We cling to what we know. We grab the knife by the blade end and grip it so tight even as we feel the cut deep into the thick flesh of our palm. In the face of pain, we can’t let go. Through the blood and suffering, we hang on with the desperation of a drowning man. In the scope of years or the collision of circumstances, some of us learn an important lesson. The daily scrapes and bruises finally register. What should we do? We must let go. In life, as soon as we latch on to something, it is a safe bet that the ground beneath our feet will shift. The only constant is that nothing is constant. Everything must change or die.
This is the message of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames. Indeed, it is a consistent theme in every treatise of eastern philosophy or Zen Buddhism. When anger rises, according to Hanh, we must concentrate on breathing or walking, and simply recognize the feelings before letting them go. No one should stay angry more than 24 hours. No one should repress the feelings, either. Recognition and letting go are keys to overcoming the flash of anger.
I picked up Hanh’s book because I found resonance in his other works. He is a prolific writer and Vietnamese Buddhist who now lives in
France. Even across contemporary religions, Hanh’s
words carry much meaning, and he makes clear that one need not be a Buddhist to
understand his message. In fact, he goes
out of his way to relate his teachings to Catholics, Christians, Jews, and
Muslims. Truly, though, he speaks to us
as human beings, and that is what makes him an indispensable writer for
me. His message in Anger is one I needed to hear right now in this moment.
For 25 years, I have been a teacher. When it started, it was magical. I watched my students learn, discover, and become more sure of themselves. I watched them achieve. Often, I felt they were taking me on a journey. In spite of my uncertain lessons, my constant revision of my teaching practice, my students learned. As I taught them, they were also teaching me, and I was an eager student.
As I assumed more and more responsibility, became a department chair, served on committees, taught other teachers, formulated theories about how students learn, I felt my career arc soar. Then, almost imperceptibly, something changed. More and more bureaucracy and political correctness crept in. “We don’t teach literature that disturbs,” a principal told me. “We need to consider what we want our ‘product’ to look like,” said another. By “product,” she meant a human being, a graduating student. Test scores dominated the discussion in the evaluation of teachers over the less quantifiable inspiration of students to become life-long learners.
I found myself feeling angry, unfulfilled, frustrated. People were missing the point. They were corrupting the system, and students were suffering as a result. Children were not being prepared for the challenges of life. They were turning away from learning and focusing on outcomes rather than process. In the classroom, I got questions like, “How will this help me get a job?” Or, “Just tell me what I need to know to get an A.” From my administrators, I heard, “Can’t we cut the curriculum and focus on preparing them for the test?”
The passionate vocation was starting to feel like a middle management job. Paperwork in, paperwork out. Meet the quotas. Keep pushing the stone up the hill every day even as it rolled back each night. Lots of people now got involved in education not because they wanted to motivate and inspire students to learn, but because they had their own self-serving agendas. I longed for the days where I could provoke my students to think about their world. I wanted to make them feel their lives—all the joy, pain, suffering and exhilaration of existence. Yes, I’d teach writing and literature, but I did not want to teach to a test or sell my kids short. The real point of an education is to teach someone how to live. No standardized test measures that.
In my anger and frustration, I realized I needed to lay the burden down. The system cannot be changed overnight, and pounding my head against the wall was really only giving me a worse headache. We must do what we can where we are with what we have, something else I learned from eastern philosophy. These ideas carried over into other areas of my life. I am often told my intensity could be mistaken for anger, that I am too forceful about the way things should be done. When I say that I am simply passionate, especially about writing, literature and teaching, people tell me no one reads anymore. Thoughtful essays are ignored. It’s 140 characters on Twitter. Anything more is not worth the effort.
But I believe with a religious faith that good writing and literature, like good teaching, will reawaken the sleeping giant of intellect. I simply refuse to lower my expectations. The voice in the wilderness, despite all evidence to the contrary, is still viable. Like so many things that have disappeared, we must find a way to transform them for this new age. Teaching “old school” in a new way will not make us dinosaurs; it will make us visionaries. However, we cannot keep moaning about what is lost because we will be left behind. In this case, it is not so much that we jettison the burden of anger, but that we lay it down for a moment to rethink our path. Anger can be constructive when we steel ourselves against its corrosive effects and learn to recognize it and use it as a tool to redouble our efforts in a positive way. Anger, in the end, can destroy or rebuild, incinerate or motivate. We make the choice. When we have paused to consider what is elemental—breathing in, breathing out—we can pick ourselves up with renewed strength to face the challenges in our lives. We can live to fight another day.