Anger and Empathy
I remember when I was very little, maybe three or four, my mother said to me, "What am I going to do with you?" I told her she could put me down the garbage chute. I imagined that was where the Sesame Street monsters lived. I thought I could live with them and that’s where I would belong. I also wanted to solve the problem for her.
It was empathy that made me want to solve the problem for my mother. I was the problem and I was willing to go down the garbage chute and live with the other monsters if it would make her life easier and better. (Though now, as an adult, I’m thinking that wouldn’t have solved the problem for her, or it would have created more and different problems, things I couldn’t fix, no matter how hard I tried, ever.)
I was so eager to share with others that my mother had to prevent me from giving my things away.
I would befriend the friendless, play with the kids who were different — ostracized.
In elementary school, I would sit with the boys who got in trouble.
My heart went out to the punished and misunderstood.
My parents called me Champion of the Underdog.
When I was a teenager, my father started calling me Rebel with a Cause.
I was involved with the Amnesty International group at school.
I would read reports about political torture.
Emma Goldman was my hero.
I wanted to change the world with ideas.
I wanted freedom and flourishing for everyone.
As Emma said, "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things."
And I was angry. And I’m angry now.
I often find myself angry on behalf of others. I’m angry that such a high percentage of the population is in prison. I’m angry about racism. I’m angry about the mistreatment of people with disabilities. I’m angry that, in a country of abundance, many people struggle to keep themselves clothed, housed and fed. I’m angry about illiteracy. I’m angry about honor killings.
I could go on and on listing stuff I’m angry about. And it all can be summed up by saying the world doesn’t work for everyone. And people are so quick to justify the status quo. As if this was a meritocracy and everyone was getting exactly what they deserved. As if we all didn’t have the same right to exist. As if we weren’t losing people and depriving ourselves of the benefit of their presence in our lives. We waste people. People are devastated by grief when their children die, because the police shoot them, or they don’t have access to adequate healthcare, or they don’t have a safe place to live, and they don’t have what they need to survive, much less thrive. People who are different and have trouble conforming to expectations suffer, and we miss out on their potential contributions because we can't recognize their value. Suicide is social critique.
Anyhow, it turns out I’m not alone. Check out this article about empathetic anger: Anger Motivates Volunteers as Much as Sympathy
Here’s a philosophical reflection on anger and empathy: Empathy, Anger, and the Richness of Life.
Oh, and here’s another article: The Upside of Anger: 6 Psychological Benefits of Getting Mad.
Empathy can lead to getting angry on behalf of other people and this can get people involved in working for social change.
Empathetic imagination helps you to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. This may lead you to be angry on their behalf.
It’s interesting to think about why people get angry about certain issues, injustices, get really angry, while other issues leave them cold.
It’s bewildering to me the way that so many people seem to care more about animals than people. Their righteous anger is devoted to animal activism, which is a fine issue to care about — I don’t dispute that. But why do people get angry and care about the issues that they do? Is it because some people connect and relate to animals in a way that I don’t? Do they otherize the people my heart goes out to so that they don’t empathize in the same way I do? I get angry about people in prison. There’s no doubt in my mind that the U.S. prison system is institutionalized racism and war on economically disadvantaged people. Letters from Amnesty International about political prisoners bring me to tears. I also get very angry about people who reject their LGBTQ teenagers for religious reasons, kick them out of the house, so they’re left to fend for themselves, often battling homelessness and struggling to get their physical and emotional needs met. I get angry about casual ableism, attitudes and prejudices that are not questioned because they’re seamlessly integrated into the status quo.
Empathetic imagination and empathetic anger go hand in hand.
There’s another way that empathy works with anger. If you’re angry with someone, you can try to imagine what it’s like to be them, what their circumstances are, what their story is. This can lead you away from being angry with a specific person (or group or type) and cause you to examine your expectations, and also consider larger factors that are beyond anyone person’s control, events that could happen to anyone.
I often find I am angry at bad ideas, false beliefs, religious and political dogmas and doctrines. And when I hear people repeating these ideas that make my blood boil, it’s natural for my anger, i.e., murderous rage, to be directed towards them. But if it’s one of my close friends who is repeating what I believe to be garbage ideas, then it is too painful to be angry with them on an ongoing basis. It has to be resolved in some way, even if it’s just to agree to disagree. Or I might think it’s not worth confronting them about, and instead I should think about why it’s making me so angry. And also try to understand where they’re coming from by trying to imagine their thought process, what facts and pieces of information they are looking at to come to their conclusions. Or is it that they’re not really communicating what they mean, don’t foresee the consequences and corollaries, haven’t thought it through, have a blind spot, don’t think about it the same way that I do?
Empathetic imagination and empathetic anger go hand in hand.
Empathetic imagination helps you to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. To take the details of their story and imagine how you would think and feel if those occurrences had happened to you. This may lead to you getting angry on their behalf. But also, empathetic imagination can help put your anger is perspective and lessen its more vitriolic aspects. When someone is angry with you, empathetic imagination can help you imagine how a situation feels from their perspective. That they are angry means that something feels wrong to them. To help them you have to think about what could be wrong and what they need.
(Unless they are just making a display of anger to be manipulative and abusive. That’s another topic.)