Anger as a Starting Point

I concluded my last post, a book review of Undaunted, the story of a Karen family escaping the violence of the Burmese army, with a quote that included the sentence,


387028I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, I want you to feel angry, and I want you to do something about it. ” -Zoya Phan

This phrase has been ringing about my head since I quoted it.

I included the quote because I wanted to inspire people to care, to care about Zoya Phan’s story and to care about the human rights abuses in Burma.  I hoped that the concern people felt for this story would then extend to the immigrants and refugees in their own countries who have come there looking for a better life than the one they left behind.

I still hope that all of you will go back and read the post, better yet read the book, and discover that you care about these issues.

However, after seeing recent political discussions on social media, which have included lots of people getting angry, I realized that my approach may have been short-sighted.

As I perused threads on facebook about the elections in the U.S., Brexit in Great Britain, and the protests by the BLM movement, I began to wonder if using anger to motivate people to action is really the most effective approach.

I began to ask myself, in the midst of all this anger, what are we accomplishing?  In my own life, what has anger helped me to accomplish?

“Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.”  Mahatma Gandhi

In my experience, anger seems to only be useful as a starting point.  Anger has been a place to discover that I care about a situation, and care enough to do something about it.

As I shared in my post about becoming an abolitionist, I felt angry, sad and helpless the first time that I learned about sex-trafficking.  The anger and sadness almost crippled me, and I was immobilized by the emotion.

That is one problem with using anger as a motivator.  When our emotions are evoked, they can overwhelm us, leading to feelings of helplessness, which in turn can lead to inactivity and avoidance.

For me, rather than continue down the path of anti-trafficking work after college, I sought a volunteer position at a children’s home.  While I see now that these may not have been so unrelated, at the time it felt like an escape from the life-sucking research about sex-trafficking that I had been doing.

Another, perhaps opposite, problem with levying anger to garner support for a cause is the angst which that emotion creates in our hearts.

“I want you to do something about it.”  

This angst can be problematic.  The overwhelming sense of urgency that we feel to relieve the anger, sadness or helplessness about a situation can lead us to want to act right away.  We feel an urgency to get to the doing something part.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” -King, Where Do We Go From Here, 1967 (photo found here).

However, responding quickly often leads us to respond less thoughtfully, less lovingly, and less effectively.  Which is probably why the New Testament author, James, teaches, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” (James 1 :19, NIV).

When we rely on anger to motivate our action, we often lack the patience needed to gather the necessary information for implementing responsible, well-thought out responses to the situation.  Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett wrote an informative book, When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . . and Yourself, about the cost of responding to chronic global problems with less than thoughtful responses.  Oftentimes, our best intended ideas can have unforeseen consequences on the problems they are meant to resolve.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” -Nelson Mandela (photo found here)

If we live in that place of anger over injustices in the world, we may never be able to move beyond to solutions that include perpetrators of injustice as well as the victims, or better yet is able to recognize that often individuals are both perpetrators and victims at various points in their lives.  The challenge is to recognize that this includes ourselves.

We have built this blog as a place for ourselves and others to seek the good life and to encourage others to do the same.  Usually we say that this looks different for each of us, but today my encouragement is the same for all of us, myself included.

Today, my call to action is really a call to non-action, for the moment.  It’s a call to start with reflection.  Let’s all start the “doing something” by examining our own hearts.  Where can we begin to deal with our own attitudes and beliefs that do not lead to love and light?

Which individual or group do you need help loving as you love yourself?  Who can you pray for rather than curse?  Who do you need to see as neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, man nor woman?  Where can you recognize the limitations of your anger and move on to find better solutions to the problems we face?

As we seek to find this good life together, I hope that injustices make you angry.  But I also hope that the anger is only your starting point, and that reflection, self-awareness, and informed decisions are all stops along your journey.

Featured Photo: Reconciliation by Vasconcellos, St. Michael’s Cathedral, Coventry (photo found here).

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