Since reading Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness, I have found myself continually more attracted to her concept of transition-anger. That is: the main, and perhaps only, place where anger is a helpful emotion is on its first arising, where it signals to us that something is wrong or unjust; after that, one should transition “off the terrain of anger toward more productive forward-looking thoughts”. (Nussbaum capitalizes “Transition-Anger”, but that seems an awkward usage to me.)
I’ve found the concept of transition-anger very helpful for the argument of my upcoming book (which is more focused than my original concept was, so anger now plays a larger role in it). More even than that, though, I think the basic idea of transition-anger can and should be expanded to other emotions: it is not only anger which is most valuable on first arising. Nussbaum doesn’t consider that approach in Anger and Forgiveness, and there wasn’t a need for her to do so since the book wasn’t about other emotions, but only about anger. But it’s worth talking about here.
Observing my own emotional life, I have noted there is a set of four emotions that I feel very often – most of them daily – and they all cause me trouble and suffering. Yet I see how each can potentially be valuable on first arising. Anger is one of them; the other three are fear, shame, and self-pity. Let’s go through them in turn.
Fear is perhaps the clearest case. We are accustomed to thinking of fear as serving a signal function, as transition-anger does. Like anger, fear gives us the warning that something is wrong; we appreciate the fear response that comes unthinkingly when something is about to fall on our heads or burn us. The problem comes when fear sticks around – sometimes even with no object, nothing to be afraid of. That superfluous fear is what psychologists distinguish as anxiety, and I know it all too well; my therapist tells me I have generalized anxiety disorder. I would love to be able to get myself down to transition-fear: keeping my fear as the first signal that something is dangerous, but then moving to more forward-looking thoughts of avoiding the danger.
Something very similar applies to shame. It too can serve a useful signalling function – this time about something wrong that we ourselves have done. That first feeling of shame can warn us that we have done somebody wrong. Yet just like fear and anger, too often shame sticks with us, returns to us, making us feel worthless in a way that paralyzes us and prevents us from moving to make it right or prevent similar wrongs in the future. Take the signal offered by the initial shame, and transition on to more forward-looking thoughts.
It is not so obvious that self-pity is best suited to a similar kind of transition, but I think that it is. Especially, I think mourning serves as a kind of transition self-pity. Feeling sorry for ourselves can be a dangerous trap that we wallow and get lost in. Yet at the same time, if we do value external goods – as I think we should – then their losses are real losses, and we need to acknowledge them as such, not just with thoughts but with feelings. When the Greek philosopher-general Xenophon learned of his son’s death in battle, it was reported that Xenophon “did not even shed tears, but exclaimed, ‘I knew my son was mortal.'” Unlike the founders of Stoicism, who admired Xenophon, most of us would look at Xenophon and see something wrong with him, with his not feeling sorry for himself. He should have felt pain and suffering at such a great loss. For him to be so unmoved indicates that it was no real loss, which strongly suggests that he did not love his son in the first place.
Yet something would also be off if the loss of a son were to leave a father in a permanent state of sorrow – if he could not eventually move on, or if he took his own life as a result. After all, we cannot imagine a son wanting his father to be destroyed by his death – not if he loved his father himself! To feel no sorrow when we lose a loved one suggests that we have failed them by not truly loving them. But if we spend the rest of our lives mired in misery over their loss, we are failing them in a subtler sense: they loved us and so wished for our well-being, and our sorrow now stands in the way of our fulfilling that wish.
Thus self-pity too serves as an initial signal that something has gone wrong, but in a way that we should move away from. There is a reason why most societies have mourning rituals, ways of expressing grief in a limited period of time after a loss. (And while I’ve focused on the case of a loved one’s death here, mourning can be valuable for many other sorts of losses, including political ones.)
Here Nussbaum’s own life may serve as an example. Just a few short years after the publication of Anger and Forgiveness, Nussbaum’s only daughter Rachel, a campaigner for animal rights, died of a drug-resistant infection. I can only imagine the terrible pain that Nussbaum must have gone through at the time; surely if any situation merits self-pity it is the loss of one’s only child. Yet I notice that now, four years later, she has just come out with a book on animal rights, her daughter’s signature issue, dedicated to her memory. This seems to me a most admirable example of a move off the terrain of self-pity toward more productive forward-looking thoughts.