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Harnessing Anger to Drive Change

“Anger is not bad. Anger can be a very positive thing, the thing that moves us beyond the acceptance of evil.” – Joan Chittister

When Nobel prize winner Kailash Satyarthi was born, he was lucky enough to be born into a high caste in India, meaning he had all the opportunities to develop into an educated, strong-minded, and capable human being. When he was eleven years old, he saw some of his friends leaving school because their parents could not afford textbooks, and he got angry at this injustice. This would be the start of his long-lasting relationship with motivational anger. 

When he was fifteen, he decided to celebrate Gandhi’s birth centenary in a different way – by inviting the elders of his hometown to dine with the lowest of the castes, the untouchables. He was impressed by the leaders of his town, seeing them speaking highly against the caste system and untouchability, praising Gandhian ideals. So he sat on his bike and invited them one by one to come and dine with the people they wouldn’t otherwise let into their shops or homes. They all agreed to come, but when the time came for them to gather at the table, none showed up. Instead of leading by example and in accordance with Gandhi’s ideals, they all hid inside their homes and behind their empty words. 

When Kailash returned home, he saw several high-caste people sitting in his courtyard, waiting to punish him and even outcast his entire family. They gave him an ultimatum to repent, take a pilgrimage to the River Ganges, and organize a feast for 101 priests when he came back. Only then could he continue living as he did so far. But Kailash refused and once again turned to anger. This fundamental emotion gave wind to his sails, resulting in him becoming a world-renowned social reformer and child rights activist. With his colleagues, Satyarthi has freed 83,000 children from slavery and led a global march against child labor that helped spur the UN’s International Labour Organisation to adopt a convention protecting children against exploitation and hazardous work.

Using Anger for a Good Cause

Our emotions can be forceful motivators, in particular anger. Although this emotion has a bad rep since it can lead to violence and other bad behavior, there is still another side to anger, which a growing cadre of scientists is trying to uncover. Instead of being a destructive state, anger can be a potent force of nature that can move us forward and fuel optimism, problem-solving, and creative brainstorming. In other words, if we want to make a change, we need the powerful motivational push that anger can provide.

The idea that anger can be beneficial for us isn’t new, in fact, Aristotle wrote in 350 BC that ‘the angry man aims at what he can attain, and the belief that he can attain it is pleasant.’ This is also supported by our biology because when we get angry and properly channel this energy build-up, our levels of the stress hormone drop, helping us calm down and get ready to face problems, not run from them. 

The feelings of righteousness and control that come from anger can motivate us to challenge and change problematic interpersonal and social injustices. It can help us push past our fear and vulnerability and, as Brené Brown explains it, take a risk without knowing the outcome. In other words, when you can’t take it anymore – show up and let yourself be seen and heard. By acting on our emotions, particularly anger, to make wrong things right, we are opening ourselves to joy and connection, but this can only happen if we also accept that there could be pain. And if there is no pain, then the anger cannot spring out, making this process an important and complete emotional circle.

Anger can allow you to vent out tensions and frustrations, and it can provide the energy and resolve needed to defend yourself or others when they’ve been wronged. If you are a person who has been dealing with an abusive situation, anger can be a positive force that can motivate you to finally resolve the problem or leave, and if you are a dedicated social justice crusader (like Kailash, Martin Luther King Jr., or Gandi), the anger can give you the strength to carry on, and the will to persevere despite the difficulties you may face.

Using Anger and Other Emotions to Our Advantage

To properly use the energy that anger releases, or any other emotion for that matter, and not let it waste away, we must learn how to control and utilize them to our advantage. And this learning should start in schools. Social-emotional learning (SEL Core Competencies) has a massive potential to create conditions for (youth) agency and civic engagement, and lastly, social change. We owe our children this important education that is relevant to their lives and which will help them one day become the leaders and changemakers we need. 

Self-awareness can teach them their strengths and weaknesses, help them reflect on their personal and social identities, and examine biases and prejudices. Social awareness and relationship skills can help them develop cultural competency, allowing them to empathize with people from all backgrounds. Learning self-management will allow them to regulate their emotions and behaviors, while responsible decision-making will teach them how to set goals and take action to improve their communities and the world.

With these competencies, people of all ages can learn to build more meaningful relationships that will help them recognize, examine, and interrupt bad policies and practices in their communities and beyond, analyze social problems and work together to create solutions and take action. The results this learning process can bring are worth the effort!

Keep Reading the series. Social Justice and Fundamental Peace


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