"Befriend your anger. Then can you hear the deeper truth that anger is revealing. Sometimes anger tiptoes, a gentle wake-up call slipping into consciousness and building, building, building. 'I think I’m getting angry about this...' Sometimes anger’s ring is musical – a clock radio with a snooze alarm to let you slowly rise to the brightness of its day. 'Maybe I am angry. Maybe I’m just tired.' Sometimes the sound’s a deafening clang – a jolt that throws you out of bed. Befriend your anger. Only then can you decide the what and when and how of your reply. Befriend your anger. Learn to stay with it, to play with it, to leap back to its roots. There you’ll find a child in fear and pain – and return, an adult with compassion. Befriend your anger. When you feel the sting of others’ hurt, welcome the anger of hope: holy energy stirring in your soul, the work of Jesus in a hostile world – atonement. Befriend your godlike anger, and be at peace." (Carroll Saussy, The Gift of Anger: A Call to Faithful Action, 1995)
Apparently, according to Gabriele Rico, the Eskimos, or Inuit, have a pretty good way of dealing with anger. Rico writes:
“A sense of the absurd balances out seriousness. Eskimos know this. In settling grievances, the angered parties must engage in a community ritual. They must recite absurd poems, sing silly songs, and publicly insult one another to the accompaniment of drums. It is a safe form of letting go, or externalizing anger – a release infinitely preferable to shooting at one another. This ritualization of rage through humor probably helps them to see not only the other person’s point of view but also how trivial their hurt may be in a larger context.” (Pain and Possibility: Writing Your Way through Personal Crisis, 1991, p. 210)So there you are fuming about the disrespect and inconsiderateness of certain members of your household who don’t wash their dishes, or don’t put them in the dishwasher, just leave them in the sink, and you’ve asked them nicely, more than once, to please wash your own dishes, or rinse them off and put them in the dishwasher, and still they just leave this pile expecting you to take care of it. And you have, for the last three times. But now they’re piling up again, and you’re pretty angry about that. Instead of storming into the living room to blow your top at the spouse and teenager who are lounging on the sofa, you remember the Eskimos. So you grab your drum.
Don’t you know that my sense of worth as a human beingWhat a great way to deal with anger.
Depends on there not being dishes in the sink I’m seeing.
Anger is a theological issue. We may have been taught that we’re not supposed to be angry, and the church may have reinforced that message. Anger is one of the seven deadly sins – along with greed, pride, sloth, lust, envy, gluttony . . . Sleepy, Dopey, and Doc. In Dante Alighieri’s masterwork of the 13th century, Divine Comedy, there are nine circles of hell, and the fifth circle is reserved for the wrathful. The message: don’t ever be angry. It’s a sin.
Theologian Gustav Stahlin says,
“wrath is for God, but not for man. God’s love includes wrath, but love and anger are mutually exclusive.” (“The Wrath of Man and the Wrath of God in the New Testament,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 1967, vol 5, p. 419)Australian Stephen Hincks writes that Paul’s central message about anger is to get rid of it – “put it away from you” (“Anger – What Does the Bible Say?” Journal of Christian Education, Papers 86, 1986 July, p. 37). Anger should be stifled.
And another theologian, Charles Cerling, argues that:
“Anger as a result of personal offense finds no justification in Scripture. Such offenses are to be accepted as part of the Christian’s lot of suffering. Although we might express our displeasures at such actions, anger is inappropriate. The proper Christian response involves turning the offense and the offender over to God who alone can properly judge the offense.” (“Some Thoughts on a Biblical View of Anger: A Response,” Journal of Psychology and Theology, vol 2, 1974, p. 267)It’s hard to get a handle on what they mean. It’s confusing because different things, or different stages, all go by the name anger.
Phase one, there’s the initial physiological arousal. You feel a little warm under the color, and an energy that’s ready to be aggressive. This physiological response is a natural, adaptive response to threats. Our ancestors millions of years ago were prone to being attacked, and they needed their body to trigger an upsurge in aggressive energy so they could fight and defend themselves.
It’s helpful to see the difference between the anger response and a rather different response to a threat: fear. We can’t just lump anger and fear together as fight-or-flight reactions. Anger is getting you ready to fight. Fear might be getting you ready to run away – which takes a similar sort of energy – but fear might also be getting you ready to hide somewhere and be very still and attentive. Anger increases your blood pressure while fear increases your respiration rate (Albert F. Ax, “The Physiological Differentiation between Fear and Anger in Humans,” Psychosomatic Medicine, vol. 15, No. 5, 1953, pp. 433-442).
In one way, fear and anger are actually exact opposites. In a recent study, fearful people made risk-averse choices – they steer away from whatever looks like it might be risky. Angry people make risk-seeking choices – they overestimate their ability to overcome an obstacle, defeat an opponent, or handle whatever’s coming at them (Jennifer Lerner & Dacher Keltner, “Fear, Anger, and Risk,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 81, 2001, pp. 146-159).
