Sadness, Anger,
or Compassion?

by Jonathan Dickau

When is it appropriate to get angry? Is it better to be sad over some things, rather than getting angry about them? What of compassion, and how do we get there from sadness or anger? These questions are important in the lives of each of us, whether or not we consider them, since they form the basis for our emotions. In the course of living, we are each shaped by the way in which we approach the choice between them. In many different life situations, we have a choice of whether to respond with sadness, anger, or compassion. Each of these responses has both a value, and a cost, but those are our choices. Of course, some would argue that apathy is a legitimate alternative to any response that involves feelings, but in many cases this is only another face of anger, in disguise.

Having discontent is the same as desiring change, though this isn't always apparent on the surface. What makes people discontented is their lack of, or inability to create, the kind of changes they desire in their lives. How discontent manifests depends on the level of the individual's energy and evolvement. Situations that present a challenge require a little bit of both. The character of an individual's response depends largely upon which is greater, or dominant, at that time, but there is a certain magic in having enough of either to feel in control of yourself. When available energy exceeds a person's evolvement, and a painful situation comes about, he is likely to lash out in anger. With still more energy, the same person may feel compassionate instead. This is only natural! When someone feels that they're on top of things, they can afford to be generous, if it's in their nature at all, but if the same person feels depleted, or threatened, they may respond like a cornered animal.

I have seen how often arguments can ensue, even between people who care about each other, because someone has said the wrong thing when the other person is feeling weak and vulnerable. Whether it comes from lack of sleep, low blood sugar, stress on the job, or something more involved, a depleted state doesn't put anyone at their best. When you have something heavy to share with someone, it's usually best to wait until they have eaten (if they are hungry), have slept (if tired), or otherwise have a handle on their immediate problem. If this is not possible, as is often the case, don't expect more civility than he, or she, can reasonably muster. That person may be doing the best they can, even if their response is difficult or offensive. They may not be equipped to handle a heavy burden when they are already struggling to maintain their balance.

When an individual receives a burden, or a challenge of any nature, it is natural for them to experience some discontent. Whether this becomes sadness or anger depends both upon the depth of that person's discontent, and on their assessment of their own power to make meaningful changes. Someone who is upset about something, and feels they have some power to change things, may get quite angry at those responsible, especially if that person doesn't have enough understanding or compassion to forgive them. A person who feels helpless to change things may experience rage, with fear and frustration, but what happens after that is another thing. If they're too weak to struggle, it will most likely turn to sadness, or even depression. If that person feels a little stronger, their reaction may turn to anger, and they may decide to take action against their situation, or those causing it. Someone who is highly enough evolved, however, will feel stronger than their burdens, even if they have no power to change their condition.

Those who turn to anger, for relief from discontent, are usually looking for changes in the outside world, rather than having to change something inside themselves. Anger can be released in safe ways, and it should be released rather than being allowed to accumulate, but it is more often expressed through accusation or intimidation. Releasing anger through controlled expression is a healthy way of getting beyond it, with your strength and self-esteem intact. Sometimes, however, the anger we express, when trying to release it, may be far easier to identify with than to really let go. One may feel better, but still harbor resentment, and this is not the same as transcending anger. In some cases, the only way for people to finally release their anger is to precipitate changes in their situation. Only when the offending problem has been removed, can they allow themselves to be calm about it. The only difficulty is that removing a problem, whether by force or by trickery, often just leaves a problem for someone else, and this is not the same as finding a solution. Anger motivates us to make changes, and this motivation can be helpful, but it can also hurt.

Those who take refuge in sorrow, when they are discontented, have usually given up hope of changing their situation, or influencing the people who created it, and are resigned to accepting things the way they have become. Sadness is a healthy form of discontent, when it helps you to deal with things as they really are. It can be a valid means of acknow- ledging the rights and decisions of other people, rather than imposing our own values on their world. Anger cannot exist independent of judgment. Compassion without a genuine empathy for the sorrow of others is hollow, and somewhat haughty. Sorrow takes its toll, however, since it is painful, and it reduces the energy available for solving life's problems. Sadness that is too intense, or too prolonged, can lead to depression or worse. Harboring sadness can create health problems, promote dependency, and make one vulnerable to a host of other things. When you are constrained from taking action, however, whether through circumstances or because of your beliefs, a certain amout of sadness will always accompany the desire for that which is denied you, so long as you really want it.

