Emotions have both meanings and action tendencies. Anger’s foremost meaning seems to be that another person or thing has caused harm and there should be a consequence. However, anger’s action tendency – the way it inclines us to carry out the consequence – can be problematic.
One of anger’s central action tendencies is what American philosopher Martha Nussbaum identifies as a ‘payback wish.’ In our anger we feel that payback will redeem what was lost, or repair a harm. It feels good to think of a perpetrator being hurt or brought to justice. Anger leads us to feel that hurting someone who has hurt us or others is the right thing to do, but strangely enough, on sober reflection, these imagined outcomes don’t repair the harm that was done. If you damage me, damaging you in return does not undo the harm to me. Now we are both harmed and the amount of damage is doubled. Furthermore, I am not likely to feel any better.
Nussbaum writes about the value of ‘transitional anger,’ which includes the brief experience of a payback wish. But then, the futility of payback is recognized and transitioned to a new intention that remedies or attempts to remedy the damage. Transitional anger carries the sentiment, ‘This is outrageous and should not happen again!’ It leads to constructive action.
Knowing that we have the capacity to ‘transition’ anger is helpful in averting its detrimental effects. How to choose a constructive course of action is served by embracing certain attitudes. Here is a formulaic set of steps I have come up with:
1. Firstly, we have to believe that acting as we feel like acting when angry will most likely produce a negative outcome, and it will not lead to us feeling any better. In fact, we may feel worse. We also have to believe that we have the power to choose from different courses of action.
2. Secondly, we have to be aware of our anger when it comes up; we have to be able to acknowledge to ourselves that we are angry.
3. Thirdly, with this awareness and bolstered by beliefs in the first step above, I think we can ‘stare anger down.’ By that I mean to feel anger without acting on it. Awareness is powerful — by feeling the feeling of anger and focusing on it, anger somewhat subsides.
4. Fourthly, we can use willpower to choose a constructive course of action.
Nussbaum documents in her book Anger and Forgiveness how the great activists Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela all learned to transition their anger from payback wish to determination and constructive action.