“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
Gautama Buddha is believed to have lived and taught in the northeastern part of India sometime between the 6th and the 4th centuries BCE. His teachings provided the foundation for Buddhism. He rejected extremes and urged his students to embrace the philosophy of ethical conduct, wisdom and mental discipline.
Anger is a built-in emotional response to a threat. As such it is natural, and under certain circumstances, a necessary thing for our personal survival. It can trigger an aggressive response, depending on the strength of the emotion and the level of threat. Most often, it is the result of a disappointment or frustration when events unfold that deny us what we want or need.
Experts in psychology tell us that anger is neither good nor bad in itself. The real issue is how we handle it when it occurs. Violent physical or verbal outbursts can have legal consequences and do real damage to personal relationships. There are no definitive explanations as to why some people are angered more easily or to greater degrees than others. However, modern psychology does offer practical suggestions about how best to manage our anger.
In this quote, Buddha does not put forward advice about how to deal with your anger; nor does he condemn anger as wrong or evil. He does counsel us about what not to do with it; and his advice is very consistent with current psychological thinking. “Holding on to anger…” are the key words in Buddha’s advice. Sometimes we feel the hurt or frustration so deeply that we hold on to the anger, rather than take steps to get over it.
Buddha illustrates his point with this analogy, “… like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else;”. Holding on to your anger serves to harm yourself instead of your intended target. Holding it in, or suppressing it, can be a positive temporary measure in the process of defusing the the emotion. Eliminating an angry or violent response is a good thing unless that anger is turned inward against yourself where it can cause, high blood pressure, hypertension and depression, or in Buddha’s words, “… you are the one who gets burned.”
It behooves all of us, whether we have serious anger management issues or not, to heed the ancient sage’s advice in this quote. I’m sure our twenty-first century lifestyle here in the West is far more stressful than a more pastoral way of life away from large cities; and this likely contributes many of the external pressures that cause people to become angry. Regardless of the causes, the issue here is about a healthy way of dealing with this powerful emotion. Eliminating anger altogether is not only impossible, but it would likely be detrimental to our ability to survive.
Is there such a thing as righteous or justified anger? In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, there are numerous references in both the Old and New Testaments that speak of God’s Righteous Anger. This is understood as God’s anger toward those who break God’s laws. Scripture scholars teach that godly people may express righteous anger if faced with the violation of God’s laws. This same tradition teaches that the anger of man is not righteous unless it conforms to the aforementioned circumstances.
While I found all of this discussion about righteous anger to be understandable within a religious context, can men and women, who are not religious, feel and express righteous anger? I say yes. In the religious context, righteous anger was invoked by the violation of God’s laws. I suggest that people may feel and express righteous anger by the violation of our civil and criminal law, which, by the way, often stem from precepts found in our religious traditions.
How does one act on their righteous anger? I went back to the scripture scholars and discovered that they differentiated between legal and illegal expressions of anger. In a nutshell, any righteous anger must be expressed outwardly in a legal way. For example, if a murder is committed, punishing the guilty party by means of vigilante justice is not acceptable. Apprehending the suspect, proving their guilt in a court of law and then carrying out the penalty allowed under the law, is the only legal expression of that righteous anger.
It is clear that redress in the face of the strong emotion of anger must be rational in nature. Herein lies the key for dealing with personal anger in our own daily lives – be calm, think clearly, and deal with the issue through rational communication with those involved. The first step of this process is to hold in your anger, but only until you can deal with it successfully. Suppression without constructive release is exactly what Buddha warns us to guard against in our daily living. Anger can bring about justice, but it can also be very destructive – especially to ourselves. The wisdom of the ancients continues to speak to us in the twenty-first century.