The state of emotion required to create lasting change in oneself is somewhere between sadness and anger. As one proceeds deeper into sadness, there is a greater and greater sense of giving up, or not having the ability to change. As one proceeds further into anger, however, there is less and less interest in changing anything about oneself, and increasing concern with creating change outside us. Somewhere in the range of emotion between these extremes is found something which can be called the mood for change. When one has this mood, the mind is at its most open. It is committed to the desire for changes, without being committed to a particular course of action. One can swing either way, toward acting upon the outside world to change our place in it, or toward accepting the state of the world and our place in it, but there is also a third option in this mood. When one is truly in the mood for change, one can easily resolve to change oneself.

Discontent can be desribed by the term cognitive dissonance. Specifically, this is any difference between our idea of how things are, and our idea of how they should be. Such a discrepancy can be made less by changing either the world around us, or the way we look at things. Being sad can be an excuse for just giving up, and anger can be used as a reason for behaving badly without just cause. Meaningful change, on the other hand, is far more of a challenge. Finding lasting fulfillment doesn't just happen to you, but instead emerges from the ongoing ability to make meaningful changes in ones life. It may require you to use your discontent as a compass, to discover where you have a need or desire to change, and it may require you to give up some of your desires in order to drop your discontent. Being contented with what you have now will help you to enjoy life, and may allow you to have other things you desire.

What about compassion? To some extent, our ability to show compassion is dependent upon our being in a better state than others ourselves, but at the same time it is also dependent upon our ability to feel the common humanity of ourselves and others. By acknowledging that we are like them, and making an effort to understand their sorrows, or weaknesses, we elevate ourselves above those problems. The proper approach to being more fully human is to appreciate the fact that even the less noble aspects of human nature are divine. In the sense that we all love something, or someone, and we are all pursuing the satisfaction of our desires, we are all acting out of a divine impulse. The fact is that even those who cause us pain are acting out of love. The problem is that their love is not for us. Instead their love pursuit is exclusive of our needs, or not in accord with our desires. To be compassionate toward others, we must be able to put ourselves in their place, and to see that we are not all that different from them. They may love what they are doing, or they may be constrained to do things they do not enjoy, in order to have what they love. Either way, having compassion is an acknowledgment of their love by our own.

Where one can become sad or angry over things which are beyond anyone's control, compassion seems to need a living object. Someone who has caused us pain can be forgiven, and this an expression of compassion, but if an inanimate object causes our pain, we can't feel genuine compassion toward it. If that same object causes us pain because it injures someone else, we can feel compassion for that person, or for others who care about that person, but not for something without feelings. If the object itself is not capable of love, then our compassion has no common nature to reach out to, or resonate with. For living beings, however, we can entertain the whole range of emotions, and we can be compassionate out of pity, remorse, sympathy over our common condition, or forgiveness.

Compassion can spring from sadness, or it can emerge from anger, but it has a life of its own. The most fertile ground for compassion to grow in seems to be the mood for change. When we question both the desire to lash out at the outside world, and the impulse to give up on it or ourselves, we may find reasons to love. The ability to love at all requires a willingness to love both ourselves and others. If we have not learned how to include consideration for others in the love we feel for ourselves, then it may not really be love we feel at all. If, on the other hand, we can't incorporate love for ourselves in the feelings we have for others, then we are incapable of giving our best to either them or us. Compassion for yourself is therefore an essential aspect of loving others, and compassion for others is an essential part of loving yourself.

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Posted on June 10, 1998

©'98 Jonathan J. Dickau - all rights reserved.