Tales from the Water Wars: The Gift of Anger and other lessons from Gandhi

Last year, I read the book, “The Gift of Anger and other lessons from my grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi.” It’s by Mahatma Gandhi’s fifth grandson, Arun Gandhi.

Arun asked his grandfather why he didn’t get angry. Mahatma Ghandi answered, “it is not that I don’t get angry. I have learned to use my anger for good. Anger to people is like gas to the automobile — it fuels you to move forward and get to a better place. Without it, we would not be motivated to rise to a challenge. It is an energy that compels us to define what is just and unjust.”

Last year I needed to learn to give up anger in my water advocacy work. It was a profound challenge for me, not only because of the decimation of Sacramento River salmon runs and near-extinction of Delta smelt, but also because of past trauma. When I was in graduate school, I reported a former student who was posting Columbine killer style fantasies on the campus electronic discussion forums. I lived for years with threats to my life and that of my family, until the FBI finally arrested him and seized 75 WW II and assault rifles and 40,000 rounds of ammunition.

Living with the chronic existential threats made me a warrior, which I channeled into fierce advocacy.  But last year, we needed to step in and advocate to save the Delta Independent Science Board. Suddenly I wasn’t advocating for fish or birds or Delta legacy communities, but for ten human scientists, caught in a bureaucratic nightmare. Their distress was evident, but so was their patience and quiet strength in dealing with the situation.

While I was furious at how they were being treated, I realized I could make things worse if I acted out of that fury. So I had to learn to let go of my anger. And although it was terribly hard, I found that it has made me a stronger advocate. Mahatma Ghandi wrote:

Satyagraha….has been conceived as a weapon of the strongest, and excludes the use of violence in any shape or form…Satyagraha has therefore been described as a coin, on whose face you read love and on the reverse you read truth…A satyagrahi does not know what defeat is…

The choice between rage and fear, angry protest and complicity, is a false one. One can simply choose to speak truth, clearly and powerfully. And I keep finding that approach to be surprisingly powerful.

7 thoughts on “Tales from the Water Wars: The Gift of Anger and other lessons from Gandhi

  1. Such important words of wisdom. You are amazing Deirdre! I am impressed. Something we water warriors need to think about now that the crazy draft EIR is circulating with its never changing plans.

  2. Thank you for your courage at being so forthcoming and for setting an example for all of us of the power of this practie.

  3. Your analyses and informative posts over the years are a true guide as we head into what it seems may be another delusional attempt to balance water in a state is mostly technically a desert, and wastes its water. So thank you for those– and for future posts in what is a unique public voice on water in California!

  4. As a former Peace Corps Volunteer in India from 1969-71 and retired CDFG fisheries biologist working on flows for fish since the 1976-77 drought, I appreciate Deirdre’s comments on Arun Ghandi’s book. Very interesting approach! I recommend also reading the Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first President of India, to get a historical perspective of India’s transition from an English colony to an Indian democracy.

  5. Satyagraha is indeed a powerful tool as demonstrated by Mahatma Ghandi. However, it didn’t work for me personally before my Draft Board in 1968; with help from the nonviolent Quakers, I stalled and in the 1969 Draft lottery drew number 289–high enough to guarantee I would never be drafted!

  6. I had a low draft lottery number in 1968, so I had to go before my draft board to get their permission to serve in the Peace Corps, as I had been accepted to the PC training program for a science teacher training program in Bihar, Indua. It was a hard sell, plus I had to agree that my military obligation was still in effect afterwards. Lucky for me, they had another lottery drawing 2.5 years later, and I got a very high number. After that, they went to an all volunteer army. I have mixed feelings about having a professional army which could become overly-autocratic.

  7. Thank you so much, Deirdre, for addressing the anger that obstructs our abilities to
    think objectively and broadly, though sometimes anger does illuminate a problem.
    I often think of the Yakima Agreement on Water and wonder why such a disparate
    group of people came up with a workable solution that is lasting. Why can’t we?
    Carol Fields

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