For several years we were on nodding terms. I knew next to nothing about the man at Number 12, and I imagine he knew little about me. I would see him on my way to and from the shops as he stood outside his front door – usually smoking. Now I know more; he can get very angry.
Suddenly, as I was walking past Number 12, he burst out of his house, slammed shut the front door and ran down the short flight of steps to the street. Next he headed for his parked car, brushing past me as though I didn’t exist. Leaning over the bonnet he stared, touched, lent back, stared again then repeatedly swore loudly – there was clearly something wrong. He kicked shut the heavy iron gate in his front railings and, still swearing, walked away down the road. With the coast clear, I took a peek. The cause was obvious – part of the left front wing was dented and scratched.
When I next saw him I asked why he had been so angry and learned that not only was the car new but the accident was his own fault. He also told me that as part of his anger he spent the rest of the day “getting drunk”. It was his outburst, which seemed so very wasteful, that inspired this blog.
Of course, we all feel angry from time to time, it is part of the human condition. And when the emotion of anger enables a person to summon up enough strength and resolve to deal with a threat, it could well have survival value. But while ‘self defence’ seems legitimate, what the man at Number 12 displayed was very different. Here was anger so serious that, as Wrath, it is listed as the Christian doctrine’s fifth “Deadly Sin”.
Wrath, or anger that is unsettling and often damaging, most often arises when people feel that they have been treated unjustly and are powerless to respond. The action takes on umpteen forms ranging from shouting, swearing, threatening or name-calling or – paradoxically – silence, to lashing out, pushing, hitting or hurting. Most often, such behaviour is directed towards other people, or animals or even objects; sometimes, it can, however, be directed towards the person him or herself with cutting, drunkenness (as here) or even suicide.
So much for the traditional, maleficent anger, but could it be that the energy of anger might instead be used to harness good. Such an idea was indeed hinted at by Aristotle, when he saw one form of anger – measured anger – as a virtue. As I see it, this type of anger, which is actually commonplace, can be seen as a constructive ally that inspires action, even creativity.
Over the years it was such measured anger that drove me to march against the UK’s possession of Nuclear Arms, against the invasion of the Falkland Islands and later of Iraq, and just recently, twice against our leaving the European Union. Similarly it was my wife, Rohan’s anger about sexual discrimination that led her to a career fighting against inequality.
And recently the constructive use of the energy created by anger has been very publicly encouraged in the fight against global warming. In the last weeks the activist Greta Thunberg told how to get things done “Sometimes you need to anger people”. And in the same vein, Barack Obama in his lecture to young people at the recent COP 26 meeting explained how “It is very important to be angry” and to “stay angry”. Rather than doing nothing about Global Warming, he argued that they should rightly feel angry and channel their anger to protest for change.
Like most people I have had moments of wrath. Years ago when a man was trying to break into our car I lifted him up and threw him onto the car park tarmac. And more recently I was furious when out to lunch when a guest arrived and sat down at the table with a repetitive dry cough that had started early that morning. He had not been vaccinated nor had he taken any COVID tests. I was so angry at what I saw as a selfish threat that I spent the meal sitting away from the table bound up in fierce silence!
However, much more common for me is Aristotle’s measured anger which plays a role in my everyday life as I take full advantage of any energy anger produces. If there is any of this energy about I use it to help me respond to letters or complete my tax returns. In the same way, I harness it to tackle my French homework or to write another blog.
Recognising anger in all its forms is important. Rather than stopping or suppressing anger, in many instances we should be harnessing the energy it produces and putting it to constructive use. The man at Number 12 got it all so very wrong.
The illustration shows the Greek philosopher Aristotle whose views on anger are enlightening.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Neil, Rohan and Vivien