Why Do We Get Angry With People?

June 12th, 2008

The other day, one of the big oaks in our forest broke in half during a windstorm. The top part crashed down, crushing a number of other trees beneath it.

The day after it fell, Rebecca and I sat on the fallen section, looking up at the old oak. Since we’re rather fond of trees, and particularly fond of the trees in our forest, we found ourselves considering how odd it was that we weren’t angry with the old oak for crushing all those other trees beneath it.

To illustrate, consider that a storm comes by your house and blows a branch into a window, breaking it. Of course, this is a perfectly natural occurrence. We might be angry, but we’re not angry at the tree or at the windstorm. In fact, if the anger is directed anywhere, we might direct it at ourselves since we didn’t notice how close that branch was to our window, and trim it off before it had a chance to do some damage.

Now, if the neighbor boy comes running through the yard and throws a rock into our window, we will feel quite different, won’t we? Now our anger is directed at the boy, and we’ll probably find some way to punish him.

This all seems very normal to us. We can’t really get angry at rocks and trees and even at most animals, because they are not acting with free will. But we often get angry with human beings (including ourselves), because we do act via free will.

A while ago, I wrote a post calling free will into question. If we look honestly, we discover that we don’t really have any conclusive evidence that free will exists (and conversely, no conclusive evidence that it doesn’t).

It is interesting if we sit down and really spend some time thinking about this issue of free will. If you watch your mind carefully, you will see that we have a very ingrained belief that free will exists. And if you continue to think on the issue, taking the time to examine it fully, you very well may discover that you want to jump to the opposite conclusion.

In other words, if we observe with our full intelligence, we will discover that we really don’t know whether there is free will or not.

It’s a bit odd, then, that we spend so much energy applying ourselves to being angry with ourselves or others because of this belief in free will.

After all, how else can you be angry with someone unless they’ve done something under the context of free will?

Is there free will or isn’t there? Make a decision either way, and you’ve simply latched on to one half of your usual dualistic model of the world. In truth, neither ‘free will’ nor ‘no free will’ adequately describes the true relationship we have with the world.

Most of us are strongly in the ‘free will’ camp. And we may never take the time in our lives to sit down and really think about the implications this has in our lives. But this belief is one of the strongest influences in how our life unfolds.

If we observe carefully, we will discover that we can make strong arguments for either side of the issue. And we will also see the many flaws each side has. What, then, are we left with?

Observe. When you truly examine this belief (or any belief), it will crumble before your observation. You can only hold a belief if you close your eyes and cover your ears, refusing to think or examine. But when the belief is unmasked . . .

This is when the world begins to open up to us in a new way. When we’re not painting the world with our beliefs, we’re able to see the world just as it is, and it will dazzle us in its beauty and simplicity.

Perhaps the greatest mystery is not whether or not there is free will. Perhaps the greatest mystery is this – Why do we spend so much energy and time constructing a world-view that brings us so much stress, frustration, and pain? The world is just fine as it is. But when we insist on painting it with beliefs, we miss out on almost everything life has to offer, and are left only with the constant stream of thoughts in our heads – punctuated by an occasional glimpse of beauty when the world presents us with something so new or amazing that our thoughts, for a moment, cease.

Let the world be its wondrous self. When you do, you discover something truly extraordinary – that you, too, are wondrous and beautiful and simple.

This is all that we need to do. Everything else will unfold perfectly on its own.

10 Responses to “Why Do We Get Angry With People?”

  1. Cedric says:

    Great pointer: “Observe. When you truly examine this belief (or any belief), it will crumble before your observation.”

    But please explain this, beliefs are borne of the mind, they are thoughts conditioned by memories (which are also thoughts) and everything we perceive is conceptualised by the mind. So when we “observe” we inevitably do this with mind thus perceiving something (in this case the belief being observed) through the same conditioned mind. How does this not create a Catch-22 of sorts?

    And that’s without getting into the question of who is the observer? what is being observed? etc :)


  2. Greetings Cedric,

    Great observations!

    I didn’t touch on the observer simply because I craft each post to examine a different aspect of our belief system, and for brevity’s sake I didn’t take this one any further. There are many other posts on the site which do examine the idea of an observer — I invite you to explore.

    Your catch-22 is actually what people will hopefully discover as they begin exploring beliefs. For instance, if there is a person in my life who I think is a real jerk, I might suddenly come to realize that my idea about them (jerkiness) is coloring my perception of ‘who they really are’. I might think — “this idea of jerkiness is not ‘real’.” Then I begin wondering what IS real in my observation, and when I try to define ‘real’, I really get into a quandary. Is a thought (and hence a belief) not as ‘real’ as anything else I can define?

    The confusion is actually our ally here, since the goal is to discover that there is, indeed, a method of observing which is free of conceptualization. This seems quite impossible to our everyday mind, which must frame everything in ideas, but nevertheless, this ‘concept-free’ observation is something we are all capable of. The trick? Well, it can’t be conceptualized, of course! And thus it’s something we must directly experience, in the way that we experience the feeling of sunshine on our face or the sting of a wasp or a feeling of excitement. Words may turn us toward the sensation, but they can never be the sensation itself.

    So the idea above is to sense the catch-22, and then to explore it fully, not allowing ourselves to settle on any one idea. If there is truly no answer, then what are we left with? If we don’t settle on the ‘idea’ of confusion either, we can snap into a sudden clarity which delivers a sensation which we realize has been right in front of us all along, hidden only by our mind’s insistence upon constantly framing the world.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Cedric!



