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All children need to learn an important lesson growing up – how to control their anger. If you’ve ever tried to manage a child’s tantrum, you know how overwhelming such out-of-control anger feels.
Anger can sometimes have its uses, but more often than not, if we let anger take control, we become its slave rather than its master. Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, said “Jealousy consumeth the body and anger doth burn the liver: avoid these two as you would a lion.”
That’s why it is so important to find ways to deal with our anger, which can be such an overpowering emotion. The guidance of the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca, whose wisdom resembles many of the teachings of the Baha’i Faith, can help.
Seneca believed that the remedy to anger is twofold: preventing anger from arising in the first place, and preventing wrongdoing if we have failed to quench our anger, the first approach being the ideal. He said “The enemy [anger], I repeat, must be met and driven back at the outermost frontier-line.”
This presents quite a challenge, and we can find a helpful spiritual method in the Baha’i teachings that helps us stamp out anger before it takes hold of us – Abdu’l-Baha’s admonition to immediately counter negative emotions and ideas with positive ones: “When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love.”
Seneca also suggested avoiding suspicion, mistrust, or digging deeper into any gossip we might hear. Often we mistrust other people because of something we have seen or heard about them, without knowing the full story. Not only do we approach this person with suspicion rather than openness, but we also inflict harm on ourselves in the form of internalized anger.
On this point, Baha’u’llah wrote “Take heed that your words be purged from idle fancies and worldly desires and your deeds be cleansed from craftiness and suspicion.”
At other times, we might hear someone gossiping about us and have the urge to get to the bottom of it, when that will only make us feel worse. Baha’u’llah advised us to “… regard backbiting as grievous error, and keep himself aloof from its dominion, inasmuch as backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul.”
Another source of anger comes from expecting others to be perfect, which is why Seneca says it is vital to always be aware that we are all imperfect, ourselves included. In the words of Baha’u’llah: “Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner.” When we have this kind of self-reflection in mind, we are more likely to have an understanding of a person’s harmful actions and not take them as personally.
Abdu’l-Baha advised everyone to see beyond another person’s imperfections and shortcomings “with the sight of forgiveness:”
Love the creatures for the sake of God and not for themselves. You will never become angry or impatient if you love them for the sake of God. Humanity is not perfect. There are imperfections in every human being, and you will always become unhappy if you look toward the people themselves. But if you look toward God, you will love them and be kind to them, for the world of God is the world of perfection and complete mercy. Therefore, do not look at the shortcomings of anybody; see with the sight of forgiveness. The imperfect eye beholds imperfections. The eye that covers faults looks toward the Creator of souls. He created them, trains and provides for them, endows them with capacity and life, sight and hearing; therefore, they are the signs of His grandeur. You must love and be kind to everybody, care for the poor, protect the weak, heal the sick, teach and educate the ignorant.
Seneca also pointed out that often the best remedy for anger is time. In time, our anger often subsides. By reflecting on the potentially negative outcomes of impulsively acting on our anger, we can avoid it even further. According to Baha’u’llah, this involves developing a measure of self-awareness: “man should know his own self and recognize that which leadeth unto loftiness or lowliness, glory or abasement, wealth or poverty.” With increased mindfulness of our thoughts, feelings and actions, we can avoid doing things we might later regret.
On a similar note, both Seneca and Baha’u’llah recommended a regular practice of self reflection. Each day, Baha’u’llah wrote, we should reflect on our conduct and take responsibility for it:
Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds.
According to Seneca, “Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat.” This does not mean we need to berate and hate ourselves for falling short of perfection – but it does mean that we need to earnestly and regularly assess where we can improve.
To aid in this regular reflection and sustained self-improvement, both Seneca and Baha’u’llah suggest a similar practice, the daily reading of wise words. Seneca held that by meditating on “wholesome maxims” we can guide our attitude and actions. Baha’u’llah asked us to “Recite ye the verses of God every morn and eventide.” By reflecting on divine wisdom, we can gradually integrate its guidance into our daily lives.
Certainly anger can be called for at times, and can even have a practical use when fighting injustices, but often it grows out of proportion to the situations we face – and when that happens, it usually makes those situations worse. That’s why it is so important to tame the wild beast of anger before it unleashes its fury. By following the spiritual counsel from Seneca and the Baha’i teachings, each day we can take another step forward in thwarting anger’s blind, destructive agenda.