Fears that Feed Anger
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from All-Creatures.org


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Fears that Feed Anger

For reasons I will discuss below, I think fear of death is a leading contributor to anger. We humans share with nonhuman beings an innate fear of death, but we are distinctive (if not unique) in being aware that we will inevitably die and that we might die at any time. Anticipating death elicits terror. Rather than experience unrelenting terror, we utilize defense mechanisms to reduce the anxiety that is associated with our mortality.
It appears that one of the main defense mechanisms against mortality anxiety involves self-esteem. If we feel good about ourselves, we are more inclined to believe that we will somehow not die. For example, we might get a sense of immortality by expecting to be remembered long after our deaths, or we might anticipate actual immortality by believing that God will deem us worthy of everlasting life. Of course, self-esteem serves other functions, including providing the confidence people need to take risks in life.
If self-esteem is threatened, mortality fears are enhanced, and this can be extremely frightening. Self-esteem can be damaged by words, such as insults, or by actions, such as demotions at work or confrontations with a schoolyard bully. Such blows to self-esteem generate anger. The initial response is a desire for revenge, but if this doesn’t work, people will try to repair damaged self-esteem by exerting dominance over other individuals, such as lower-status workplace employees, weaker members of the household, or nonhuman beings.
Throughout life, there are many events that enhance self-esteem and many events that reduce self-esteem. Domination over weaker individuals is an ongoing strategy for enhancing or maintaining self-esteem. For example, a trapping handbook for children relates, “While many youths develop interest in sports or good grades in school, some do not when they realize that they cannot excel. . . Any young person, regardless of social advantages, can excel and be an achiever by catching the big fish of the day, or making a nice shot, or catching a mink.”

 We get our sense of self-esteem by being “superior” to other individuals, which helps explain sibling rivalry. Siblings have very few yardsticks by which to measure their worth, so they pay close attention to the siblings with whom they live. A problem is that no amount of self-esteem can fully quiet mortality anxieties, and therefore there can never be enough dominance over other individuals. Exerting dominance generates anger among the dominated, and it often leads to unjust social relationships. Therefore, if we are to have a just society, we will need to address anger, which means that we will need to find ways that people can gain self-esteem that do not involve dominating other individuals. We’ll start to explore that next week.

Go on to: Dealing with Anger, part 1
Return to: Reflection on the Lectionary, Table of Contents 

Return to Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion