On Rage

We’ve lost touch with the life-giving possibilities of rage.

For the most part we understand rage only for its destructive possibilities, as a hateful force directed against others, as what shows up when we’re angry, or vengeful, or when we’ve concluded we’re superior to other people such that they deserve our scorn or our hatred. And of course rage can be all of these. The history of the 20th and early 21st centuries are filled with indescribable acts of violence that were stirred in this way.

But what we’ve forgotten is a more generous account of rage that’s been around since the time of the ancient Greece, that was once the central understanding but is now peripheral. This is rage as a vital, life-giving force that has us break out of the boundaries that hold us, rage as in raging torrent, rage that sweeps us into action that’s bigger than our own individual concerns. It’s a mood that attunes us to what needs to be done on behalf of everyone and everything, and which can lead us down paths that might be quite different to what we’ve been up to so far. What I am describing here is rage-for-life, and that’s quite different from the me-centred or my-group-centred rage-against-others that we know so well in our culture and work so hard to suppress in pursuit of civilised society.

In suppressing rage-for-life along with all other forms of rage we’ve blunted our ability to break out of constraints that could benefit from being broken, and to imagine together life-giving futures that could have us flourish. Instead, we’ve oriented our society around desire – a more socially acceptable mood that makes getting what we want our most pressing concern. And this is turn has given rise to an economy and to organisations in which being generous is often difficult and in which committing to something bigger than our own interests or those of our shareholders has for a long time been considered weak or peripheral. In a desire-led society acting on behalf of life itself is judged as a distraction from the hard-nosed business of the bottom-line, and we evaluate ourselves and others not so much on how we have lived but on how much we managed to accumulate.

But in a world in the midst of economic turmoil, in which we’re experiencing the cumulative effects of our pollution and wastefulness, and in which we still fail to feed everybody, we are starting to see the limits of our desire. Our deference to power and wealth and status, our understanding of ourselves as consumers rather than contributors, our willingness to stay quiet and keep our heads down and hope it all will pass: all these lead us into a small and self-protective stance. We could do with working urgently and seriously on all of them, and on cultivating more rage on behalf of the life that makes it possible for us to be here in the first place.

It’s time we allowed ourselves to feel the generous, rage-on-behalf-of-it-all that’s waiting to emerge from behind the protective facade of our conventional lives. Imagine what we could do if we could harness and express its fierce, energetic commitment to life and possibility for everyone and everything.

[I’m grateful to Norman Fischer for his work with me in preparing our shared workshop on ‘Rage and Imagination’ at the recent New Ventures West UnConference, and also to Peter Slojterdijk and his book Rage and Time which provoked much of my developing thinking on this topic]

Image: Wolfgangbeyer at the German language Wikipedia