Many of us who serve others in caring professions or roles also work to change institutional or social structures that we see as harming the people we serve, or holding them back. To work to change such structures is often to work against the positions of other people who are committed to those structures. We are especially prone in such work to mistake our angry thoughts of those people for the persons, opposing the people, not just their positions or actions, with an aversion for them that we may mistake for righteousness. This is common among social activists, and can lead to growing hatred for people in the opposition.
Anger can certainly get us moving for social change, but if it becomes a dominant motivation, it can impede us.
Anger is typically self-protective. When we are angry, our images of others are distorted, and this prevents us from staying in touch with their fuller human experience and potential. When we are immersed in self-righteous anger, we cannot listen deeply to others. Such anger, cultivated as a motivation for social change, tends to make us increasingly defensive and abrasive. With anger or hatred of our opponents as our motivation, we tend to drive people away from our cause instead of inspiring them toward it.
Wisdom in anger
But people who defend anger at injustice do so because they sense that such anger is not just deluded, that there is also some important wisdom in it. What is the wisdom in anger at injustice? Such anger knows that something is terribly wrong, something that needs to be decisively confronted in order to make things safe and well. If the wisdom in anger could be liberated from its distorted, limited perceptions of other persons as just evil, its intense energy could clarify into a fierce form of care that is ferocious in upholding everyone in their essential dignity by confronting the forces of greed, prejudice, and hatred that are wielding people.
To access this wisdom we need to be grounded in a caring level of our being that is not imprisoned in the reactions of a brittle, angry sense of self that has lost touch with the unconditional worth of everyone involved, including our so-called opponents. It is from that grounded, caring place place that we can compassionately confront others' harmful behaviors on behalf of them, not just against them.
Confrontation on behalf of others, not against them
As we familiarize with, and begin to stabilize in, the relational practices of Sustainable Compassion Training that help us learn to see and be seen by others more deeply, we can increasingly sense others in their depth as human beings of great dignity and potential. Then our vision of others cannot be reduced to caricatures of self-righteous anger.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized against social institutions of racism and economic inequality, his opponents attacked him and his companions with ferocious dogs and whips. Yet King taught that unconditional love is the key to social change. He taught that we must confront social structures of racism on behalf of everyone, including those supporting such structures. He never conceptualized his movement for positive change in society as only on behalf of oppressed people. It was also on behalf of those people wielding the attack dogs and whips.
This is the essential difference between ordinary anger and fierce care. Ordinary anger is motivated by fear and aversion; fierce care by a force of love that has the courage to confront people for their own sake. Anger seeks to protect the self, or one’s own self-righteousness. Fierce care seeks to uphold all others in their deepest potential by challenging whatever in them impedes that potential.
If we learn to stay in touch with everyone’s deep dignity, our work for change can become more sustainable for ourselves and more effective for others. Instead of getting increasingly enraged in the work, driving away supporters and leading ourselves to burnout, we can become more caring, grounded, and energized. In this way, we can harness a power of care which can attract support from others who share our desire to work for change in a deeply grounded and sane way.