When someone gets angry we should never take it at face value.
I’ve learned this a number of ways. I learned it first in experiencing people’s anger with my blog posts. I’ll say something like “hell doesn’t exist” and that has created such a deep and passionate anger towards me. What you come to realize that when people are angry at you for saying something, or believing something, is that this has a lot more to do with them than it does with the object of the anger. I learned here that anger is a voice of the source of anger and usually has very little to do with the object of it.
I remember hearing a Rob Bell sermon back in the day and he was talking about how angry people get when you poke at their sacred beliefs. Zizek unpacked this for me more later when he would talk about the beliefs that people hold and how when challenged they either completely ignore them or they respond in anger and eventually violence. I saw this happen blatantly between two friends as one friend was angrily claiming homosexuality as being a sin, while the other continued to press him that it was OK to be gay and more importantly it was OK for him to be gay and eventually the first man announced that he was gay.
So the first thing I think when I see anger, is that the person that is angry is dealing with cognitive dissonance that they have been unable to digest and come to peace with. Here I think the anger is a projection of the restlessness of their own ambiguity and uncertainty.
The second thing that is important to uncover with anger is recognizing what emotions are underlying it. Things like fear, shame, guilt all create conditions for things like anger to bubble up to the surface. The biggest mistake we make when we are angry is assuming that the cause of the anger is the object of that anger, when in all likelihood it is an underlying emotion that is hidden by the anger. One of Jesus’ most famous lines is to take care of the plank in your own eye before worrying about the little spec in someone else’s. This is more than just judging, this is about all things that we project onto others. The resentment, judgment and anger we feel towards others is caused by ourselves not by the ones we have those feelings towards.
Finally, the third thing that I am learning to recognize about anger is that when it is directed at you it isn’t very helpful to focus on my first two points. When someone is angry at me, it became very easy for me to discredit their anger because I assume they are projecting and it is really just about themselves. This however kept me far away from ever allowing other people to have an effect on myself. If every time someone is angry at me I dismiss it as their problem, then I never grow. I’ve been learning that other people’s anger can be a great teacher to learn from. It may teach you how you cause the hurt that makes others angry. It may teach you how to have more sympathy to those who are uncertain and take it out on you. It may teach you things about yourself that you never could have learned if you didn’t listen to their anger.
Emotionally healthy people learn to have empathy for those with emotions that affect them but also are able to grow to a better understanding of themselves through the same situations. Building up walls and not allowing others to affect you may work as a defense mechanism and to blocking toxic people from hurting you, but the same defenses can work against you by making you blind to your own complicity.
See where anger is coming from, if it’s your anger, then dissect it and see what’s underlying it. If it’s someone else’s anger directed at you, then listen, learn and grow from it.