Sunday, August 9, 2009

On Anger

In our culture, there is a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, and apprehension about anger and how we should deal with it. It is an especially difficult subject for many Christians, who often assume that feeling angry is a sin and that imitating Jesus requires us to be a doormat for the rest of the world to walk all over. The church is supposed to be a “no anger” zone where we learn how to be nice to each other; whether we want to or not. Here the repression of anger is the norm.

On the other hand, popular psychology has frequently taught us that we should express our anger. It operates on a “hydraulic model” that sees anger as a kind of energy that backs up and overflows our emotional reservoir, overwhelming us and others if we don’t get it out of our system. If you let it build up, you’ll explode, so vent your anger as it comes up. Anger is inevitable and you have to let it flow. Here the expression of anger is the norm.

And so we are left with very mixed messages about anger. My sense is that the Christian tradition and contemporary psychological theory are both much wiser and more subtle than either of their popular expressions. In fact, the ancient traditions of the Church, especially those derived from the astute psychological observations of the early monastics, anticipate much of the best of modern psychology. They agree on one fundamental point: anger is a choice. Anger does not have to be repressed or expressed. It can be transformed at its roots.

It may seem counter-intuitive to speak of anger as a choice. We can’t help how we feel, right? Feelings just “are;” well, yes and no. Human beings have a far greater range of freedom with respect to how we respond to the world than we want to admit, because it means that we have to take responsibility for our actions.

Consider, for example, a rather typical situation in which angry feelings arise. “Stella is standing in line at the bank. It is 1:20, and she is due back at her office at 1:30. She could make it in time if she is lucky and the line moves along. But things don’t go well. Two of the five tellers close their windows. ‘How dare they take a break when there are people waiting?’ she thinks. One customer is buying travelers checks. ‘Why don’t they have a special window for that kind of service?’ she asks the person behind her in line. The customer slowly signs each check as she cheerfully discusses her planned vacation. ‘Who cares about Florida in April? Just sign the [stupid] checks and get going for [the love of God],’ Stella muttered under her breath. By now Stella is impatiently opening and closing the snap on her purse. At another window an elderly woman is leafing through a huge, over-stuffed purse looking for something. ‘This could take all day!’ She sighs in exasperation. Her lunch, which she bolted down half an hour ago, sits like a rock in her stomach. The noise of other people’s conversations is annoying, and the two men standing behind her in line are too close. A young man is counting out the money he received from the teller and carefully tucking it into his wallet before he leaves the window. ‘Good grief! Just move it!’ she thinks.”

“By the time its her turn at the window, at 1:29, she’s in a rage. Her heart is pounding, she is breathing heavily, her mouth is dry, her hands shake. She’s made at the stupid, slow patrons and the inconsiderate bank tellers. She’s mad at her boss for making her feel guilty if she’s even a minute late and resents her job for only allowing a one-hour lunch break. She’s angry at the restaurant for its slow, inefficient service and the undigested food she can still taste.”

“Stella’s anger is a physical experience. All strong emotions – anger, fear, excitement – trigger powerful hormonal responses that cause body changes. These responses occur automatically in [humans] and other animals and are an important survival mechanism.”

“While the physiological experience of anger proceeds automatically once it is triggered, getting angry is by no means automatic. Stella’s anger is triggered by things that she tells herself while standing line: ‘Tellers shouldn’t take breaks while people are waiting . . . They should have a special window . . . Who cares about Florida? . . . and so on. It is Stella’s thoughts that actually start the emotional ball rolling, signaling her body to prepare for battle.”[1]

Our perception and interpretation of reality, our thoughts about our experience, give shape to our emotional energies in powerful ways. That perception is limited, and our interpretation can be mistaken; especially when, like Stella, we find ourselves operating from the stance that we are the center of the universe. We react to reality as we are – in bondage to resentment from the past or fears about the future – rather than reacting to reality as it is.

“Wrath is a reminder of hidden hatred, that is to say, remembrance of wrongs. Wrath is a desire for the injury of the one who has provoked you. Irascibility is the untimely blazing up of the heart. Bitterness is a movement of displeasure seated in the soul. Anger is an easily changeable movement of one’s disposition and disfiguration of soul.”[2] St. John Climacus points out that our perception and reaction can shift when we move from an ego-

centric to a God-centric perspective.

I think he is right about this, though I’m not sure anger is an “easily” changeable movement. Deep-seated patterns of resentment and angry reactivity to the world can be very challenging, though not impossible, to transform. Abba Ammonas said, "I have spent fourteen years . . . asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger."[3] Learning to deal with anger takes time and practice.

The Letter to the Ephesians provides sound practical advice in this regard. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not make room for the devil . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up . . . be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:26-27, 29, 32)

First, be aware of how you are responding to your experience of the world. Angry feelings are not in and of themselves sinful. They simply signal a perceived threat or loss, whether physical or emotional, and prompt a response.

The issue is not anger itself, but what we do with it. We are admonished to be careful that our anger does not lead to sin – to the violation of relationship with God and other people – and that it does not “make room for the devil.” Anger that goes unchecked leads to the loss of freedom. When we are “in a rage,” we can not think clearly. We can not pray. We loose touch with reality, with a God-centered perspective.

It is this loss of freedom when overcome by anger that makes room for evil. This is what most concerned the early monastics of the Egyptian desert, who counseled practicing awareness of our thoughts so that we can acknowledge and treat disturbing feelings at their root, before we speak or act.

Be aware of your feelings, but don’t become attached to them. “Not allowing the sun to go down on your anger” means realizing that all feelings are transient. We don’t need to cling to them. We can let them go. Such non-attachment gives us the space we need to pray and talk with others about our perceptions and how best to respond.

Finally, we are encouraged to respond in ways that build up rather than destroy relationships, by being careful about our speech and action. Practice kindness and forgiveness in imitation of God, who has revealed his mercy toward us in the face of Jesus Christ. Such forbearance takes account of human imperfection. It doesn’t mean ignoring or excusing real harms done to us. It simply means refusing to be defined by those harms or to respond in ways that perpetuate cycles of rage and revenge. We can learn to respond with insight and compassion toward those persons and situations that threaten us.

St. Nilus of Mt. Sinai said, “When you pray as you ought, there may come into your mind things about which it seems right to be angry with your brother. There is absolutely no anger against your brother which could be justified. If you look, you will find that the question can be settled quite well without anger. Therefore do your best not to be moved to anger.” [4]

If we look deeply into the causes and conditions that generate harm, seeing with God’s eyes, we are given the freedom in Christ to respond creatively. Anger is a choice. When we are able to choose otherwise, then we are indeed free.

[1] When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within, pp. 23-24.

[2] St. John Climacus, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), Step 8: On Freedom From Anger and On Meekness.

[3] Sr. Benedicta Ward, "The Sayings of the Desert Fathers," (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1975), pp. 25-28.

[4] "153 Texts on Prayer", St Nilus of Mt Sinai, "Early Fathers From the Philokalia," translated from the Russian text, "Dobrotolubiye," by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, eighth edition, (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1981), pp. 127 - 135.

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