05/01/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Distinguishing Rage from Anger

1996: I am driving home to Atlanta from Charlotte, after a long and difficult day at work. Traffic is slow, and I am blocked by passing trucks and slow drivers. Finally I break free of the pack, and hit the gas.

Smooth sailing, I think.

A few minutes later I look in the rear view mirror and see a car quickly approaching, and then it comes right up behind me, riding my tail.

Lay off. I'm going as fast as I can.

I signal, and slow down to look for an opportunity to move over. The car comes even closer. In the mirror I see the face of the driver; red, tight, teeth clenched. He sees me look at him, and mouths,

"Move the f-ck over!"

I throw up my hands in frustration, and he raises his middle finger.

That's it, asshole!

I press the brake as I move over, just as he is speeding up to pass.

This will teach him...

He sees my break light and over-reacts, hitting his break hard. In my mirror I see his car begin to spin, and as he frantically turns the wheel the other way his car spins faster, and starts to tip. I watch in horror as his car spins between trailer trucks on his right and the steel guard rail and drop-off on the left, and wait for the sickening sight of crushing metal around human flesh.

Oh my God. What have I done??

Miraculously, the car stays in the middle of the lane, and comes to a stop, untouched, facing forward. I see his car slowly pull on to the shoulder. I get off at the next exit, jump out of my car, and dry heave on the grass median.

I almost killed someone! Thank you, God, for protecting this man and other innocent drivers from my insane actions.

I promised then that I would never again act out of rage behind the wheel.

For nearly fifteen years I have worked hard to keep this promise. I still get annoyed and frustrated while driving, but then I remember this near disaster. We all know about "road rage", and most of us have experienced this truly insane phenomenon, either as perpetrator or victim (or, as in my story, both). Road rage comes from the combination of a perceived act of disrespect (tailgating, cutting off, a raised finger) to a person who feels powerless, dismissed, or under valued, yet who controls a powerful machine. Let's see them mess with me now!, could be the road rager's anthem. This phenomenon is not limited to acts in a car, however, but also manifests in any situation in which such an insecure person with a self-perceived advantage feels insulted; this self-perceived advantage can be a weapon such as a gun, physical strength, or emotional control. The results are "passion" shootings, battered women, and verbally abused children. All these acts come from anger turned to rage.

Anger and rage: What are they, and what's the difference? These terms seem similar, and we may think that they are simply a matter of degree; rage as an extreme form of anger. And for many of us, both of these may be seen as bad. We may believe that spiritual traditions teach us that anger must be avoided; that it is inherently destructive, that it is a low level emotion, or even an illusion, born from the desires of the ego, and that it is incompatible with higher emotions such as compassion, tolerance, joy, and love. We may have also heard this message from our parents, teachers, and leaders. "Stop being angry! Good people don't get angry." Anger, however, is a built-in mechanism for responding to injustice, and gives us the energy to act. We should be angry at cruelty, corruption, and exploitation, and great spiritual teachers such as Jesus, the Buddha, Moses, and the ancient Prophets, have used anger as a means for calling attention to societal wrongs, and enacting positive change.

Managing anger is not easy, though. Aristotle wrote,

Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way... that is not easy.

Because such mature anger is so difficult, and because, as mentioned earlier, we may have been told that anger is bad, many of us work hard to avoid or hide our angry feelings, thereby freezing our anger at the age in which we were told that it is bad. The longer we shut up the voice of anger the deeper it gets frozen, and the louder it grows. Despite our age, then, there may be an angry five-year-old inside us, hiding in the shadows, afraid to show himself, yet screaming silently to be heard. When anger arises, then, (which it naturally will) it is expressed in an immature, often inappropriate way (since it is the voice of a child). And we may be so embarrassed at this outburst that we re-double our efforts to bury our anger and deny its reality.

Here is where angry can turn in to rage. If we were told that our angry feelings are bad, causing us to freeze our anger at a young age, then every time a perceived injustice remains unvoiced and uncorrected the anger gets buried in this immature vessel, which, like a child, sees the world as black or white -- good or bad. We then tell ourselves that we are bad for having these angry feelings, and every time anger naturally arises we feel worse about ourselves. Over time, with the source of energy that comes with healthy anger cut off, we can begin to feel powerless, unheard, and out of control. This gives birth to rage, which is a childish and desperate attempt to regain control and balance at any means available. Unlike healthy, developed anger, which constructively addresses injustice, rage only seeks to control, manipulate, intimidate, and punish the "offender". And unlike anger, which can be developed in positive ways, rage is always and inherently destructive. Rage manifests in screaming, violence, threats, verbal abuse, and shaming. And since rage comes from feelings of powerlessness, it most powerfully arises when the person has a "weapon" that is seen to even the field; such as a speeding, two ton piece of steel.

The cure for rage is not the elimination of anger, but actually comes from the healthy development of natural anger itself. As Aristotle noted, this is not an easy task, but it is the only path to end the all-too-common cycles of abuse, which have caused such horrific human suffering.