Anger on the Pathway to Peace

This holiday season, more than ever before in my lifetime, I long for Peace on Earth—but it feels like an unattainable platitude. News from both afar and nearby is filled with human suffering and cruelty. Peace feels flimsy and elusive.

As I observe the world’s strife with an aching heart, I see how trauma from generations past creates trauma for generations to come. How can we ever hope to coexist safely?

When we are threatened, it is natural and instinctive to react with an embodied “fight, flee or freeze” response. We are hardwired to have this physical reaction. Evading attack or responding with self-defense allows us to navigate threats, minimizing psychological trauma and preserving our well-being.

But what are the limits of healthy self or communal protection? When the natural fight response arises in our bodies, how can we harness its power for good?

Anger can either be constructive or destructive. When contemplating anger, we usually think of the destructive variety: physical or verbal lashing out, violence or cruel aggression. But anger itself is just a signal in our bodies—felt in sensations of heat, clenching, agitation, etc.—communicating that we feel harmed or violated in some way and are energizing for quick action. It’s up to us whether we will follow the defensive impulse to lash out destructively, or whether we pause and work to harness this energy constructively to advocate for a better future. For example, impactful civil rights struggles engage constructive anger to create progress for marginalized people.

But anger’s destructive energy can be overpowering, especially when we feel threatened and our fight amps up to an annihilation reaction. A shocking, murderous rage courses through us as the body activates to destroy the threat. This, too, is a trauma reaction, spiraling with the primal story that “it’s them or me.” In this state, we cannot fathom co-existing.

To navigate a world marred by violence, we must learn to ride the waves of our own anger—including, and especially, our annihilation urges—to cope with the feelings of helplessness and grief beneath our rage, and to get a grip on ourselves. These feelings are natural, raw and real, but they should not be the primary drivers of our actions.

The path to peace requires traversing the terrain of anger. By confronting and healing our hurt, rage and grief, we can tap into the energy that anger offers while embracing the tenderness essential for peace. Together, we can work toward building a just coexistence in our families, our communities and the world at large.

Photo Credit: Tori Nefores

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