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The World Now—& You

Reverend Wayne Plumstead Comments

  • Writer's pictureWayne Plumstead

What Makes Anger Good or Bad?

I think everyone would agree that there is anger of a large kind in America today and just how to see it is difficult to make sense of. We've seen anger in people taking new, more violent and distressing forms. Parents are disrupting school board meetings and threatening members of the Board. Flight attendants have been attacked by unruly passengers. Flash mobs are looting stores. Political leaders are debasing each other. Persons of color and those of Asian descent have been brutally attacked. And a general rudeness has invaded our everyday interactions with people. The other day I was startled when a driver began to tailgate me, making angry gestures in my direction, apparently just because I hadn't made a turn fast enough for him.


Alongside these disturbing instances, there is also anger of another kind that we can see. There is fury, and rightly so, at the cost of prescription drugs and health care and at the fact that millions of children in our country go to bed hungry. There is outrage, especially in young people, against climate change and the blatant disregard for the future of our planet. Union workers have walked off their jobs in record numbers demanding a living wage and health benefits. Large protests against racism and police brutality have occurred in cities across the country and around the world and have been supported by persons of every race.

Woman holding a banner that reads "Stop Asian Hate"

The most important thing I learned about anger is that there are two completely different kinds. Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, is the philosopher who explained that every person is in a moment-by-moment fight between our deepest desire, which is to know and like the outside world, and our desire to have contempt for the world as a means, as we see it, of building ourselves up at the world's expense. This fight shows itself in every aspect of our lives, including in the way we are angry. It will either be a beautiful anger on behalf of the world, or it will be a narrow anger on behalf of ourselves alone. A good anger puts together the opposites of self and world; it is an anger in which justice to the world is the same thing as taking care of our self. A bad anger is one which gives us a fake feeling of superiority as we strike out at the world, belittle it, curse and punish it. While a person can feel strong and victorious and ever-so-justified while in the midst of such anger, its end result will always be guilt and a haunting uncertainty because we have acted against the best thing in us—our hope to respect the world.


Knowing the difference between good and bad anger has been a lifesaver for me. One of the people at whom I was most angry growing up was my father. He didn't give me what I saw as the "warm acceptance" I got from my mother. I saw him as cold and unfeeling and spent a lot of time paying him back. Far from my mind were all the reasons I had to respect him. He worked hard to provide a good life for our family and had been kind to me in many ways, including the not so small fact that he paid for my four years of college and three years of seminary. I never once thanked him for that or anything else he did for me. I simply took it as my right while nursing an ongoing grievance against him. I mistook his more measured, sensible approach to me for coldness when it wasn't that at all and I was furious at him.


In 1969 when my mother died, my father and I had many fights. There was one in particular when in exasperation he criticized me for leaving dirty dishes in the sink. I had just begun to study Aesthetic Realism in individual consultations* because I wanted to learn more about how the principles of Aesthetic Realism explained my life. My consultants asked me, "How did your father feel losing his wife of 26 years?" I was stunned. It had simply never occurred to me to think about this. They continued: "Did your father feel you preferred your mother to him and was he hurt by that?" I saw that he was. They asked: "Did he feel rejected by you?" Yes, he did. He also felt scorned by me because I looked down on him for owning a gas station while I was an "intellectual."


As I heard these questions, I felt the ice inside of me begin to melt. I realized I had never thought about what my father felt to himself. I didn't see his feelings as real, as having the depth mine had. Through consultations like this one, I began to see my father with three dimensions, and it led to a fresh beginning with him. As we spoke and as I wanted to know him more, we grew to be very close. It means my life to me that my bad anger at my father was so lovingly and accurately opposed, and that I was able to see him more justly and value the person he truly was. It made for 30+ years of our having a relationship that we were both tremendously thankful for, and while I miss him since his passing some years ago, I am sustained by the memory of our friendship and by his gratitude to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism for making it possible.


In a lecture Eli Siegel gave in 1950 he said, "Anger that is useful is on behalf of justice, a world that looks better, not worse." This describes the beautiful anger in a statement I love made by the great labor leader and activist Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) to the court in 1918, just before he was sentenced to ten years in the Atlanta federal penitentiary for violating the Espionage Act, simply because he delivered an anti-war speech. Debs could have burned with anger at the injustice being done to him but instead he rose and said these now-famous words:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

And he continued:

I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories, of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased, and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood.

Eugene V. Debs

Debs (pictured here) is immortal because he used his anger, his great indignation, to fight even more passionately for a better, more just world. Of course, the Bible has much to say about anger too. Both Psalm 4:4 (KJV) and Ephesians 4:26 (KJV) tell us to "be angry and sin not." Our anger is without sin whenever it is on behalf of justice to a wider world. That is true of the beautiful anger Jesus had as he ran the moneychangers from the Temple and the indignation he felt, rightly so, at the Pharisees for their hypocrisy when he told them straight: "You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean" (Matthew 23:27 NIV).


One of the things we see today is that a person can be very heated on behalf of himself while at the same time being stone-cold to the feelings of others. There is all the difference in the world between the fiery anger of Patrick Henry demanding "give me liberty or give me death" and the anger of a white supremacist hurling racial epithets at Muslim-Americans. There is all the difference in the world between the righteous anger of Martin Luther King Jr. writing from Birmingham Jail about the "stinging darts of segregation" and the defiant anger of a George Wallace blocking the entrance of a schoolhouse to Black children.


Protest sign that reads "No Justice No Peace"

It has never been more urgent for people to learn the difference between an anger that is wide and on behalf of justice to the world and an anger that is narrow and on behalf of one's own comfort and superiority. Aesthetic Realism made it possible for me to have anger I have been proud of; anger that I've liked myself for having and which adds to the beauty of the world. This vital education made conscious and alive for me crucial questions we all need to ask ourselves and keep on asking without coming to a premature answer: "Is my anger right or wrong? Am I proud of why I am angry and how I am angry?" If not, we have a chance to see it and to change it.


* Note: A consultation is a 50-minute discussion with three consultants on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.


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