Or, if anger is bad for us, why does it feel so good?
A Native American grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about. He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind. The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. And the grandfather answered, “The one that wins will be the one I choose to feed.”
The choice is harder than it might seem. It feels good to feed the angry wolf. There is pleasure in brooding, satisfaction in nurturing a grudge. Anger is a flaring of emotion, usually destructive, but it’s also a flaring of energy and life force. Pondering vengeance conjures hope — who knows, we might just succeed in our vengeance, right the wrong, achieve redress. We misread vengeance as balancing scales that were never there in the first place. But still, while we’re mad, there’s the possibility, however slim, of relief and restoration and recompense.
It never works that way but we cling to the fiction. Anger comes armored with a silent lie: Cultivate me, wield me, and you may gain something large and lasting beyond the ordinary. Cynical opportunists know this and turn it against us. Why else would every moral runt grasping for power promise to fight for us? They never swear to be wise for us, or just, or god forbid smart. No. They will fight for us. Take the rhetoric at face value and you have to wonder why, the moment any legislature is gaveled into session, it doesn’t immediately devolve into a bitch-slapping melee. How do all those righteous fighters contain themselves?
Pema Chödrön is a revered Buddhist teacher. Her potent story creates a brilliant metaphor for the fundamental choice available to us all. But there is genius in its last line. It may be Chödrön’s genius — she is a profound thinker and an able writer — or it may be the genius nestled in language like a bolt of potential energy. And the grandfather answered, “The one that wins will be the one I choose to feed.” The intent of his answer is clear: Understand, my grandson, that you can choose to face down the growling anger in your heart. But it can be read another way: When I see which wolf seems likely to win, that’s the one I’ll feed. There is the genius — the subtle acknowledgement that just because the tidy aphoristic narrative makes the right choice seem easily discerned and enacted, it’s not. In this life we choose with what we have, which are hearts and minds prone to hasty calculations of self-preservation. Chödrön’s anecdote is not simple-minded like so many moral tales. The danger lurking in how we must make our choices slips in with the vivid metaphor. The decision seems easy only if you haven't been paying attention. Of if you've never had to make the choice.
Americans vote tomorrow. The stakes are high. Feed the right wolf.