Anger is our Friend

113

Before we dive into an article on anger, it is important to define our terms. Anger is a passion (or emotion). Passions are defined as the “natural components of the human psyche; they form the passageway and ensure the connection between the life of the senses and the life of the mind” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1764). Our passions or emotions serve as bridges between the mind and the body. Life would be supremely dull without any emotions. Jesus teaches us that the heart is the seat of the passions (cf. Mark 7:21).

And what kind of passion is anger? This passion is simply the emotional component of resistance to a perceived evil (“The apprehension of evil causes hatred, aversion, and fear of the impending evil; this movement ends in sadness at some present evil, or in the anger that resists it” [Ibid.]). Anger arises in us when we sense something evil and we attempt to resist it. Sadness arises when we realize that we cannot resist it (“Resistance is useless”). Our hearts sense when healthy boundaries are being crossed or people are offending our dignity. It is normal and right for us to become justly angry when this happens. We ought to resist this evil and it is healthy for our emotional life to be involved in this process. (Problems obviously arise when the evils that we perceive are, in actuality, not evils).

The English-speaking world is full of people with repressed, unresolved, and unacknowledged anger. And this repressed anger eventually begins to come out sideways via behaviors such as road rage, unjustified angry outbursts, passive-aggressive behavior and more. Why do we repress our anger? Most people sense that it is unacceptable to become angry in our culture. We hear things like: “Angry people have problems.” “A person who becomes angry needs therapy.” “Anger is indicative of a lack of control.” “You ought to be ashamed of yourself for being angry.” “Settle down. Take a chill pill.” “When you become angry, I feel so victimized.” And finally, from the more religious wing of the house: “Anger (or wrath) is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.” Becoming angry is politically incorrect and we often feel ashamed when we become angry. Many people even apologize for becoming legitimately angry.

St. Paul sings a different song. He exhorts us: “Be angry, and yet do not sin’ (Ephesians 4:26). How do we practice this “non-sinful anger”?  A big part of the answer is to be found in taking very seriously the previous verse: “. . . let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor. . .” (v. 25). The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, chants this same hymn stating: “if one is angry in accordance with right reason, one’s anger is deserving of praise” (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 158, a. 1)! God has actually given us anger as a gift to help protect ourselves from evil and injustice. It is an energy or power in our minds and bodies for good. But we have to learn how to “speak the truth with our neighbor” regarding what we are thinking and feeling when we are angry. If we don’t, that anger becomes repressed and unresolved.

While living in Italy, I saw Italians become angry with each other all the time. They somehow “get it out of their system” when they are angry. They address and solve their problems with each other. Having resolved the conflict, they are then able to go out for drinks together. I used to think they were crazy. Now I know they are brilliant and we are the crazy ones. We do not know how to live with anger in a healthy manner. If we are in conflict with someone, we often begin to act as though the person does not exist. We check them off our list. We rarely leave our gifts at the altar (cf. Matthew 5:24) to go be reconciled with our brother (granted, this isn’t always possible). God forbid that we confront a person. We have not become friends with anger.

Christians do consider anger to be one of the Seven Deadly Sins (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 158, a. 6) because many other vices (sinful habits) or sins can flow from anger if it is not exercised according to reason (for example, consider physical abuse or the nightmarish outcome of a lethal weapon in the hands of an enraged individual with a grudge). But when used properly according to right reason, anger is our friend. This good anger is often called “righteous anger.”

Upon examination, we see that heaven has a radically different view of anger than does our culture. In 1 Samuel 11:6, we read that when Saul heard certain bad news, “the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he burned with anger.” God energized Saul with power, using anger as the source of energy. What would change in us if, instead of repressing our anger, we acknowledged it? What if we allowed it to act as an empowering agent within us that gave us the energy to speak the truth, confront evil and defend ourselves from unjust attacks? (cf. Graham Bretherick, Healing Life’s Hurts: Make Your Anger Work for You; Henry Cloud, 9 Things You Simply Must Do, Ch. 8: “Hating well.” Great stuff.)

Unfortunately, Christians are often the most misguided when it comes to anger. They will acknowledge that Jesus took a whip to the moneychangers, but will somehow ignore this fact in order to follow a politically correct version of the Beatitude “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” They will “keep the peace” even in the face of serious abuse and boundary-breaking. I remember dragging a possessed man out of a Catholic Church in Yugoslavia one day who had been desecrating a Sanctuary. Instead of being met with cheers of approval for exercising good boundaries by those in attendance, I was rebuked for not being more peaceful. (This was a man who was doing unspeakable things to a Crucifix.) My righteous anger was unacceptable. Alas, they had obviously not read the Summa.

As a result of not expressing our anger or even acknowledging it, our culture has an abundance of repressed rage. A common manner in which this anger expresses itself is in passive-aggressive behavior – Peaceful, Peaceful, Peaceful, Peaceful, Peaceful and then Boom! They repress all signs of disapproval, anger, irritation or discontent. But then the pressure cooker finally reaches a bursting point and it explodes. The cycle then repeats itself after they have apologized. Whereas, if they were capable of expressing anger – expressing how they honestly feel (“speaking the truth with our neighbor”) – in a healthy way all along, they would not have these major outbursts. Life would be far more pleasant.

Recently, I realized that I have often repressed my anger in an unhealthy manner. We had a beloved but difficult family member who was emotionally abusive in a mocking sort of way. An angry response would only have elicited more mockery and ridicule. In the end, the members of my family developed types of coping personalities that they would employ whenever we had to interact with this person at family events (Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners). These coping personalities were fairly passive or peaceful on the outside. But on the inside, we were often smoldering with anger and feelings of frustrated helplessness. The verbally abusive family member now probably wonders why they experience such an emotional distance from us.

If we have repressed anger for a long time, we are not going to be very good at expressing it in the beginning. Expressing anger requires some courage. We will make some mistakes and we will need to develop some new virtues in reintegrating this emotion into our life. But we need to develop a healthy use and acknowledgement of anger in our lives. One of the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying is that “they didn’t have the courage to express their feelings” (#3). We should have the freedom to tell people that we are angry and why (“speaking the truth with our neighbor”). They may then be able to explain their actions and we may realize that we have misinterpreted them. But at least we have gotten to the truth of the situation. We have “gotten it out of our system” like the Italians, and we can now be at peace and go out for drinks. Anger has become our friend.