In an environment where floating hostility is prevalent, people tend to release their anger without addressing the pain that is underneath it. Pain, being at the root of anger, needs to be addressed in order to eradicate the pattern of dysfunctionality. We need to create the human environment where people can get in touch with their pain and bring it to the open.
An elder Pit River woman told me the following story:
“I remember as a little girl, I saw a medicine man heal a baby. The parents had called on him because the baby would not stop crying. The medicine man said that the baby was pure, given that he had just arrived from being in the presence of the creator. That is why babies don’t speak the way we do, because they are still in the presence of the spiritual world. The baby told him that he was suffering because his father would beat his mother, and because they would not stop shouting to each other. The baby told him that he felt that perhaps if he died they would realize the harm that they were doing to each other and then they would change their ways. The baby loved them and was willing to give up his small life for them. When the medicine man said this, the parents broke down crying and promised to change their ways. Now, I see many babies who cry, but where is the medicine man who will confront the parents? Where is he?”
One of the qualities of alcohol is to sedate both the body and the emotions. At times, when the pain threatens to surface to the consciousness, numbness can be induced by consuming alcohol. Other substances, food included, can have a similar effect and can be used with the same psychological objective: to block the pain from reaching consciousness.
Another phenomena prevalent in our community is what used to be called “neurasthenia”, that is “the tiring of the body due to the intense activity of the mind.”
Repression of pain, and unmanaged anger require energy. Tiredness, reaching at times levels of physical exhaustion (even when there has been little physical activity) is one of the indirect effects of mismanaged anger in our community. Anger turned inward becomes depression. Anger turned outward becomes abuse. Individuals in our community, depending on the role that they play in the community, and depending on charactereological factors, are either predisposed to depression or abusiveness.
Anger can have a two-fold effect. It can be rooted in self-preservation, in which case it acts as a healthy anger. But it can also be rooted in unresolved pain and feed our hostility. In this last case it acts as a toxic anger.
One of the dysfunctionalities that the individual afflicted with toxic anger develops is the inability to recognize the early stages of anger. This individual reacts to anger, and he or she does so only when anger has reached a high level of intensity.
While a self-inventory and deep understanding of oneself can help us deal with the underlying layer of pain in which our anger unfolds, a general identification of the levels of anger can be helpful in order to control aggressive behavior. Here we have the basic levels of anger, starting with the smallest levels and ending with the highest levels. It is within the first levels of anger that we have most control over our behavior. Once we reach the highest levels of anger, we tend to lose our ability to be aware of ourselves and control our behavior. The principle behind the levels of anger is quite simple. A high level of oxygen is supplied to our brain when we sense small levels of anger. The proportion of oxygen to the brain decreases with anger’s intensity, to the point that when we get “mad” there is hardly any oxygen reaching our brain, in which case, functionally we “lose our head” and our anger goes totally out of control.
In order to stop the cycle of abuse, it is imperative that we take a pro-active approach with kids and teens that have been exposed to intense anger in their family unit. Talking circles, retreats, and martial art groups can be the “health island” in which individuals expose to anger can learn about the cycle of anger, and how to take action before it gets out of control.
Education and community involvement are the key components to prevent the cycle of anger. Communities that address anger and foster “zero tolerance for violence” create the appropriate social climate to understand the dynamic of anger and the effective ways to deal with it.
Mahatma Gandhi was a leader who was able to incorporate the ancestral principles of his culture of non-violence into a social and political force of renewal for his country. Gandhi himself, in order to understand these principles, had to go into his own process of “Indianization”, re-discovering his Hindu nature within his country and his culture. India, at the beginning, was alien to him; in the same way that Native American culture has become alien to many of our Native American members.
Once Gandhi was able to tap into the stream of knowledge and way of being of his culture, he discovered a set of principles by which he formed his character and fostered strength from within. He re-established himself in the world as an “Indian” and re-discovered who he was.
He set high standards for himself and he studied the words of wisdom of his ancestors.
He took pride in his traditions and used them for inspiration for his actions.
He made a personal commitment to follow principles based on well-being.
He upheld the transcendental values of his culture.
He reminded his people of the living treasures of their spirituality and culture.
He formed communities where these social and spiritual principles were followed.
He found ways to disseminate information about these principles in newspapers and social gatherings.
He was able to find strategies that involved the whole community in the process of social liberation.
He was able to convey his vision to others by word and example.
Within the American Indian community, leaders following similar principles have appeared at one time or another. Native leaders of today will do well in following their example. Their lives are pages of the book of wisdom that belong to all American Indians and to the best of humanity. Leaders of today have to discover the voice of Quetzalcoatl, the voice of Kukulcan, the voice of Wovoca, the voice of Black Elk. Leaders that follow this path will restore purpose in their lives and in the lives of their communities. Leaders that follow this path will bring out the best of the past in order to awaken a better future.
Roberto Dansie is a clinical psychologist. In 1997 he received the golden medallion from the National Indian Health Board for his contributions to health in Indian country. He lives in northern California.