“Little things which make a difference”
Anger; Letting go of it
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Mark Twain
Why do we become angry with others; friends, family, colleagues, and even strangers? Anger is a normal reaction, usually because we feel hurt in some way. It’s not always about our own personal hurt, as sometimes we feel anger over injustice and towards people who cause human suffering. Meanwhile, it would seem that the strongest anger we feel is often towards the people who are the closest to us, the people of whom we expect love and trust, when we believe that our love or trust has been betrayed. Whenever we feel anger, the most common reaction is to look for a guilty party to blame; someone we can hate for causing our hardship or pain.
For most of my life, I carried the heavy weight of anger against my father. To set the background for my story, the first years of my life were very happy; from my birth in 1960 until 1969, we lived in Montana, in a small town on the Blackfeet reservation just next to Glacier National Park at the feet of the Rocky Mountains. My father was a Methodist minister (pastor) and my mother was at home. My parents were very avant-garde in many ways, and very open. As far back as I can remember, we usually had a black student living with us. They came and went, always from the big city, namely Chicago. We used to have fun taunting them by bringing home garden snakes, frogs, or insects, and we would laugh to see how frightened they were of these harmless creatures. My grandfather came to visit us from Texas one summer and refused to stay in the house because there was a black man living with us; he went and stayed in a hotel. I’m happy that my parents were not racist and were very open minded, because this was part of my “formatting” which was positive. However, at the time I didn’t realize it, or the way it would shape who I am.
In 1969 we moved to the inner city black ghetto on the West side of Chicago “5th City”. We had sold all of our possessions, and my brothers and sisters and I were allowed to keep only one toy each. To put everything into context, this move was just one year after MLK’s assassination and the Chicago riots that had followed. My whole universe had been turned upside down. From wide open spaces and wonderful pristine nature, we were now in a place dirtied by every kind of pollution. From a quiet and calm environment, I now found myself surrounded by noise and aggression. No more running and playing in the fields and forests, we couldn’t even leave the security of our apartment most of the time. I was terrified to go to school, because every day the odds were good that I’d get beat up. This is where the anger against my father started, and it built over the years. He had robbed me of my childhood, I felt hurt. I carried this anger more than 40 years, and I can say that I hated my father during all of that time.
So, what freed me from the tremendous burden of anger against my father? There are surely several ways that people can come to realize the futility of anger, for me, it was finding Islam. When I embraced Islam I discovered two things:
Firstly that everything that happens to us has a reason and a purpose, everything is part of the ultimate plan, so how could I still be angry at my father? Sometimes, and even probably most often, the reasons for why things happen to us are not clear, we don’t understand why, but if we believe that everything is part of a greater plan, this takes away the need to blame anyone for any of the hardships we endure. I realized that all of my life experiences have made me the person I am today. Just as an example: I found an escape from the hard reality of my new life in Chicago by plunging into books, it was like a drug, and I became addicted to reading. This fact, in turn, gave me a strong literary background, to the point where I scored 70/70, 98%, in English Literature when I passed my High School exams at 17. Of course, I didn’t even realize the cause and effect at the time, it was only on hindsight, reflecting upon my life through this new perspective, that I was able to see this and many other things which were essential in shaping my mind, my character, and my beliefs. We learn from every experience, and particularly from our difficulties.
Secondly, even though we should take into account the actions of others when making decisions about how or whether to interact with them, we must always remember that there is only one final Judge. We will all be judged, and it is not for us to judge others.
When I came to believe these two things, the enormous weight of the anger which had been bottled up inside me for over 40 years suddenly faded away, leaving me lighthearted. However, there was still something I had to do to make this serenity complete. I called my father and made peace with him over the phone. We hadn’t spoken a word to each other in more than 10 years. We both cried, and I experienced a tremendous feeling of joy and relief. I was afraid what his reaction might be to discover that I had become a Muslim…but his open-mindedness came shining through…he told me he was happy that I had found faith in God, and that it didn’t matter how. He died 6 months later of cancer. Now I thank Allah for having given me the opportunity to make peace with my father before he died.
So, how can we free ourselves from anger against people who we feel have wronged us? There are two ways:
The fist way, and the most common, is revenge. It so happens that the part of the brain which handles revenge is the same part of the brain that deals with pleasure; we find pleasure in plotting and executing revenge. We want for the person who has wronged us to suffer like we have suffered. However, this is not the best way, especially because the anger persists as long as the revenge is not achieved, and as long as we harbor this anger, it is doing us harm. Furthermore, we are creating more pain and suffering around us instead of fostering healing. While the Qur’an teaches us that we have the right to take revenge up to the point that we’ve been harmed, it also teaches us that forgiveness is far better. This is the second and preferable way. It is only through forgiveness that we can let go of our anger, as revenge keeps us holding on to it. Even if it won’t change the harm that has been done (revenge won’t either) forgiveness allows us to cease dwelling on it. We are free to move on and look ahead to the future instead of being enchained to the past.
May you find the strength to forgive, even if you can’t forget, and may your anger fade away, ceding its place to gratitude for every life experience.