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Temper is a weapon that we hold by the blade. – James Mathew Barrie
We all get mad.
A few months ago, on an airplane, a child seated with his mother two rows in front of me had a nuclear meltdown. As far as I could tell, it had something to do with potato chips. The little boy wanted some, and his mother told him that he couldn’t have any. The boy instantly lost it. He cried and screamed and yelled and kicked and had a fit, his loud wails disturbing everyone on the plane. Flight attendants rushed over to see what they could do. Passengers seated nearby offered their unwanted advice. One man tried to give the boy his potato chips. His mother, to her credit, stayed calm and didn’t waver in her decision. She showed admirable restraint, and said very little to her son until he calmed down. “Sorry,” she said to everyone around her when he finished his outburst.
When the plane landed and everyone walked into the terminal, I found myself walking beside the mother and son.
“Everything OK now?” I said with a smile, trying to moderate her obvious chagrin at her son’s tantrum.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “He’s been through a lot. He’s only three, and his father and I just split up.”
Everyone who has ever had a child—or, for that matter, been a child—knows something about temper tantrums. When we don’t get our way as children, or when the frustrations and pain of this life overwhelm us, we sometimes lose it. Whether you call it a meltdown or a freak-out or flying off the handle or going ballistic, we’ve all experienced children’s flailing, screaming temper tantrums. Some people have even concluded that the presence of that fierce temper in children proves all human beings have inherently selfish, angry and evil qualities.
Child psychologists see it differently, however. They often view anger and rage in children as normal human developmental inability to process emotions or life experience. Generated chiefly by frustration, a child’s anger can spill over into a temper tantrum because of insufficient emotional coping mechanisms—or because of a temporary loss of emotional resilience as the result of a trauma like divorce. The raw emotions of a temper tantrum, whether in children or adults, generally come about because of a multiplicity of feelings the person just can’t find a way to express or articulate.
What do you think? Does our temper show that we all have inherently bad qualities—or does it simply indicate that we’re human?
The Baha’i answer to that question contains quite a bit of subtle nuance:
In the innate nature of things there is no evil—all is good. This applies even to certain apparently blameworthy attributes and dispositions which seem inherent in some people, but which are not in reality reprehensible. For example, you can see in a nursing child, from the beginning of its life, the signs of greed, of anger, and of ill temper; and so it might be argued that good and evil are innate in the reality of man, and that this is contrary to the pure goodness of the innate nature and of creation. The answer is that greed, which is to demand ever more, is a praiseworthy quality provided that it is displayed under the right circumstances. Thus, should a person show greed in acquiring science and knowledge, or in the exercise of compassion, high-mindedness, and justice, this would be most praiseworthy. And should he direct his anger and wrath against the bloodthirsty tyrants who are like ferocious beasts, this too would be most praiseworthy. But should he display these qualities under other conditions, this would be deserving of blame.
It follows therefore that in existence and creation there is no evil at all, but that when man’s innate qualities are used in an unlawful way, they become blameworthy. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 248-249.
As Abdu’l-Baha says, anger is a two-edged sword—if we let it control us, it can destroy; but if we master it, and turn it to good use, it can benefit the world. When we feel our anger rising inside, we each have a decision to make—to channel it into destructive rage or into constructive determination.
We know that anger and rage at unfairness and subjugation can increase our resolve to end it, to seek a redress of legitimate grievances, to promote social justice. In fact, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and many other global campaigns for fairness and equality all began with legitimate anger. Instead of turning destructive, however, those drives toward justice channeled anger into constructive change. Rather than ending in aggression and harm, peaceful movements for progressive causes can transmute anger into activism.