Anger as Wisdom’s Crucible

When my body is in some state of discomfort, I often find it impossible to “mask,” or suppress, my autistic traits. My teeth click together in patterns, I repeat nonsense words ad nauseam, I may even violently rock back and forth. All of my thoughts center on neck-back-chest pains, flayed nerve endings, knife sounds in the outer world…the usual sensory difficulties. These visible signs of discomfort foreshadow an impending meltdown, which cannot be re-caulked once broken loose.

My more violent meltdowns tend to be accompanied by anger, usually at myself for losing control of my carefully-curated emotional expression, or at a specific stimulus that triggered the pain. Either way, a distinctive unmasking occurs, and this unmasking is not unique to those on the autism spectrum. Any sort of aggressive gnawing at the nerves, whether it be a crude comment on social media or the loud shrieks of a fussy child, can rapidly unmask even the most put-together person (case in point: all of 2020).

When anger is unmasked, the stilted protocols we prop up to regulate ourselves and our loved ones disappear. The lilting customer service voice we fabricate fades, exhaustion becomes front and center in our therapy sessions, our ability to lie between grimaced teeth vanishes. With explosive anger comes explosive honesty — and possibly, a return to the path of wisdom.

When I have strayed from the path of wisdom and made an effort to return to it, the true challenge for me has always been the balancing act of honesty vs. unfiltered living. Unfiltered living yanks me from the path of wisdom, as open displays of contempt towards those I hate and being violently true to myself often results in self-loathing and depression rather than humility. However, honesty about my desire to loathe, to hate, to burn with white-hot anger towards others and the world around me, has counterintuitively burned away my desire to please and bend towards those who do not have my best interest in mind.

I cannot be wise if I live in hate. Yet I cannot be wise if I serve and serve and bend and break and please. Where in anger can the middle ground be found?

I greatly enjoy reading a variety of Stoic perspectives on anger, but one perspective I have yet to come across is how anger can serve as a counterintuitive crucible for wisdom. Perhaps this is because it cannot be done, and I am wrong to think that exploring anger in any way can possibly lead to wisdom. If this is the case, then this reflection is merely me playing devil’s advocate, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

However, there is something to say for the power of anger to burn away illusion, as illusion can cloud our path to growing in virtue and humility. Some deceptions that anger can burn away include the illusion of control, of our ability to regulate our emotions perfectly at all times, and of censorship.

When we experience the sort of rage that accompanies a great loss (i.e. of loved ones, career, or homestead), within this anger is nature’s callous, clinical reminder that we do not have as much control over our lives as we think. For example, when I was a teenager, I struggled with anger over my parent’s divorce because I was under the illusion that a relationship could be repaired if two people could just put in the effort to act peacefully and always do the right thing. This illusion was destroyed quite quickly by the divorce, along with the lie that a peaceful and diplomatic nature was the most powerful driving instinct in humans.

Likewise, I have struggled with anxiety and depression since puberty — two disorders that are common comorbidities in individuals with ASD. I burned with anger against God for refusing to take away my neurochemical woes, and against myself for not being able to perfectly regulate my emotions at all hours of the day.

Anger burns away any arrogant assumption that we can reach a state of eternal, perfect emotional regulation if we just try hard enough. One does not have to be on the spectrum for anger to pinch the nerves and bones to the point of explosion. Even the wisest are prone to conniption fits if poked in just the right way; anyone who has been part of a philosophy Facebook group or online forum long enough knows exactly what I mean.

The form of censorship that is burned away by anger tends to be self-censorship more than general societal censorship. After all, there is probably a legitimate biochemical reason as to why spatting out filthspit four-letter words helps relieve pain, or why I’ve always found catharsis to be a euphoric release of tension compared to mantras. Aside from the violent release of pent-up tension, anger forces us to confront the damage to our souls that excessive self-censorship brings forth. When diplomacy turns to denial, and wise tact to the masochistic clamping of the tongue, the virtue of restraint is perverted into a true straying from the path of wisdom.

Efforts to control one’s anger are virtuous only insofar as they nurture humility and compassion for others, as being able to love our fellow human requires a certain degree of restraining our exasperation at human badness. However, when we completely deny the existence of anger in our souls, a great bottling occurs, muddying our ability to discern restraint from repression.

Anger is a volatile crucible, but sometimes a necessary one: a not-so-gentle reminder that we have strayed from the forest path of wisdom and entered the mushroom circle of deception. When the gnawing at your nerves and bones arises, seek the message layered within the pain.

Where have you allowed illusion to sink in? What causes you to bottle and bind this anger rather than fixing your eyes on the pursuit of virtue? What can anger teach you about the illusion of control over life that you insist on wielding?

Memento mori, friends.

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