Regular readers expect that most of my posts here are thicker in theology or philosophy (or I’ve fooled them into thinking so), but there are times when I do have “pastoral” thoughts or practical moments. These times don’t happen often, so I wanted to capture them when they do occur.
What follows is advice I gave when someone asked how I handled my anger. I don’t pretend to have it all together in this arena and certainly do fail periodically in keeping my anger under control. But, over the years, I have gained a small measure of wisdom and have learned a few things about this misunderstood and oft mis-appropriated emotion. My musings below are not based on anything I’ve read and I readily admit that not all anger is bad, wrong, or destructive. However, my remarks are focused on that familiar territory, namely, the darker side of anger. It is my hope these thoughts will help others think harder and longer on this most difficult slave master known as anger.
Anger is parasitic — It sucks the life out of everything and everyone. Imagine being at a park on a beautiful day where families are laughing and children are playing, then suddenly an angry parent begins to scream repeatedly at their child for something. Those moments of joy and calm are gone because the parasite of anger eats away at the happiness of everyone in earshot. The emotional trajectory is changed and the energy spent on enjoyment is suddenly re-directed toward disdain for and/or sadness toward the angry parent.
Anger is short-sighted — Almost always when I am angry, then I am basically saying that my wants, desires, or expectations are all there are in the way of solutions. But, what if what I want, desire, or expect is not the best thing and there’s another option on the table that’s more effective? When I’m angry, I cannot seem to get out of my own way and see things any other way because anger keeps me from finding effective solutions to problems. Anger disables me intellectually and keeps me from trouble-shooting effectively. Instead, an emotionally appropriate and tempered response to problems allows me to be dominated by my intellect and find answers that work!
Anger is weakness — but gentleness is strength and many a conflict has been diffused by an even-tempered person. Aristotle taught that weak-willed people cannot keep their desires under control. Anger is the opposite of self-control and is itself the controlling influence of the self. Easy to respect and admire the person who keeps their eating under control. So too with the person who keeps their emotions in check and responds appropriately to circumstances.
Anger is a thief — it robs us of opportunities to grow emotionally. Because anger is always the dominant emotion in times of stress, it steals from others their emotional response to difficulty. The angry person is like the child jumping up and down saying “Watch me! Watch me!” When an angry person is present, I end up having to forfeit my feelings and figure out how to manage the feelings of the angry person in the room. “Watch me! Watch me!”
Anger also steals from others the ability to estimate rightly the enormity of the offense committed toward others. When I’m angry, I lose the ability to be compassionate and empathetic, seeing objectively the impact I am having on others. And when this is lost, then something deeply human is lost. Instead, to be fully and wonderfully human is, in part, to enter into the emotional sphere of others and see life through their eyes. An angry person cannot do this; an even-tempered one can.
Anger is not the only game in town — In the gamut of human emotions, there are plenty of other feelings to express that are appropriate (I’m forever indebted to a friend for this insight). Consider other emotions such as annoyance, irritation, and frustration. If I leap frog over these other emotions and go straight to anger, I am cheating myself out of the full range of human emotion. When anger becomes the knee-jerk reaction to inconvenience or disappointment, then it becomes difficult if not impossible to dial it back.
But I can learn to be annoyed, but stop short of frustration. I can choose to be irritated, but never move to anger. Moreover, knowing that resentment and then rage are the next stops on the emotional train after anger should give me considerable pause before I get near that dangerous emotion called anger. Annoyance and irritation, or even frustration, are often sufficient responses to leave room for my intellect to find solutions that work.
Anger is a heavy burden — Anger requires far too much consequence management and clean-up after the fact. The collateral damage caused by anger leaves a wake of devastation that requires too much energy from everyone.
While love is patient (1 Cor 13), it is not eternally tolerant. No one should forever be expected to put up with a habitually angry person. Those affected by my anger may eventually become worn out with having to constantly forgive me or manage me emotionally and I could forever lose whatever blessing I have gained in knowing them and forfeit the relationship altogether.
That said, every time I am angry, I am faced with a choice: risk inching myself further away from the ones I love and eventually live alone, isolated, with just me and Anger as my friend and only companion, or learn to manage it and get an emotional grip. Time for me to own my anger and tell it like is.
Speaking of getting a grip: Personally, I find the strength to grow emotionally and mature relationally not in me, but in Christ Jesus who loves me and gave his life for me (Gal 2:20). Therefore, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” Why? Because Christ promised that “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12)