“Anger cannot be overcome by anger. If someone is angry with you, and you show anger in return, the result is a disaster. On the other hand, if you control your anger and show its opposite – love, compassion, tolerance and patience – not only will you remain peaceful, but the other person’s anger will also diminish.” ~The Dalai Lama
The year I moved to Guatemala, 2009, more civilians were killed here than in the war zones of Iraq. As a single gringa fresh off the plane, I was fearful. I did not want to live alone.
So, I found a roommate who felt the same. Her name is Michelle too. We are both left handed. Both vegetarians. Both teachers. Both our mothers are named Lynda with a y. And that’s where our similarities end. She’s sporty spice; I’m ginger spice. She’s a closed-lipped Canadian snow-loving soccer player who can’t sit still for five minutes. I’m an honest-to-a-fault Texan sun-worshipper and devoted practitioner of meditation. For nearly two full school years, we lived together happily, in the spacious townhouse we christened La Casa de Las Michelles.
Truth be told, our domestic harmony gradually devolved into quiet civility. I’d come home, she’d be watching TV, I’d say, “hi,” and retreat to my bedroom, softly shutting the door. I’d give her a ride to school every morning, and we’d typically say little to nothing. But it wasn’t hostile, just routine.
Until the last month when we had a minor conflict. The details are irrelevant. Michelle, me, talks about her feelings and confronts issues; Michelle, she, does not. I tend to be too open, if anything; she bottles up, avoids the conflict altogether. She stopped speaking to me and began to stomp around and slam doors. I am a high school teacher; I felt like a high school sophomore. OMG, like so juvenile!
Fleeing this needless turbulence, I exiled myself to a friend’s apartment where I was hanging out with some amigos one lazy Saturday afternoon. We went up to the rooftop patio. Before our eyes, an entourage pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot directly below us. A horde of people in orange jumpsuits swarmed. A cameraman began taping as a politician approached the cars in the drive-thru and shook the hands of the passengers.
We quickly recognized his mug from the ubiquitous billboards all over Guate. Otto Perez Molina, is the current frontrunner for the Guatemalan presidency. His nickname is Mano Dura (“firm hand”), because he was an Army General during the Guatemalan civil war in the 1980s when an estimated 200,000 innocent indigenous Mayans were tortured and murdered. He is considered by human rights groups to be a war criminal, was implicated in the 1998 murder of a prominent bishop who had published a report on the Army’s genocidal tendencies, and yet he has been endorsed by the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala and welcomed in Washington, D.C.
The election will take place on September 11, and the nation is between Mano Duro and a hard place. The only other viable contender is Sandra Torres, the notoriously power-hungry First Lady, who recently divorced her husband, current President Alvaro Colom, in order to “legally” run as his successor.
From our rooftop vantage point, my friend yelled out, “Otto!” I staggered back in slow motion, thinking we would die at that moment. We’d be mistaken for assassins and shot. Instead, Otto looked up, slightly confused, then waved his fist in the air. He got into his armored vehicle and exited the parking lot, flanked by five cars and motorcycles on either side. The whole incident took about 60 seconds.
It’s easy to rage against the machine here—the corruption, the ignorance, the filthy richest two percent living the “American dream” with their mansions and fleets of SUVs and the uneducated poor with their nonstop stream of malnourished babies.
I was outraged—at my roommate, at Mano Dura, at the majority of the country who evidently wants him to be their leader, at the unfairness of life. Anger directed inward is the textbook definition of depression. Anger directed outward leads to aggression, violence and ruptured relationships. I was mad, inside and out. And I was miserable.
Where does anger belong?
We all experience frustration, irritation, ire. Should we bottle it up or let it all hang out? Which is healthier? Which is more spiritual?
Primarily, it is essential to cultivate awareness of all our emotions—good, bad, weird and ugly. Doing this in the context of meditation, it is clear that each emotion does inevitably arise and pass away. No single mood or feeling lasts for very long. The next step is to develop equanimity, evenness of mind, no matter what pleasurable or painful emotion is visiting our consciousness at present.
We must find the Middle Way. Experience the anger; don’t repress it. Likewise, do not act on it. As Thich Nhat Hanh urges, refrain from “rehearsing” anger; do not use the technique of venting by screaming, kicking an inanimate object, or punching a pillow. Instead, go for a long walk or run to help you process rage. Journal. Write in the stream of consciousness style. Practice yoga. Meditate.
It is not easy, this path of moderation. It’s easier to go to extremes, to fly off the handle, to shield our hearts from potential breakage. But the more we can stay in the middle, away from the polarized edges, and open to whatever is happening, the more happiness and connectedness we will feel. It takes courage. It’s hard to stay open. It’s easier to close up. So squash that urge. See if you can remain in the middle and watch what happens.
Easier said than done, I know. Especially when we are in the grips of rage.
Anger is not the enemy. It’s a sure sign that we are alive and immersed in the fundamental, paradoxical complexity of this life. Notice when anger enters your consciousness. If it’s really red hot, observe how it is like an intense thunderstorm passing through our bodies and minds. Notice where you feel it in your body. Is it a fiery sensation? A blurry chaos? A sharp pain?
Take deep breaths. Resist the urge to act or speak in a reactive, rash, harmful or hateful manner. When the War of the Michelles was declared, my initial instinct was to retaliate. Slam those door right back, play my music too loud, leave a mess in the kitchen. But revenge didn’t feel good. To paraphrase MLK, Jr., hate only begets more hate. So, I wrote her a heartfelt letter which never warranted a reply.
Of course I want resolution. But if I can drop the need for a tidy ending, the yearning to understand everything, for it all to make sense… that is freedom.
I surrender. All I can work on is my own healthy processing of anger. To dissolve it. To replace it with compassion. Michelle is suffering. I suffer. Even as I think, “Good riddance,” because she is moving back to Canada, I can cultivate empathy. I know transitions are stressful. I can’t interact with someone who is completely closed, but I can send her metta when so inspired. As for Otto, I have no compassion. Not yet, anyway.
“In our consciousness there are blocks of pain, anger and frustration called internal formations. They are also called knots because they tie us up and obstruct our freedom.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
May we begin to loosen and untie these knots. May we treat our anger with tenderness. May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings be happy.