Having retired early Sunday evening, I met the news of Osama bin Laden’s death on Monday morning. A day late, I scanned the online edition of the New York Times, skimming for details, before clicking through to the video of Obama’s Sunday night announcement.
I’m sure he said what he was supposed to say. I’m sure ending by invoking God’s protection of our human-created country is the politically correct way for the president of our country to respond. Whatever one calls what is beyond the individual (God, Allah, Jehovah, Goddess, Ground of Being, or humanity), I don’t think that being blesses any one transient, human-created, humanity-dividing nation. Especially when that nation is rejoicing the death of other humans. Even when the target committed atrocious acts.
All that came to mind at that moment was Sunday’s sermon: Wrath and Patience. Wrath isn’t anger. Anger is a feeling, a passing feeling, as is sadness, happiness, disappointment, worry, and a host of others. If we pay attention to it or egg it on, it stays and grows. Anger is a normal human response. We all experience it, some of us more than others. Anger, on its own, hurts no one. It’s all in what we do with it. Breathe through it, acknowledging the feeling and addressing appropriate internal and external triggers, and it goes away on its own. Really.
Nurture it, feed it with thoughts and energy, call it righteous and let it rule you, and anger can turn to wrath. Wrath is the vice, not anger. According Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, wrath is :
: retributory punishment for an offense or a crime : divine chastisement
Wrath is rage, often turned outward. Wrath takes the feeling of anger and gives it the power to destroy ourselves and others, psychologically or physically.
I’ve experience wrath more times than I can remember. Generally, the pattern is thus: I sense a threat to my security from someone close to me, feel anger rising out of fear (of loss of control of a situation, of being misunderstood, or whatever. I’m mad.). I have a choice. Either count to 10 or 100, breathing, letting the strong feeling pass into the ether with all other feelings or let it build. Let’s say I take the latter. I’m excessively verbal by nature, but when angry, my words can become more prolific and more biting. The more I go on, well, the more I go on. And on. Ask my ex. Ask my family. They know all too well.
Somewhere along the line, anger morphs into wrath. I’m indignant and everyone is going to get an earful. My victims would say that my tirade is retribution enough to count as wrath, and they’d likely be right. Caught up in my own selfish righteousness, I ride my own hot air. It’s not pleasant.
The aftermath, for me, is remorse. In particularly challenging situations (the ones that threaten my sense of self and security the most)are the ones where that wrath may cool and return at the least provocation, followed again by remorse. It’s rather embarrassing to admit that pattern, but I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one to whom this occurs. (An “amen” here would be quite comforting.)
Back to the killing of Osama bin Laden (and plenty of others along the way to him). I’ll not debate the right or wrong of killing a killer here. I’m a pacifist by nature and upbringing, but that’s not the point. It’s not his death that shook me. It was the response of the people, Americans, to that death. The cheers and celebrations on the news in the restaurant we patronized last night. The language used by reporter and our president himself
: “Indeed, al Qaeda slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.”
That’s wrath. Welcoming the death of another, regardless of his or her crimes, is an expression of wrath. Wrath is a vice. It doesn’t bring us closer to unconditional love. It doesn’t bind us together, not out of love, anyway.
I knew no one who died on September 11, 2001. I mourned with the nation while I held my infant in my arms, wondering what kind of world would there be for my son and his older brother. As I rocked and nursed my small one, I watched the news as we bombed Afghanistan and sought out bin Laden. I felt sorrow, fear, and uncertainty. I felt confusion and despair. And I felt angry. Some of that anger was directed at the organizations that shape young people into killers and veil it in the name of any deity. Some was reserved for my own country and the destruction we wrought upon an already poor and suffering nation in the name of justice and retribution. But wrath? No.
Wrath’s corresponding virtue is patience. Patience with ourselves, that the anger we feel welling within us and threatening to boil over is transient, if we ride the wave and let it pass. Patience with nonviolent responses on violent actions, reminding ourselves that nonviolence has a powerful history of making change. Patience with the wrath of others, knowing how quickly we all can travel from feeling of anger to the irreversible and damaging actions of wrath.
So that’s where I am. I’ve allowed my initial anger with the enthusiasm so many Americans expressed upon the announcement of bin Laden’s death. So, too, has passed my anger with Obama’s response. All that remains is patience for peace.