There’s trouble at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo where a 38-year-old elephant called Bamboo has been throwing her weight around. She’s been thoroughly ill-tempered and aggressive towards some of the younger elephants and their calves and now she’s having to be moved to another zoo which is specially equipped to deal with angry animals. She’ll live with two fellow Asian elephants, 39-year-old Suki, who threw a handler against the wall and tried to stomp him, and 41-year-old Hanako, described as “unpredictable and moody”.
Most of us could occasionally be described like that and most days we have to deal with other people who, like Bamboo and her friends, are easily irritated and angered. Sometimes it’s best to leave well alone. When King Saul was being consistently angry with David, Jonathan, Saul’s son, agreed a signal
with his friend, so that he would know whether it was safe to come in to the palace or whether it wasn't the time to risk a confrontation. Jesus, too, at his trial, appears to have decided not to say anything that would provoke further his already angry persecutors.
But the wisdom of separating ourselves physically from those whose anger threatens us need not also involve an emotional detachment from them. Jesus’ challenge
to love our enemies suggests we need to continue to be as positive as we can about them. Maybe we could try and find ways of breaking through their wall of tetchiness and irritability; maybe we could help alleviate some of the things in the environment we share with them which are a seedbed for anger; maybe praying for them, if that’s our belief, or thinking creatively about them, will help them through the unhappiness which often accompanies such ill-temper. These are more creative options than just lumping together in our minds as beyond help everyone who shows signs of such moodiness.
Maurice Sendak writes and illustrates children’s literature. In “Where the Wild Things are”, Max, his young hero, furious with his mother and banished to his room, dresses in his wolf suit and imagines he is King of the Wild Things and can reek whatever mayhem he chooses.
In the real world, we are less powerful and dealing with pain and anger is more complicated. Maurice Sendak is a Jew. When a friend expressed surprise that he never uses his fireplace, he replied “You, you’re an emancipated Jew. You don’t know fire will kill you! I will never unlearn that!”
Moving towards the ending of the year provides an opportunity to review it. Some memories will be painful. Anger may surface when some events are recalled. In some cases, these feelings continue to serve a purpose and we may choose to carry them forward into the New Year. Others feel like a burden which we would be glad to set down and leave behind in the year that is passing.
Max soon tires of raging around in the Wild Things’ forest and wants to return to where “someone loved him best of all”. Perhaps in our struggle to let go of pain and anger, knowledge that we are in the presence of one who loves us, helps. Strong unwanted feelings can fade, if we let them, in the warmth and acceptance of the love of a parent, a lover or a friend. God too, in the imagery of the bible, offers “everlasting arms” and, held by them, Christians feel safe enough to unburden themselves of some of their rage and pain.
As we prepare to enter 2004, it might be worth considering whether there are feelings we want to leave behind and, if so, to seek the presence of a love which will help us do it.
Walking fully grown tigers on a leash is all part of a day's work for a group of Buddhist monks the Pha Luang Ba Tua temple in Thailand. They take in tigers injured but not killed by hunters or by people who did not want the tiger near their village but also did not want to see it die.
"We are a big family here and we live together, not just with the tigers but many animals," said head monk Phusit Khantidharo, sitting cross-legged on a rock surrounded by five large tigers who take turns to nuzzle up affectionately to their saffron-robed master. “All 10 tigers living with us have adopted peaceful Buddhist ways,” he insisted. One monk, who weighed less than half his furry companion, was bold enough to crouch down and mock fight with the big tiger, which gently lunged back with its deadly claws retracted.
Despite the head monk's assurances that the tigers have chosen the path of non-violence, some devotees living at the temple bear scars that look suspiciously like the work of the big cats, and locals living near the temple say there have been a handful of maulings.
Living with the possibility of an outburst of aggression and potentially destructive violence is more common than it might seem. Hidden deep within many of us is a well of frustration and anger that we only become aware of at times when we feel provoked or threatened. It can seem powerful. Indeed so strong does it sometimes feel that we are worried that one day we will be unable to control it.
One way of dealing with this situation echoes the behaviour of the monks. Part of the power of our inner anger comes from the fact that we are afraid of it. To befriend it, to treat it with gentleness and respect, makes it much less likely to become dangerous. Today, if such a rush of aggressive feeling should rise up within us, we need to recognise its presence and acknowledge its power, but perhaps also to give it an affectionate and respectful cuddle.
