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Anger, Idolatry, and Magic


Think about the last time you were angry. No, I don’t mean slightly miffed—I mean rip-roaring, eye-popping angry. What set you off? Was it the guy who cut in front of you on the Interstate? Something your spouse or teen did? Sure, you probably regret your loss of control now. But dare I suggest that at the time, you might actually have taken a certain, well—satisfaction in your anger?

I write this at a time of deep national reflection. December’s horrific mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, has left a shadow that lingers still. Although nearly everything that can be said about that dark day has been said, some heavy questions remain for those of us working in the borderlands of psychology and spirituality—questions that go to the nature of evil, as well as to what I would call the “deep structure” of anger.

The world’s spiritual and philosophical traditions have an almost uniformly negative view of anger. Buddhism sees anger as a product of our “self-centered attitude” and the misguided belief that we are somehow superior to those we dislike. The Stoic philosopher Seneca, in his classic work On Anger (De Ira), calls anger “the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions” and suggests that it may be a form of “temporary madness.” Seneca’s words point us toward a conception of intense anger as an altered state of consciousness. To understand this point, consider one of the rabbinical teachings of Judaism: “Getting angry is like worshipping idols.”

Now, what idols would those be? For the rabbis, what is “worshipped” in periods of intense anger is the self. The needs, wishes, and rights of others are eclipsed by the looming, planetary ego. Perhaps this insight was the origin of a Gaelic proverb: “If you want an audience, start a fight.” And why might angry people want an audience? Now we begin to probe the deeper layers of anger—layers that may encompass certain acts of extreme violence, such as we know all too well in this country.

When people become extremely angry—truly beside themselves with rage—it is often because they have suffered a severe blow to their self-esteem. They need some way to restore their shattered ego. In his book A New Earth, the contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle explains what happens after such a trauma to one’s sense of self:

The ego is always on guard against any kind of perceived diminishment. Automatic ego repair mechanisms come into effect to restore the mental form of “me.” When someone blames or criticizes me . . . [the ego] will immediately attempt to repair its diminished sense of self through self-justification, defense, or blaming. . . . One of the most common ego-repair mechanisms is anger, which causes a temporary but huge ego inflation.

Indeed, this “ego inflation,” this worship of the self, is sometimes tantamount to a magical transformation. The meek, introverted, self-deprecating nerd—the butt of jokes or the target of bullying—is suddenly transformed into the Incredible Hulk. (Or perhaps he achieves the same effect wearing body armor and wielding an assault rifle.) In a work of existential philosophy, The Emotions, Jean-Paul Sartre describes intense feelings as just such “magical transformations” of reality. When we become enraged, the world’s complexity is radically simplified. There is no possibility that our enemy is right, no possibility that we are wrong—the enemy is suddenly dehumanized and we are made godlike. How easy it is to wreak vengeance when the world is so magically transformed!

We have yet to create a well-validated profile of those who carry out acts of so-called targeted violence, such as school shootings. The evidence to date suggests that perpetrators tend to have very low self-esteem, a “persecutory/paranoid” outlook, depressive symptoms, narcissistic traits, and feelings of rejection. There is little doubt that many such violent offenders are profoundly angry. In the wake of the Newtown shootings, we should not imagine that there are any simple solutions to our country’s endemic violence. But perhaps with a deeper understanding of anger and its relationship to self-esteem, we can begin to comprehend the genesis of these unfathomably violent acts—and perhaps, with timely intervention, to prevent them.

Ronald Pies, M.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine. His latest book is The Three-Petalled Rose: How the Synthesis of Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism Can Create a Healthy, Fulfilled, and Flourishing Life.

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