“There's nothing so strong as rage, except what makes you hold it in—that’s stronger,” wrote Frances Hodgson Burnett, in her Victorian-era children’s book A Little Princess. I remember being stopped by that line when I first read it, around age seven or eight. At that age I had a hot temper and very little inclination to restrain myself from saying unkind things when I felt provoked. The idea that anger could be held in by something other than fear, by something powerful and good, was utterly surprising to me.
In the intervening years between ages eight and twenty-five, I tried my best not to live into the rage, tried instead to focus my energy on finding different ways to “hold it in” or to use it for good. But I’ve had to accept that anger will probably always be with me.
In recent months, especially, as the news has been dominated by stories about carelessness and cruelty, I have found myself very, very angry. It’s the injustice that gets me. The way that real suffering is laughed off. And really, that should make everyone angry. We need as much anger and as much courage as we can get if we’re going to create a better world. Think of Jesus in the temple— rage can be a cleansing force when it’s used the right way.
But I don’t like how my anger tends to manifests itself: in snide comments, and eye rolls, and sometimes the visceral sense that I’m about to scream, possibly at someone. And, worst of all, it manifests in an abiding and ugly sense of self-righteousness that would be enjoyable if I didn’t know, on some level, that it closes me off from people, from what I believe to be an essentially good world. Two weeks ago, for example, I could feel myself running low on the caution and patience that usually hold my rage in. I’d sniped at someone I barely knew over a few poorly chosen words, and although in principle I don’t want to live that way, honestly, I couldn’t summon much regret over it.
“How do you keep your anger from consuming you?” I asked my coworkers and mentors and bosses. I work with such good and holy wise women, monastics who have spent decades praying and writing and protesting for the Reign of God. They empathized about the anger. I could tell they understood. And they gave me good, healthy advice: to let it be fuel for the work that must be done, to talk about it, to compartmentalize it so it doesn’t affect unrelated and undeserving parties, to take up hobbies and distractions that stabilize me and give me joy.
I told myself I could do that, and hoped that if I could just keep the anger at bay for long enough, it would become easier and easier to choose nonviolence, to have compassion for irritating or malicious people. If I just practice enough, I thought, maybe I’ll master this.
Trying to throw myself into joy as much as possible, I spent last weekend with my godchildren, three precious little sisters who come from a pretty difficult home life. We were decorating for Christmas, we were talking about school, we were making break-and-bake Nestle cookies, and it was easy to be present there, to be happy, to be at peace.
Then the eldest girl, a whip-smart sixth-grader, found the old punching bag in my closet.
“What do you have a punching bag for?” she asked.
“Oh,” I said lightly, “so I don’t punch any people.”
“Why would you punch anyone?” she said.
I told her I wouldn’t—not really—but that when I get angry, it’s better to let it out than keep it building up inside me.
“But I’ve never seen you get really angry like that,” she said. “How come I don’t know when you get angry? How come you don’t scream and break things?”
“Well, sweetheart, I can control it,” I said. And in that moment, I knew that was true. Of course I could. No more excuses.
“I like that you can control your anger,” she told me, very solemnly. “I wish my family could.”
It became very clear to me then that I had wildly misunderstood why it’s important to keep my anger in check. I had been thinking of my tendency to let anger guide me as, basically, a personal problem, an impediment to my own growth and health. But in reality, as much as I want to live a good life, and as much as I care about the spiritual journey, my own enlightenment—or lack thereof—matters very little in the scheme of things. The way I manage my anger has a much more important effect on the vulnerable people around me than it has on me.
So there is a force that’s stronger even than rage, after all: the awareness of how your actions affect others. These children—and so many others—are looking to all of us adults to make sense of the world with all its pain and all its struggles. Lashing out in front of them teaches them to be fearful, to be impatient, to lash out at others in their turn. But what would happen if they witnessed restraint, compassion, self-control? If they witnessed a kind of anger than anyone can tell is informed by love and a desire for justice? Could that help them imagine a different way for us all to live, to relate to each other?
I hope so. I hope so.
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.