Journal Entry – Wed Dec 16

I absolutely hate it when I eat a bitter brussel sprout. It just upsets my palate, and I become suspicious of all the other sprouts on my plate! I think this is how it is with people’s experiences with each other sometimes.

Do you have a favourite Christmas movie? I love How the Grinch Stole Christmas (any animated version). A Christmas Story (1983). Krampus (2015) National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989). Gremlins (1984). If nothing else, you must watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

I feel like there are things I should know about relationships as a grown woman that I don’t or that I learned much later than most. And even though I know, it is still difficult for me to understand why it’s necessary! E.g.: 

  1. When your boyfriend gives you a present, you’re supposed to wear it ASAP (if it’s wearable) to show appreciation or something (I don’t know why you’re supposed to do it, I just know now that it’s an unspoken rule)
  2. You should be eager and super excited to share in any joyous social event with your partner and his family. (No! If I never meet your parents, it will be too soon! Why can’t you and I celebrate Christmas alone? I do not want to go to any get-togethers with your family and friends. Stop asking! And I definitely don’t want to go to your work social event – I don’t know anybody!)
  3. You should always be supportive, forgiving and understanding of your boyfriend even when he does crazy stupid shit, like wanting to drive instead of getting a ride after drinking or can’t hold down a job, or can’t find a job, or blows his money on crap. (Fuck no! You’re on your own! While I’m being emotionally supportive of your idiot ass, who’s supporting me? Fuck you! Get your sorry ass out of my life! NOW!)

I was in the shower, and I realized that I just don’t get some social norms – Mind you, I don’t think they should be standard in the first place! But that’s just me!

It’s really lovely to see the teams working together to solve problems at work. Sales is listening to Dev instead of forcing work down their throats. Dev has a say in the Sales process. We’re open, and we’re listening and figuring things out for everyone’s benefit – win, win!

Lecture 22: The Elimination of Anger 

Seneca authored a work entitled On Anger, as a letter of advice addressed to his brother Novatus. On Anger is a sophisticated and insightful piece while also being conversational and accessible to readers who don’t know much about Stoic philosophy.

Shantideva reflects on anger in the sixth chapter of The Way of the Bodhisattva, a work intended mainly for Mahayana Buddhist practitioners who aspire to become Bodhisattvas. (A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who, out of compassion, forgoes final liberation – or nirvana – to eliminate everyone’s suffering).

Living as they did in very different places and times, Shantideva and Seneca never met each other. Still, on one point, they’re perfectly aligned: Anger is so dangerous that we should avoid it altogether.

FYI on Shantideva and Seneca: Shantideva was a Buddhist monk who taught at Nalanda University in India during the 8th century. Seneca was a public intellectual, dramatist, orator, and the advisor and teacher of Emperor Nero in Rome during the 1st century.

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

The word Seneca uses when talking about anger is the Latin term ira, which he defines as a “burning desire to punish him by whom you think yourself to have been unfairly harmed.” On this definition, anger is an intense desire, but it’s also a judgment. According to Seneca, when we become angry, we want the person who has harmed us to be hurt in return. Shantideva doesn’t offer a precise definition of anger, but in the Buddhist tradition, anger is a mental affliction bound up with the three root poisons of attachment, aversion, and ignorance, all of which lead to existential suffering.

This lecture builds on Seneca’s foundation and defines anger as: Anger is an agitated emotional state brought about by the judgment that someone has wronged us (or those we care about) and typically accompanied either by a desire to harm the wrongdoer or by a hostile attitude toward them.

Seneca and Shantideva think we should eliminate anger from our lives altogether. Stoic philosophers agree with Seneca about the need to eliminate anger. The Buddha himself agrees with Shantideva that anger is unjustified even in the most extreme situations. To make their case, both Seneca and Shantideva emphasize that it is irrational to be angry with nature. Here, the term nature means something like “the way things really are, rather than how they just seem to be.” Both Shantideva and Seneca think that it’s irrational to be angry with that.

To make his case, Shantideva often emphasizes the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. This is the doctrine that there is no stable and enduring self that lies behind our actions and makes us who we are. Seneca doesn’t endorse the Buddhist doctrine of no-self, but he insists that “no sane man becomes angry with nature.” For Seneca, because we are part of nature, we also count as interconnected citizens of the cosmos. As such, it makes no sense for us to wish anyone else harm.

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

Interestingly, Shantideva agrees with Seneca that we should regard each other as interconnected parts of a greater whole. This is because Shantideva believes we are all unified in our desire for happiness and our struggle with suffering. Once we recognize this, he argues, being angry with others makes no sense because we’re all working together toward the same goal.

Another line of thinking is that, especially in extreme cases of wrongdoing, anger is reasonable and even appropriate (this is the moderation view). The moderation view is most famously set forth by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics. He suggests that, rather than eliminate anger, we should manage it and harness its power. According to this moderation view, many instances of anger still count as bad, but many others are good. In feeling anger, we may affirm the victim’s struggle, the responsibility of the wrongdoer, and the injustice of the act.

Some people might endorse the moderation view, thinking it is impossible to eliminate anger. Anger is a raw human emotion universally hardwired into us and impossible to eliminate. If we can’t possibly eliminate anger, then we should prefer moderation over elimination. Seneca has a subtle and helpful response to this objection. He distinguishes between the initial shock we feel when “we believe there is an injustice” and the judgment we make.

Seneca thinks that the initial shock is an involuntary movement of the mind and, as such, doesn’t count as genuine anger. Seneca’s point is that real anger is more than an immediate gut reaction to a situation; it’s a judgment that requires our endorsement. Armed with this distinction, Seneca can accommodate the concern that we can’t eliminate the initial, involuntary feelings associated with anger. He still insists we can stop genuine anger because it’s up to us how we respond to those gut reactions. (I agree, and I get angry all the time – that’s my rest mode 🙂 )

Another line of thinking is that anger actually helps us recognize what is morally significant in certain situations. Seneca acknowledges that there’s something to this observation. Still, the distinction between reflexive and real/genuine anger can help here. Our gut reactions to unjust situations can tell us a lot, but how we react to that information is what matters. Seneca and Shantideva can accept that gut reactions can be informative while insisting that genuine anger is destructive and irrational. Shantideva and Seneca also insist that real anger clouds our moral perception rather than providing us with clear moral insights.

Another argument is that anger can motivate us to do the right thing. Shantideva and Seneca obviously think that anger is dangerous. So their basic response to the motivating power of anger is to emphasize anger’s dangers over its benefits. People sometimes take others more seriously because they seem angry. However, according to Seneca, this only tells us that we sometimes might need to pretend to be angry. Shantideva and the Buddhist tradition are equipped to provide a replacement for anger – compassion and loving-kindness.

Compassion in the Buddhist sense is the recognition that others are suffering and the desire that anyone capable of suffering should be free of suffering and its causes. Meanwhile, loving-kindness is the recognition that all sentient beings seek happiness and have the conditions that allow them to attain it.

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

Another final argument regarding the moderation view of anger is the humanity-affirmation argument. This argument suggests that the only way to affirm the humanity of those who have suffered injustice is to feel angry about their oppression. To do otherwise would be inhumane. To make this argument, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum appeals to Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s experience of being rescued from a Nazi death camp. On seeing the horrors of the camp, Wiesel recounts, an American soldier started yelling and cursing. Rather than finding the soldier’s behaviour upsetting or offensive, Wiesel found his behaviour justified, reasonable, and genuinely humane.

This is a powerful story. It seems to provide a compelling reason to endorse the moderation view of anger over the elimination view. To understand what Seneca and Shantideva might say in response to this story, consider the following thought experiment.

Imagine that instead of a frustrated soldier, Elie Wiesel had encountered Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Avalokiteśvara is the embodiment of compassion and loving-kindness. If he had come upon Wiesel in that awful death camp, he wouldn’t have become angry; he would have responded to him with the deepest kind of compassion, hoping to ease his suffering, and with the deepest kind of love, hoping to return him to his former happiness.

Those who would rather have a friend who acts like the angry soldier would likely endorse the moderation view. Those who would rather have a friend who acts like the compassionate Avalokiteśvara would probably support the elimination view.

I think the distinction between raw, instinctual, gut reaction anger and what we do after feeling it (although it takes work) is within our control. I support the elimination view. I aspire to be like Avalokiteśvara.

Source: The Great Courses – Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature 

I hope you have a great day tomorrow!

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