Sometimes I’m faced with someone who’s suffering so much that it brings up a surge of anger and powerlessness in me. I find myself asking a huge “WHY?” in my mind. WHY do some people suffer so much in a world that contains so much beauty? WHY can someone feel so hopeless and so isolated in a world full of people who are aching to experience love and connection? WHY are there so many people in this world suffering that much?
For all the answers I’ve explored to these questions over the years, in that moment I need something more.
With the anger there’s a feeling of passion. A powerful feeling that I have to help, I have to change this, I have to do something. I can feed that passion with more anger, more suffering, more of the world’s misery and it can push me to up my game and contribute more.
But deep in my heart I know it’s limited. That kind of passion is fuelled by frustration, anger and hurt and I’ve known for a long time that there’s something else, and so I’ve been experimenting and this is something you can try out too.
I’ve found three main responses I can access in the face of this kind of anger.
- The anger fuels passion (interestingly the word passion comes from the Latin word for suffering). You need to feed it with more anger, which is easy enough if you watch the news or work with people who are really suffering. It’s dynamic and creates a lot of action.
- You don’t want to feel the powerful negativity of the anger so you find something that turns down its power. For me, typically, that’s working (getting stuff done, going through the boring bits of my to do list, working for the sake of working). For someone else it might be trawling the internet, eating something unnecessary, gossiping and pointless conversation – anything that numbs you for a while.
- You become present to the strong feeling of anger and passion inside you. You stop feeding it with thoughts or feelings about what’s wrong with the world and you allow it space. You observe it without disconnecting from it and you feel it without trying to change it. You are fully alive and present to what’s happening.
So what happens with each of these responses?
- If you use the anger to create passion you do a lot and feel a lot. People respect you because you’re trying to change the world. It’s a powerful way to transmute anger into something constructive. It has produced a lot of creativity, enterprise and contribution. However, when you no longer feel the anger the passion disappears. Then you need another dose of outrage to give you more fuel. I found that I needed stronger and stronger doses – it was as if I acclimatised to each level so I needed a bigger kick to move me forward again. Many times I felt an inner fear that I couldn’t do enough to help and that fed my deep sense of not being good enough, so I would try to push myself to do more. All the time I had to rely on some kind of forceful stimulation to feed the passion – but it feels empty in the quiet moments when no one is watching. There is no true power behind this type of passion. It draws on fear and suffering. It’s better than hopelessness and mute anger, but it’s important to know there’s something else in front of you.
- If you numb the anger or distract yourself from it you spend a lot of time doing things that stop you from feeling strong or disturbing emotions. Each person has their own special way of doing this. You’re cut off in a strange way, but there’s a sense of peacefulness in there too because you’re not upset by things you can’t do anything about. You can be very productive if you choose sensible ways of numbing yourself. I suspect a great deal of business gets done this way. A great deal of alcohol is also drunk for the same purpose. It feeds the manufacturers of everything sweet, the writers and publishers of many books and the producers of TV, radio, podcasts, music, movies and all other forms of entertainment. It’s a considerable contribution to our society, causing you to spend money (and therefore make lots of it), consume everything that can be consumed and create a market for many entrepreneurial and creative people. It’s also better than hopelessness and mute anger but again it’s important to know there’s something else.
- If I become present to the outrage, anger, passion and other feelings that course through me in the face of intense suffering I notice they very quickly change their nature and I feel as if I’m being given a shot of life energy. The intense energy spreads out through my body rather than staying concentrated in certain areas. It tingles and shimmers, rather than burning and rushing. This, of course, is my personal experience. It might be quite different for you. I feel increasingly peaceful, happy and extremely alive – but not in an intense, passionate way. It’s simpler, more relaxed and very purposeful. I feel on track, productive, clear in my head and able to do whatever is needed. I want to things well, not to show someone else, but for its own sake. It feels sustainable and it draws on a subtle power that is clearly benign, generous and unlimited. It feeds my soul, nourishes my heart and creates peace in my mind. It’s quite clear to me that it’s a better place to be.
What’s important is to understand that these are all legitimate responses to anger and outrage at the state of the world. There’s no pressure to be somewhere else. But I have found it extremely important to know the way ahead, so I don’t get stuck thinking where I am is the place to stay.
If you want to experiment with this yourself here’s a simple way to do it.
- Sit down quietly and relax for a few minutes to let go of whatever you’ve been doing.
- Connect with the feeling of the anger and passion. A simple way to do it is to imagine someone else’s suffering that really touches you or upsets you.
- Try out the different responses, as I described above.
- Feed the anger and upset, by thinking more and more about the suffering, your helplessness and the huge challenge of making a difference. Observe what happens.
- Turn away from the intensity of the feelings so they get turned down, reduced, relieved. Observe what happens.
- Become present to the feelings without trying to change them or direct them. Simply let them be present in your body.. Allow yourself to feel them, but without feeding them through thoughts. Observe what happens.
- You can work out for yourself how you can respond to suffering. Make sure you observe later in the day how you felt after doing this exercise.