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The Problem of Anger – How to Use the Power of Your Dark Side

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The following is a transcript of this video.

We are lived by Powers we pretend to understand.  (W. H. Auden)

Of all the powers that shape our life, our emotions stand out both in their ability to dramatically influence our well-being and in the mysterious ways they do this. For caught in the grip of a strong emotion, we often lose the ability to distinguish between rational and irrational, right and wrong, and in extreme cases between the real and the imagined. Emotions can drive us to do things we scarcely thought our self to be capable – sometimes for good, but often for ill. And of all the emotions anger stands out as one of the most powerful and certainly the most destructive.

Rage, resentment, chronic hostility and hatred are all forms of anger which, if allowed to persist can result in intense personal suffering, harm to those close to us, and even death on a mass scale. In the 20th century hundreds of millions of people died at the hands of political movements which fed off the resentment of the masses, a fact that should wake us up to the peril of ignoring our anger.

Yet not all anger is pathological and destructive. Sometimes anger is a warranted response to mistreatment and even rage can be to our benefit if our life is in peril.

“Those who do not show anger at things that ought to arouse anger are regarded as fools.” (Aristotle)

Anger can also provide us with the energy and self-assertiveness required to transform our self, attain our goals, and engage in constructive activity. Anger is a sign that something within us wants to live and affirm itself, while its antithesis, apathy, signifies that a will-to-death has overcome us. But the problem we all face is how to harness the constructive side of anger while avoiding its destructive tendencies. The goal of this video is to examine how we can do this and to begin we must examine the connection between powerlessness and anger.

“Indeed, no social emotion is more widespread today than the conviction of personal powerlessness, the sense of being beset, beleaguered, and persecuted.” (Arthur M. Sclesinger, Jr.)

While Lord Acton was correct in claiming that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton), the reverse is also true. Absolute impotence corrupts absolutely. When we feel that our lives count for little; when our apathy leads to stagnation in a form of work which produces only a paycheck and an emptiness in the soul; when we are surrounded by governments and corporations whose power far exceeds anything of which we are capable; and when we find ourselves lost in a sea of “faceless Others” (W.H. Auden) we cannot connect with, impact, or reach out to, first impotence and then anger and rage, seem to be the result.

“Our particular problem…at this point in history,” wrote Rollo May “is the widespread loss of the sense of individual significance, a loss which is sensed inwardly as impotence…So many people feel they do not and cannot have power, that even self-affirmation is denied them, that they have nothing left to assert, and hence that there is no solution short of a violent explosion.” (Rollo May, Power and Innocence)

But in addition to societal forces, life itself, or the existential burdens we all face, can also trigger the feelings of powerlessness which generates anger. At birth we are thrown into a reality which can be unwelcoming, frustrating, and hostile to our desires. The helplessness we feel in the face of the cold indifference of the reality is worsened by the fact that, although we do our best to desperately deny it, deep down we know that our primal desire to perpetuate ourselves is doomed to fail. Death lies waiting for us all. “Do not go gentle into that good night.” wrote the poet Dylan Thomas. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” (Dylan Thomas)

Yet despite anger being a natural, and sometimes healthy, response to feelings of powerlessness, most of us have been culturally conditioned to suppress our anger. We have devised intricate social rituals to maintain a common altruistic self-image behind which we hide the anger and resentment which dwells within. And in so doing we have made ourselves psychologically unstable, weak, and prone to psychosomatic disorders and storms of rage which can arise from our unconscious seemingly unprovoked. Given how powerless, and prone to anger, many are in the modern day, we must find a constructive way of dealing with the presence of anger, and to help us do this, we will turn to the concept of the daimonic.

The daimonic is an Ancient Greek term that was originally used to refer to a power which came upon man from without – a spirit or intermediary between the gods and humans. Rollo May re-conceptualized the daimonic in modern psychological terms and defined it as “any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person.” (Rollo May, Love and Will) Sex, love, anger, rage, and the desire for power are all daimonic passions which have the power to possess us and override our conscious faculties. They are powerful instinctive drives which push amorally towards their fulfillment and hence can potentially enliven or harm us. While the benefits of the daimonic passions such as sex and love are obvious, as a result of cultural conditioning most people are unaware of the constructive side of anger.

“Our culture”, writes May, “requires that we repress most of our anger, and therefore, we are repressing most of our creativity.” (Rollo May, Rollo May: Man and Philosopher)

The need to be creative is not limited to artists or certain personality types, rather, the necessity to be creative is called forth within us all whenever inner or out conflicts and chaos manifest in our life. The presence of conflict and chaos signifies the need for some sort of shift in our worldview or change in our character or environment. When we are creative, rather than responding to chaos and conflict with passivity and powerlessness, we react in a proactive manner by transforming our mind or giving form to some component in the external world to help us make sense of the chaos, cope with it, and ultimately transcend it.

“The creative process is a process of change, of development, of evolution, in the organization of subjective life.” (Brewster Ghiselin, The Creative Process)

Given the role of creativity in transforming chaos and conflict into order and form and feelings of powerlessness into power, the lack of a sufficient creative outlet in our life is a prime culprit for many of our personal problems.

Yet as Pablo Picasso remarked, “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” (Pablo Picasso) Whether we are creating a more powerful state of mind or something of extreme worth in the external world, we first need to clear away the old and obsolete in order to make way for the new.

“You must want to burn yourself up in your own flame:”, wrote Nietzsche. “how could you wish to become new unless you have first become ashes!” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

And to help us engage in this creative destruction the courage, assertiveness, and energy which accompanies anger can prove indispensable. While we are conditioned to deny the anger within us, many great thinkers, personalities, and artists throughout the ages have emphasized the necessity of tapping into and utilizing this daimonic passion as a stimulus for creativity  and self-transformation; hence why in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell “Satan is the symbol of creativity, activity, and energy struggling to be free.” (Jeffrey Russell, The Prince of Darkness) Anger can be the daimonic passion of destruction required for any form of lasting and meaningful creation.

“…creating, actualizing one’s possibilities, always involves destructive as well as constructive aspects. It always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself, progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on, and creating new and original forms and ways of living…Every experience of creativity has its potentiality of aggression or denial toward other persons in one’s environment or towards established patterns within one’s self.” (Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety)

Given that anger is a natural response to feelings of powerlessness and the suppression of anger dangerous, we need to acknowledge our anger and not allow it to unconsciously wreak havoc in our life and the world around us. For if we can become more aware of and accepting of the anger within us we can use it to invigorate us, propel us creatively towards distant goals, and transform us into a more self-assertive and decisive individual. But if we conform to our cultural conditioning and ignore or suppress its presence our anger will eventually transform from a daimonic passion into a demonic power, with potentially devastating results.

“To learn to creatively live with the daimonic or be violently devoured by it. We will decide our own destiny. Let us choose wisely.” (Anger, Madness and the Daimonic, Stephen Diamond)

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

San Judas Tadeo Ribera (Museo Prado)
Miranda - The Tempest, by John William Waterhouse
John Thomas Serres - The wreck of the H.M.S. Deal Castle
The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve by William Blake c1826 Tate
Cain and Abel. Mironov
Peter Paul Rubens Massacre of the Innocents
Face of a bearded man expressing anger. Engraving by M. Enge Wellcome V0009359
Prometheus by Gustave Moreau
John Everett Millais - Ophelia - Google Art Project
Ferdinand Pauwels - Luther's friend struck by lightning
Pierre Jean Van der Ouderaa - De koning van Thule
Teniers, David the younger - Winter - Google Art Project
Van Gogh (1879) - Coke Factory in the Borinage
Charles Nuttal - The Opening of the First Commonwealth Parliament - Google Art Project
Evening on Karl Johan Street
Edvard Munch - Self-Portrait in Hell - Google Art Project
Wilhelm Diefenbach Der Rettung entgegen
Caspar David Friedrich - Nordische Landschaft, Frühling
Self-portrait with Love and Death by Hans Thoma
Edvard Munch - Evening. Melancholy I - Google Art Project
A Paris Street Scene
Man Watching Volcano Lava Falls by Charles Furneaux, 1889
Molin Le Baiser rendu Judas et Satan
Paul Bürck Faust
Chassériau - Empereur romain à cheval et son esclave frappé par la foudre
Drawing, Alpine Scene in Thunderstorm, 1868 (CH 18198991)
Aalto, Ilmari - Portrait of artist Väinö Kamppuri - Google Art Project
John Martin - The Great Day of His Wrath - Google Art Project
The Ancient of Days - etching with pen & ink wc Whitworth Art Gallery The University of Manchester UK The Bridgeman Art Library
NY Met head thunder storm
Parthenon (1871) Frederic Edwin Church
J.C. Dahl - Eruption of the Volcano Vesuvius - Google Art Project
Jules Tavernier (attrib.) - Volcanic crater beneath a crescent moon
Johan Christian Claussen Dahl - Vulkanen på kvelden, Sicilia
William Blake - The First Book of Urizen, Plate 12 (Bentley 22) - Google Art Project
'Scene at Kilauea' by Jules Tavernier, c. 1886
Daniele Crespi - Cain Killing Abel - WGA5743
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo - The Force of Eloquence - WGA22255
Agnolo bronzino, allegoria di venere e amore, 1545 ca. 05 disperazione