I recently listened to an interview with sugatha baliga. In the podcast she describes a fascinating journey of healing from childhood sexual abuse, culminating in an audience with the Dalai Lama. After describing the impact of the abuse on her life and the crippling anger she felt towards her abuser, the first question the Dalai Lama asked her was, “Do you feel you have been angry long enough?”
Anger can be an overwhelmingly powerful emotion. Its nearly impossible to reason with someone in the throes of righteous fury. Oftentimes the person themselves is aware that their anger is making them unreasonable, irrational, or even dangerous, but can’t get themselves to stop. This question, taken directly at face value, can get the person to stop for half a second and think, “have I been angry long enough?” Even if the answer is “no,” they’ve been forced to think for a second, which starts the cooling off process.
However, taking the reasoning a step further, asking this may cause the person to question themselves, “what is ‘long enough’ for this particular anger?” They may discover that this particular anger actually never needed to happen, and any amount of time is “long enough”. It is far too easy be angered by triggers that are—relatively speaking—meaningless, or trivial, or not worth our time. Asking the question, forcing yourself to stop and think, can help focus priorities.
That said, the question really starts to pay off when the anger is well-deserved but unfocused. Asking the question “what is 'long enough’?” leads directly to the follow-up question, “what am I doing with my anger?”
I’m a programmer, and like so many other programmers I’ve met, I’m an evangelist for my field. To that extent, its frustrated me to no end that I’ve had only mild success getting my own kids interested in programming. I’d vent to them occasionally about how useful this would be in their life, and I’d vent to my wife occasionally about how I wish they used the books I got them, and I’d vent to the toaster when no one else would listen. If I would have asked this question to myself I would have recognized that my frustration—anger— was undirected, and therefore not only purposeless, but ineffective. Thinking this through, I realized that if I really wanted to be angry about this, I was making myself a promise that (1) this was a worthwhile thing to be angry about, and (2) I would do something about it. (I eventually bought a course for the kids on Codecademy, going well so far.)
Anger at a trivial trigger is bad because its a waste of time. Anger at a worthy cause can be useful, but only if it forces you to think. Consider the following angry thought: “man, it makes me so angry that with all the money I pay in taxes, we still have starving kids in this city.” There are so many potential follow-ups to that thought… you may decide to email the City Council in support of food programs, you may decide to donate a dollar next time you’re at the supermarket, or you may even decide that, right now, you simply aren’t able to address that particular anger. However, the question forced you to give it thought. By training yourself to go through this process you can both reduce the “pointless anger” and make sure that you actually do something about things that matter.