Either way, when you’re in the grip of either emotion, it distorts reality. If an attacker is coming at you who is 5-foot-nine and 150 pounds, if you’re seeing him through the lens of fear, he seems much bigger than he is. Fear is your body’s attempt to tell you don’t be an idiot, be conciliatory, be submissive, give him what he wants, or avoid this guy altogether if possible. Through the lens of anger, he seems smaller than he is. Anger is your body’s attempt to tell you don’t let this twerp push you around.
In our culture, anger is esteemed – at least in men – and fear is disdained. The Machiguenga Indians in the Peruvian Amazon, however,
“consider fear as a relatively good emotion when compared with anger. Indeed, the Machiguenga seek to avoid anger at all costs.” (Lerner & Keltner, citing A. Johnson, et al, “The Colors of Emotions in Machiguenga,” American Anthropologist, vol. 88, pp. 674-681)So we inherit these bodies and nervous systems in which perceived threats can trigger this physical response called anger.
Phase two is what we do with that response. Our bodies are charged up, and our attitudes and perceptions are distorted toward believing the battle should be joined. We’re ready to fight. But whether we actually start fighting – yelling, screaming, punching, throwing things – is still up to us.
The phase one physiological response might be mild or quite strong, and the behavior that results might be a brief frown or an full-scale counterattack on whatever we perceive the threat to be. I gather that it’s that phase two behavior which the Christian tradition regards as a deadly sin. It’s not a sin to feel angry, but it is a sin to act angry.
It’s interesting that fear is not among the seven deadlies – neither feeling nor acting fearful. This tells us something, I think, about our culture’s tendency to be confrontational, that there was a need to try to control anger rather than fear.
I don’t want to give the impression that, while acting angry is within our control, feeling angry is not. It’s not so simple. Put yourself in this scenario. You’ve been grocery shopping. Now you’ve gotta get the groceries home and put away. You’re under some time pressure because you have an appointment coming up. You get to your apartment building, but the parking places on that side of the street are taken, so you have to park across the street. At the grocery store, you had asked for paper rather than plastic, and what you’ve got are three brimming-full paper grocery bags. You decide you need to do this in one trip, so you scoop up all three bags. Your field of vision is now somewhat limited. You wait for the light to change. You know it says “walk” for only a few seconds before it goes into its warning blink, and that stopped cars are ready to proceed the instant the light changes back. You’re making your way across the street, when some clod walking by the other direction bumps into you. Your groceries spill in the middle of the street. Your body floods with that anger reaction. Blood pressure up, you see red. You spin around, clutching the one bag of groceries that didn’t spill, and the angry, loud words that are already starting to come out of your mouth are definitely not words you would want your children to hear. And in that moment you see...the white cane.
The anger just drains right away as you see the truth of the situation with clarity.
The meaning of a white cane, the meaning of blindness, what it would mean to be yelling in the street at blind guy – all of this is cognitive brain. It’s learned. We can also learn, and train ourselves to see as rapidly as we recognize the implications of a white cane, that, as Ian MacLaren (pseudonym of Rev. John Watson, 1850-1907) put it:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”Understanding naturally cools the flames of anger. As understanding grows, those anger-flaring habits get harder to trigger.
Now, I’m aware that I am offering this sermon on anger into a particular congregational context. While anger is always a recurrent part of life – and it’s an important and can be a helpful and empowering thing – there is in this congregation less anger than there was four-to-seven years ago. We – well, you all really – those of you who have been here more than four years -- came through a period of conflict, and are the wiser for it – and gentler.
We’ve been having our annual stewardship pledge canvass this month, and you can see that the tree of hope is full of leaves – each of those leaves representing a pledge of support for the next year. What we have been hearing from our stewardship committee who organized this is what a delightful process it’s been this year. We have a few more leaves still to add to the tree. And though the economic times be difficult, we’re pulling together without being much angry with each other. That’s something to celebrate, for that is what our true prosperity consists in. As a wiser, gentler people, you are now ready for those prosperous ways, as the anthem says.
“Yes, let the light shine down on your mansion of faith.[Anthem]
Let us receive what we believe we’re creating.”
With understanding we cool the flames of anger. Yet we don’t want to not have anger. When we recognize in ourselves the physiology of anger arising, it’s got something to tell us. It’s not to be indulged, but it’s not to be suppressed either.
Physiology, when we’re angry, we’re geared up to yell and hit and throw things. Indulging that impulse, in our society, isn’t skillful. Even if you don’t hit people, but vent by hitting, say, pillows, this isn’t good. It reinforces the mental connection between the feeling and lashing out.
Suppressing the feeling isn’t skillful either. Denying the anger that’s there, or trying to make it go away when you don’t really understand any good reason that it should, that’s suppression.
Neither indulging nor suppressing.
The anger that comes up is like a toddler, a three-year-old, pulling at your skirt, or your pants leg, wanting your attention. Indulging him is often not a good idea. “What do you want? Do you want a candy bar? Here. Do you want a coke? Here.” Indulging a three-year-old’s every demand is not good parenting.