  3. kl says:

    Pertinent article.
    I’ve been spending time observing anger within me lately. I’ve noticed that anger arises when something happens that doesn’t fit with my desires or wants. It appears to stem from frustration at being unable to control unfolding events. When it springs up, it’s a really uncomfortable sensation and my knee-jerk reaction is to ‘fling’ it at someone or something else – literally grab it and throw it ‘out’ of myself.
    However, if I sit and stay with the anger, just letting it be, it dissipates almost as fast as it arose.
    After all, it’s just an emotion… which is what? A physical sensationary response to a thought? And that thought is holding on to a concept of what “should be”?
    By staying with the feeling, and allowing it to just do it’s thing… it disappears like morning mist under the rising sun.
    By reacting to the anger and getting mad ‘at’ a person, the feeling is passed on and often becomes bigger and more… like a snowball rolling down a slope of fresh powder.

    Anyway, that’s just what I’ve been noticing with my particular point of view. :)


  4. Greetings KL,

    I’ve often tried to describe this sensation, and I think you did it more clearly than I have 😉 This is very real — this emergence which dissipates almost instantly if we pay attention to it, and which grows if we react to it (this reaction has always seemed to be a version of resistance to me — the reaction is born of some sort of desire to NOT be angry, since we have been taught that this emotion is negative). The paradox is that if we actually give full allowance to our anger, anger evaporates, because it can’t exist in a climate of full allowance. The problem with telling this to people, of course, is that most people will only give partial allowance, using it as an excuse to react even more strongly to their anger. As usual, it’s a subtle concept, challenging to explain. But when you feel it — it is as so clear that words only muddy it.

    Thanks for sharing,


  5. Tim says:

    Hi Kenton,

    Great article. I was wondering though, if every belief will crumble under examination, what about a seemingly obvious belief like, say I’m looking at table in front of me. Then the belief “there is a table in my field of perception” would seem hard to deny.

    Would a better way to look at it be that the words I use to assert my belief are just thoughts and not reality? Whatever I believe is a table is just symbols. The table does not exist other than in my mind. When I take the symbols to be other than the thoughts and images that they are than I’m in illusion?

    I used to kind of take the idea that the world is an illusion as, since the world takes place in my consciousness and I can’t prove anything outside of it, then the world is illusory. A better way to look at it might be that the world I create with my thoughts and concepts is illusory.

    Certain teachers advise sitting down and trying to write what you know to be true. If I sit down to do that I don’t get too far because on an intellectual level I can sense that all words and concepts are not true (but I don’t live from it). So it’s like sitting down to write the truth and nothings comes of it because I’ve already reached the conclusion. If all beliefs are illusory because they all are based on thoughts then I don’t feel like I need to examine them and nothing comes of the process of trying to write whats true. Do you have any advise to better examine beliefs?

    Best Regards,

  6. Greetings Tim!

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    I made such a sweeping statement for two reasons – first, it can act as a challenge to spur us to further examination, and second, it serves as a reminder that if we let our mind ‘stop’ at any assumption, we end up missing our view of ‘reality’.

    For instance, if I assume that there is a table in my field of perception, I’m actually holding to a multitude of beliefs. Even if I don’t posit an actual table (but only a non-object based perception), I’m probably still harboring the belief/sensation that there is a ‘me’ having the perception.

    Many of these assumptions seem painfully obvious (the sensation of movement, the passing of time, the presence of a me-observer), but if we take the time to really examine them, we find that even these ‘obvious’ beliefs are full of holes.

    To take it even deeper, if I decide that the world is only perception, or label my ideas as symbolic (and perhaps imply some sort of ‘unreality’ by using that label), or posit that the world is illusory, or that my conceptual world is somehow unreal, then once again I’m falling prey to living under a system of unfounded belief.

    Try as we might, our intellectual mind can’t wrap itself around the utter simplicity of reality. As soon as we try to ‘figure it out’, we start playing games with ourselves, chasing around in mental circles. What is real? What is the nature of perception, of reality? Any answer I give is found to be faulty if I examine it clearly enough.

    The point here is to urge us to let down our intellectual mind for just one moment. When this happens, we experience a breakthrough, and come to understand exactly what it is our intellectual mind was trying ineffectively to piece together. We might label this breakthrough ‘simple’, as I said above, but already we’re starting to form an idea of it.

    If we want to experience ‘spicy’, all we need do is douse our tongue with Tabasco sauce. No amount of trying to ‘figure out’ spicy will ever give us the clarity which is delivered when we stop thinking for a moment and just experience what is actually going on.

    Thanks again, Tim — I greatly appreciate such thought-provoking inquiry! It helps to wrap our minds around these things until we finally figure out that thinking just isn’t going to get us what we’re looking for.



  7. Yvonne says:

    Thank you Kenton for this article (I like your blog in general and have been reading it for a couple of months now.) Thank you also to KL for your comment. This article, the comment and Kenton’s reply have all helped me enormously in understanding the process of feeling anger, and for me understanding is always a huge step towards finding the peace in any situation.


  8. Hello Yvonne,

    KL sure does have a way of examining things with clarity, doesn’t she? I’m glad that this helped you in your movement toward enhanced peace.


  9. misanthropope says:

    it seems to me the “free will” question is a lot like Pascal’s Wager, only, you know, without the idiocy.

    anyhow, my free will works just fine. hope you kept your receipt.

  10. Hello misanthropope,

    I’m glad it’s working well for you. It has a way of doing that!


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