​​On Anger

From a Chalice lighting ceremony at White Bear

Unitarian Universalist Church
Ken Stewart, Ph.D.

I light the chalice today in recognition of the role of

anger in our lives. Every day as a psychotherapist I help

my patients deal with anger. I help them deal with the

anger of disrupted expectations, when things aren’t

going their way they should in their worlds: the house

is messy, traffic is too slow, the kids are blowing off

their homework again, their partner is indifferent to

their needs: the usual gap between the way things are

and the way things ought to be according to their values. 

Then there is the anger that protects our fears. Instead of having anxiety and showing vulnerability, we get angry, we’re threatening, we stonewall; we’re sarcastic – conveniently resorting to anger instead of showing our vulnerability by expressing our anxiety.

Philosopher Robert Thurman says there are two extreme views of anger: the religious view is that God is an angry God, that anger is God-given, that anger is healthy to right wrongs, to overturn social evils and revolt against oppression. We are all hardwired with anger to protect ourselves from the danger of aggression and it’s the source of courage in a fight. 

The other extreme view is that anger can be eradicated, that it’s a deadly sin that is completely destructive and unjustified in any circumstance. We must manage it out of existence. We must learn to meditate, to transcend all emotionality – that it’s a fire that can only burn us. When we quench that fire we have attained Nirvana, Godliness, perfection. 

The flame of the chalice can remind us that anger is like fire and fire is elemental. Anger cannot be avoided. But anger is inevitably destructive. By cultivating critical wisdom, by a life of meditation, we can come close to eliminating the fire of anger and experience the supreme bliss of Nirvana. 

But there is a good use for fire when it is no longer bound up with anger. Fire warms us, it illuminates the darkness and burns away the suffering of others. Wisdom can wield fire and illuminate the darkness of ignorance and prejudice and self-centeredness. 

Like other elemental things – fire and anger can both destroy and save, consume us or protect us. Every day the choice is ours.