I was struck by the phrase “feel better.” It is such an odd phrase; telling someone to feel differently than they do. Often we say it in a hopeful sense: “I hope you feel better.” But how many other times do we, without that exact phrase, tell people that they should “feel better”? That they should have different emotions, ones that are “better” than the ones they have now?
I don’t know if it’s all the Chinese and Buddhist philosophy I’ve been reading in the last two semesters, but the contrast between anger and compassion is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. (So much so that I wrote a whole paper on anger! SHOULD I POST IT HERE FOR YOUR READING PLEASURE CIRCLE YES OR NO.)
I think there are two ways to think about difficult emotions like anger: descriptive and normative. On the descriptive end, emotions just are. They are real aspects to our lived experience and are literally part of how we describe our presence in a situation, relationship, or moment. There is no inherent value to them; they just are.
Then there is the normative aspect. As with all things descriptive, we like to put an ethical value on what we are at any given moment. With emotions, I’m just not a fan of telling people they should or shouldn’t feel a certain way. Feelings are, at the moment they are felt, instinctive. They are very, very hard to control, if control is even possible. (Those pesky Buddhist and Stoics would say so!) Therefore, it is wildly unhelpful to tell someone not to feel a difficult emotion like anger, even if that is told in the spirit of wanting the person to have a more pleasant emotional experience, or of wanting to help them be more effective at accomplishing their goals.
The idea of being told to “feel better” (as in “feel a different emotion that is the better emotion in this circumstance”) is better framed, I believe, as “think about the situation differently.” Instead of asking people to feel differently, we should hel them examine the underlying reasons (a la Nussbaum) for their feelings, to potentially make different judgments about the situation they are having feels about. Sometimes that is appropriate! Sometimes anger is the “wrong” emotion, if it is motivated by a belief that does not map onto the events themselves.
Other times, however, anger is justified and, as far as it involves judgments about the world, a very appropriate way of “knowing” a situation.
In keeping with my persistent love for the “and”, I think the best we can do when looking at people who are angry is to listen to their reasons and encourage the putting on of compassion alongside their anger. Many times compassion for the offender, and all its attending reasons, weakens the felt anger towards the offender, without proclaiming the reasons of anger to be wrong. Sometimes compassion may snuff out the fire of anger entirely.
I just think in a world of such complex, selfish, selfless, hurtful, deeply beloved people, we have to leave space for both anger and compassion. Our world and the nature of our interactions and relationships are simply too complex to say an emotion like anger, targeted towards situations of injustice and a deeply motivational force in bringing about change, has no rightful place in our response to the world.