On the other hand, pushing him away isn’t good parenting either. “Go away, kid. I’m busy. Leave me alone.”
Neither suppressing nor indulging – but paying attention to.
“Hello, there. I see you. What are you up to? You have something to show me? What is it? What is it? Wow!”What a toddler that wanted attention gets it – is lavished with attention – before too long, they’re ready to start asserting autonomy and independence. He’ll happily toddle off to play. Same with your anger. Neither suppressing it nor indulging it, you bring all your attention to it. Hello, there, my anger. I see you there. I will take good care of you. You have something to show me? What is it? Wow!
And before long, like the toddler, that warm feeling under the collar begins to subside. It may have had something important to show us, however – something to remember.
Carroll Saussy, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, recognizes righteous wrath, holy anger. There can also be negative anger, which she calls sinful anger. Saussy defines anger as
“a response to the experience of being ignored, injured, trivialized, or rejected, as well as an empathic response aroused by witnessing someone else being ignored, injured, trivialized or rejected. Anger is also a response to the awareness of social evils such as prejudice, oppression, and violence. Holy anger is a call to action. Negative or sinful anger is a vengeful, hostile, sometimes explosive reaction to an interpersonal or social situation; it aims to injure persons or institutions and tears at the fabric of society by destroying relationships. Whereas holy anger seeks to right a wrong, whether the evil has been perpetrated on oneself or another, sinful anger is the expression of a wrong-doer, who inflicts evil on wronged people.” (115)Anger can be the energy to right a wrong. For instance, in nine more days, it’s election day in Gainesville, and an issue on the ballot is a proposal to amend the city charter. Charter amendment 1 would strip the city of any authority prevent discrimination. Only Florida state civil rights could be upheld, and Florida state law allows discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. I’ve got some anger about that. It’s an empathic response to witnessing the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender members of my beloved community and my beloved municipality being ignored, injured, trivialized, and rejected.
Social justice movements are initiated and fueled by holy anger, righteous wrath against oppression. When it comes to giving shy persons the strength they need to get up and do what needs to be done, anger is better than powdermilk biscuits.
“Hello there my anger. I see you there. I will take good care of you.”In this case, taking good care of it means that I do my part to defeat this awful amendment. It means awakening my conscience, with justice its guide, to join with all people whose rights are denied.
Not all anger is so righteous. My anger, and yours probably, is not always good and holy. Sometimes
“an angry reaction to personal or social offense is narcissistic, a self-centered need to secure one’s power or reputation.” (Saussy 1995, p. 114)How do we tell the difference? If you have strawberry jam with your peanut butter instead of grape jelly, is that really a justice issue – or just you having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day? Do you get out the protest banners and start marching in the street, or get out the drums and start marching around the living room?
To “tap the load of information and energy that comes with anger,” pay attention to it. That’s what it always comes down to, doesn’t it? Whatever the topic, the spiritual message is, pay attention. Wake up to feel the deep power of being in all. Carroll Saussy says,
“As you claim your bodily experience, feeling the sensations in all of their intensity, you can begin a calming process. Simply attend to your breathing, taking deep breaths that you hold for several seconds before exhaling. Come quietly home to yourself, breathing deeply to relax your tense body. Perhaps most important is the desire to learn from your experience and the willingness to be open to either confronting and using your anger or surrendering (but not repressing) it.” (118)Surrendering the anger means you’ve decided you’re not going to seek a redress on the issue. The anger still needs expression. Expressing the anger – reflectively and objectively expressing the feeling going on in you, either to a confidant or to your journal – is an important part of bringing mindfulness to your anger.
Finally: a lesson about not being attached to our own opinions. Don’t be sure you’re right. Be open to new truth. "Wake, now, my reason, reach out to the new." Thich Nhat Hanh tells this story:
“A man once had to leave home for a long time. Before he left, his wife got pregnant, but he didn’t know it. When he returned, his wife had given birth to a child. He suspected that the little boy was not his, and believed that he was the son of a neighbor who used to come and work for the family. He looked at the little boy with suspicion. He hated him. He saw the neighbor’s face in the little boy’s face. Then one day the man’s brother came to visit for the first time. When he saw the little boy, he said to the father, ‘he looks just like you. He’s your exact duplicate.’ The brother’s visit was a happy event, because it helped the father to get rid of his wrong perception. But the wrong perception had controlled this man’s life for twelve years. It made the father suffer deeply. It made his wife suffer deeply, and, of course, the little boy suffered from that kind of hatred.” (Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, 2001, pp. 78-79)The man had been stuck in two strong opinions: one about the child’s genetic paternity – and the other about what difference that made. So he couldn’t awaken his compassion to give heed to the cry of suffering.
We can get stuck in a certain picture of the world – and even if it might happen to be true as far as it goes, it never goes as far as openness goes.
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, FL, 2009 March 15