Is anger a moral response?

I recently attended a four-day gathering of 400-plus compassionate human beings, all united by a desire to heal our national and global divisions. And while it was in many ways a wonderful and spirited event, I found it marred by a mantra intoned by several of the featured speakers: “Anger is a moral response.”

The assertion disturbed me. Anger is human. Anger is understandable. As an early sign of a relationship gone wrong it’s even important and helpful. But is it “moral”?

Studies in neurobiology indicate “no.” Anger is triggered by our brain’s more primitive limbic system — an instinctual reaction to a perceived threat with absolutely no moderating input from the locus of moral reasoning: our neocortex.

From its inception, then, anger has nothing to do with morality. It simply isn’t part of the recipe.

Can we add a dash of morality to our anger after it’s baked? We often try, but in my experience the chemistry goes awry and what we get instead is justification — a mental framework upon which we build and expand on our grievances. And as neurobiology again informs us, the angrier we are the weaker the link between our limbic system and neocortex. Moral reasoning becomes harder not easier, and acts of violence more likely not less.

Does our anger become moral when put in the service of morality, when we channel its raw, primal energy in a positive direction? One conference speaker seemed to say yes, that our anger is moral when tempered and balanced by a commitment to relationship, to a spirit of love.

But I would argue anger is not love’s soul mate, not some divine union that, like oxygen and hydrogen, leads to a life-giving emergence. Instead anger is more like what Chaos Theory calls a “strange attractor:” a value “toward which a system tends to evolve.” When anger is present it’s prone to attract more of the same kind of energy, increasing the possibility of destructive thoughts and acts.

Instead of being love’s partner, anger is a signal of love’s absence, and a clarifying lens to help us choose between the two. Not anger and love. Anger or love. We need to decide and commit.

And if what we desire is simply to harness anger’s energizing “impulse to action,” I suggest we look instead to courage. Courage gives us the strength to be vulnerable, to face what triggered our anger in the first place: deep pain and suffering arising from a sense of fear, loss, diminishment or dehumanization.

Anger pushes such pain and suffering away, and in that push great harm is often done — both to ourselves and to those around us. Courage embraces the pain and, in a paradox lived out by moral heroes past and present, transmutes it into fearless love, deep wisdom and true power. Our actions are now drawn from a deep well of compassion, leaving the perpetrators of pain without an outward adversary. They’re forced to face only themselves — the one proven alchemy for redemption and change.

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My Story, My Self? The Case for Detachment

In my workshop — Difficult Conversations: The art and science of thinking together — we explore how our life experiences — what in the workshop we call our “story” — shape how see the world and our place within it. We then dive into neurological research that shows we equate our story with our sense of self, and as a result react to attacks on our belief system as we would an attack on our physical body.

It’s an automated response that can lead to what’s known as an “amygdala hijack.” Fearing an attack, the ancient emotional centers of our brain trigger our survival drive, overpowering our neocortex (the “thinking brain”), and forcing us into one of three automatic reactions: fight, flee or freeze. The noted psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel calls this “flipping our lid” and has a great short video explaining exactly what’s going on.

Needless to say, it’s this dynamic more than any other that makes difficult conversations difficult.

So what to do? One answer is to consciously separate our story from our sense of self — to see our story in more objective terms so that when it’s challenged, our survival drive won’t activate and take over.

This separation of story from self is the essence of detachment, and it becomes possible when we realize that we wear our story, our story does not wear us. We can take it off, notice its condition, and re-tailor it as needed.

Neuroplasticity

Detachment is an essential capacity for anyone wishing to help heal our divide. Unfortunately, in our culture the concept of detachment comes loaded with negative connotations. Star Trek’s Spock is the iconic example: To be detached is to be cold and unemotional, robbed of fire, faith, and even intuition, rendering us half human.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Detachment is the process by which we become more human, not less. When we’re so attached to a particular belief that we defend it as if our life is at stake, we lose nine critical cognitive capabilities that most clearly distinguish humankind from all other species, severely restricting our capacity for positive and creative engagement. Our field of view narrows, our options diminish and, more often than not, we end up acting counter to our own interests.

Detachment allows us to maintain these higher-level cognitive functions — to keep our whole brain in the game — so that we’re able to see more clearly, connect more deeply and act more wisely. In other words, we’re better able to love.

So what are some practices that can help us detach from our “story self” and unleash our full creative powers? That’s the subject of the next post. Stay tuned!