Which side of ourselves will prevail?

Story highlights

  • Every day, we have the opportunity to embrace a darker path or to act in a helpful and hopeful way
  • Anger is often triggered by other emotions such as fear, rejection or desperation

This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one's life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don't miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.

(CNN)"A fight is going on inside me," said an old man to his grandson. "It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves," one good and one bad. So goes a version of a traditional Cherokee legend (or a modern Billy Graham story).

The first wolf embodies emotions and vices such as hate, greed, arrogance, dishonesty, anger, false pride, superiority and ego. The other wolf represents values and virtues such as peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth and compassion.
    The grandson considers the metaphoric battle and asks, "Which wolf will win?"
    The grandfather answers, "The one you feed."
    This struggle is ours. Every day, we have the opportunity to embrace a darker path or to act in a more helpful and hopeful way.
    The same struggle is sometimes evident in entire nations, which can be deeply divided along a number of overlapping fault lines: political, socioeconomic, racial, gender.
    This story holds a mirror up to ourselves, individually and collectively. And we should take a long look in it. If we're honest about the struggle and understand it more, we can begin feeding one wolf over the other.

    Starve one wolf

    The feeling of anger or the impulse of greed is often triggered by other emotions such as fear, rejection or desperation. Often, we're not even aware that secondary emotions like anger have a deeper root cause. "Fear is the path to the dark side," Yoda explains in one of the "Star Wars" films. "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."
    The first step in managing your emotions is simply being more aware of them. Ask yourself what triggers them. Look at your life experience for clues to how you react.
    And of course, in some circumstances, anger and even hate are justified, perhaps useful. We should be angry at disparity. We should hate injustice.
    But whether an emotion is justified or not, negative emotions often lead to negative actions. If you take a primary feeling like fear or uncertainty and avoid turning that into hate, you are less likely to act in a hateful way. Embrace the feelings, but guide them toward the good.
    "I can't choose how I feel, but I can choose what I do about it," explained the late Andy Rooney, the Yoda of television news magazines.
    You are also in control of your social and media influences. If you are barraged with messages of hate and bitterness, they will more easily impinge on your self-control. It's important to stay informed, but be wary of listening to those who are in the business of feeding angry wolves.

    Feed the other wolf

    Staying in a positive and empathetic headspace is challenging, especially in times of stress, but again, being mindful of your emotions is vital.
    And just as hatred and closed-mindedness can eventually lead to acts of violence, love often leads to acts of peace and kindness.
    Committing ourselves to sustaining such action is the way to personal and institutional progress. Seek out and employ strategies to staying committed to something over time, whether it's the repetition-and-reward of a new habit or the tracking of a New Year's resolution.
    What feeding the good wolf looks like, practically, can include these actions:
    Send a positive message. Whether it's on your Facebook feed or in conversations, communicate the good, the hope, the love.
    Get involved. Give money or time, as you can, to a cause or effort that will use it to amplify positive change. It doesn't need to be political, either; it could be supporting public media or improving the environment or literacy, or an organization supporting folks who need financial help or are sick.
    Share love. Make a list of 12 people in your life and check them off as you express in a conversation, email or letter how important they are to you.
    Listen. We all need to be heard. Take a little more time and really give your attention to others. Listening is love, and it naturally creates bonds of empathy and support.
    Help someone you know. Identify one person among your friends and family who is particularly struggling, and understand more about what they need and how you can help.
    Be kind to strangers. Kindness is contagious, a fact backed by real science. Be a patient zero to everyone you come across.
    Add to this list, and share. Come up with more things you can do to increase the total amount of goodness and positivity in the world, do some of those things and share those ideas with others.
    We can fix everything that's wrong with us by what's right with us. And to crib another presidential campaign line, we are the change we've been waiting for.
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    This call to action is echoed by a lyric in the song "Man in the Mirror," by Michael Jackson, who arguably struggled with his own inner wolves. "If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change."