makes us feel good inside for some reason. Regardless of why, though, it seems we provoke one another, anger one another, vex, bother, and addle one another negligently or willfully in contravention of the golden rule way too much.

While pressing for change often tends to goad someone's ox, which is liable to provoke and anger them, might it still be possible to creatively, strategically—with good will and in good faith—pursue righteous and necessary change while sensitively upholding the golden rule at the same time? It's not easy to find a balance in this tension. But then again neither Jesus Christ nor Martin Luther King, Jr. ever said it was going to be easy—just that it must be done.

God — Help me to harness my anger for good, to fuel change where it's needed. Help me also to examine my anger to better see what might anger others and to tread lightly, upholding the golden rule as commanded. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk