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The Secret to Stoking a Friendly Fire

We’re often told anger is the enemy, but by forming an alliance with the feeling we can better understand ourselves and navigate the world.

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Anger can be intimidating. Inflammatory. Uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean it’s a problem. This feels like a sentence I should repeat, because it often seems counterintuitive to the pursuit of happiness and the practice of peaceful living. Anger isn’t a problem. It’s simply information.

Like most things unpredictable and wild, anger gets a bad rap: the reputation of being a troublemaker. It rolls in uninvited, rocks the boat and threatens to break things down. Our stomachs tighten in anger’s presence, our throat and muscles constrict. One hot hit of anger mirrors the way venom spreads through the body of the bitten. Everyone I know knows this feeling; by virtue of being human.

But perhaps rocking the boat is exactly what anger is for. It makes us pay attention. It afflicts us with a sucker punch to alert us that something is wrong. Anger is the body’s delivery system of an incandescent message. Whether we’re willing to receive the message or not depends solely on our relationship to its source.

Anger isn’t a problem. It’s simply information.

Do we trust that the fire is friendly? Or do we regard the fire as a foe?

It’s hard for me to talk about anger without also mentioning that I’m a woman. The cultural language that I inherited for relating to anger is that it equates to something unsafe, unhinged, combative, out of control.

Take, for instance, the psychological disorder hysteria, from the Latin word “hystericus,” which literally means “of the womb.” For over 4,000 years, strong emotions exhibited by women were diagnosed as pathological, a disturbance of the womb, which needed to be tamped down, medicated, or cured. In other words, I’ve inherited a historical understanding that anger is problematic. It’s a negative emotion. Keep it tucked in tight.

For a while, this condition made me a master at rationalizing my anger instead. I collected a new language to make my temperament more palatable and safe; a means of putting it under display glass.

The tricky thing about rationalizing our emotions, I learned, is that it rarely leaves room to listen to them. Neat and tidy rationalized boxes don’t have enough space. Once something has been explained, it doesn’t need to be experienced directly; we try to repress the uncomfortable sensations that arise from making contact and instead point to some other emotion or thought we repackage the anger into. This comes in handy if we find anger threatening, if we relate to it as a foe. It’s a clever form of repression, which inevitably takes its toll on our health.

If expressing anger feels dangerous, and repressing anger is physically harmful, how do we trust that the fire is friendly?

The first step toward getting intimate with our anger is to really feel it in the body.

Where is it most easily locatable? What is the temperature? Does the sensation move, does it have a rhythm or is it lodged in a single place? What’s the quality of your breath, your heartbeat under its influence?

Simply being tuned into the physical sensation of an emotion can start to eradicate its hard-shelled narrative. It reminds us that anger is an aspect of us, not a problem or reckless invader. We learn to trust that we can hold it without breaking it, or throwing it at others to ease our discomfort.

Once we can feel into our anger, we’re more likely to locate its source. Anger is a propulsive emotion that is designed to keep us safe. Our bodies are flooded with catecholamines, adrenaline, and noradreneline that serve as rocket fuel for fighting or fleeing situations in which we feel threatened. But threatened by what? How might we be hurt? What’s the source of our vulnerability?

Listening with the intention to understand is pivotal for developing trust in relationships. This rule also applies to our relationship with our emotions; which is to say, pivotal for trusting ourselves.

Much like a wound becomes inflamed when it’s tenderness isn’t treated, there’s often an underlying tenderness to our anger. It can spring from feeling afraid, rejected, embarrassed, or sad. Perhaps we sense an attack on our dignity, either by feeling our sense of self has been punctured, what we love has been violated, or who we are has been silenced and ignored.

Anger always has a benevolent intention, which is to draw attention to what needs care.

I’m reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s reflection on civil riots, “A riot is the voice of the unheard.” Anger always has a benevolent intention, which is to draw attention to what needs care.

When we’re present to the sensation of our anger and can tap into its softer source, we can then decide the most skillful action to take. We become responsive rather than reactive to our anger. This is how an alliance is born. Sometimes the most caring thing we can do is become more vulnerable and then communicate what we need to people we trust. Sometimes the call to action is to set boundaries, draw a line in the sand, display what we’re willing to carry, and what we’re unable to hold. Sometimes the alarm bell signals radical change by way of fire; something we need to disintegrate in order for our own lives to grow.


Related: The Power of Our Personal Narratives


In agriculture and forestry, there’s a technique called proscribed burning.

Every so often, when the underbrush in a forest becomes hazardously thick and dry—the perfect tinder for a wildfire— the Department of Forestry will mark off designated areas, collect wildlife to reduce casualties, and then burn it to the ground. The same goes for fields in farming. Every so often, when land needs to be cleared of withered crops and old debris, the farmer will intentionally burn the land clean.

On the surface, it’s an act of destruction. Upon closer look it’s a means of protection—one that’s sanctioned by nature. Lodgepole pines and Giant Sequoia trees have seeds that can be activated only by fire. It restructures the soil, and promotes new life to grow. This is fire ecology.

Our anger isn’t a problem; it’s simply information, a source of wisdom, and a message that requires trust to open. Getting physically intimate with anger, feeling it, exploring it—will help us to understand it fully.

This is how we nurture our personal fire ecology, how we practice trusting our emotions, how we stoke a friendly flame.

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