Until the end of this month, guns can be taken into any police station without fear of consequence. At least, that’s the promise, but to expect people to identify themselves as unlicensed gun owners may make the amnesty less successful than had been hoped.
A gun is a particularly dangerous way of expressing violent feelings. They may be used aggressively but increasingly in modern society, people have them as a means of defence.
All of us have violent feelings. Often these will flare up because we feel threatened in some way. Sometimes we just feel aggressive because someone is annoying us. We each of us know our own particular way of expressing those violent feelings.
On this day, Christians remember the arrest of Jesus by Roman soldiers, when he told his disciples to “Put away your swords”. Which weapons from our armoury might it be good to put away today? In that amnesty, only we know we’ve done it, but we hope others will identify a difference.
I don’t envy those who have to deal with complaints from customers. Apparently only 30% receive training in how to handle other people’s anger. But those that do, learn to remember that the anger is not directed at them as individuals but at them as representatives of the company.
When people get angry with us, whether or not we feel any responsibility for causing it, it’s an unpleasant experience. But we sometimes make it worse for ourselves. We fail to recognise that part of their distress is accumulated anger from a whole range of earlier experiences. Only part of it emerges from the present situation.
But there’s also another thing which makes other people’s anger hard to deal with. Our distress is made worse because the anger from without has joined forces with an anger from within, an anger that, until roused, remains quietly lurking beneath the surface of our consciousness.
Most of us are angry with ourselves about something – some mistake, some perceived inadequacy, or something less identifiable. Our ability to react appropriately when people get angry with us would be improved if we remembered to distinguish between their anger with us and our anger with ourselves.
Most helpful of all would be to stop being angry with ourselves. It does nothing but harm. So today instead, let’s try forgiving ourselves for our mistakes and failures.
Knitting is apparently ‘the new yoga’. Inspired by a book called Stitch 'n Bitch: The Knitters' Handbook, by Debbie Stoller, enthusiasts from all walks of life are taking their needles to coffee shops and community centres. There they turn yarn into sweaters and spin yarns about people, particlarly those who are not there to defend themselves.The combination is apparently an excellent way of relieving stress.
These Stitch'n'Bitch groups, and the gossip that goes with them, provide participants with a sense of solidarity as they join in unravelling someone’s personality. It’s not only in groups created for that purpose that this happens. The temptation to deal with our own frustration or anger by attacking others is not just felt by knitters. Often without realising it, we redirect our sense of inability to cope, or our dissatisfaction with how life is going, in irritable comments or angry outbursts, particularly against those who are close to us. We put in the needle as a way of making ourselves feel better.
The Stitch'n'Bitch movement also includes trips to the cinema, internet chat rooms and lessons in knitting. Solidarity and mutual support don’t necessarily include finding a common victim to chat about. Perhaps a good way of dealing with life’s stresses without resorting to bitchiness or ill-temper, even for non-knitters, is to find people with whom to share our frustrations. When we unburden our anxieties to someone who listens, it often achieves what Shakespeare said sleep did,and ‘knits up the ravelled sleave of care’.
Today as we listen to someone else’s worries or find relief by sharing our own, we may also be protecting others from becoming the butt of unexpressed frustration.
Nottingham Forest’s recent 3-0 defeat of Yeovil Town has restored their morale after that score line was reversed at another recent meeting between the two sides. On that occasion, the then manager, Gary Megson, was harangued at half time by two angry fans and he invited John Emener and Andrew Peel to come into the dressing room after the game and give the same treatment to the players. Perhaps its partly that attitude which has contributed to their current more successful season.
Some of us find a good ticking off improves our performance no end. For others, it can merely confirm our sense of inadequacy and leave us less effective than before. In knowing what will help us and in learning to support and encourage others, getting that balance right is an art worth learning.
The most-commonly held view about God is that love and forgiveness predominate. God can be angry, and there are many examples of this in the Old Testament, but in the end, God’s fury will relent and mercy will prevail.
Perhaps today, we might benefit from remembering for once, God’s anger. To reflect on the things in our lives that might lead God to want to give us a good dressing down may be just what’s needed to effect the necessary change. But such anger works on us effectively because we know we’re still loved in spite of it. After all, John and Andrew won’t let their anger stop them continue to be loyal fans.