Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Anger/Wrath (the Righter of Wrongs)

~~  "The heart goaded by the pricks of anger is convulsed, the body trembles, the tongue entangles itself, the face is inflamed, the eyes are enraged and fail utterly to recognize those whom we know: the tongue makes sounds indeed, but there is no sense in its utterance."  --Gregory the Great  ~~

Ever regret doing something while enraged?  I certainly have.  There is something a bit disconcerting about Anger.  It has a certain power that we all, to greater or lesser extent, tend to bow to.  It seems obvious that Anger is not really good, but we seem to enjoy it at times.  No, really... think about it.  While in its throes, we can forget anything bad about our-self.  We can revel in the strong feeling of pushing (hard) outward at someone/something else.  It can be quite a "rush," so to speak.

But is Anger a bad thing, in and of itself?  Or is it more like fear, in that it can be a good motivator (but a bad leader)?  The bible speaks of Anger in many passages-- and here is one (Ephesians, 4: 26-27) that shows Anger is not necessarily a sin, so long as we don't hold onto it too long:  "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil."  This is great advice, as we see from another verse (Proverbs, 29: 22):  "An angry person stirs up conflict, and a hot-tempered person commits many sins."  Those two verses really sum up the essence of the thing.

As for the ancient and not so ancient thinkers, they agree that Anger is, indeed, a vice/sin... but not always.  There is a clear distinction between good or "righteous" anger that seeks justice, and the other kind that descends into what Gregory speaks of in the above quotation.  If we are clearly in what we believe to be "the right," then Anger can be a great launching point for good action.

~~  "If one is angry in accordance with right reason, one's anger is deserving of praise."  
--Thomas Aquinas  ~~

Let's look at a composite case study that should be quite recognizable to most people.  Let's take a garden-variety "road rage" situation.  You are driving along and suddenly a car comes flying up behind you and is tailgating you-- dangerously close.  You check your speed and you are actually going four mph over the posted limit... which is, apparently, not good enough for your rear neighbor.  You can feel those "pricks of anger" poking at you.  What the hell does he want me to do?  Into your mind comes a strong vision of the offending car having a catastrophic blowout and flipping off the road.  *SWITCH*  Okay, now you are the tailgating driver (don't pretend you've never done it).  Why won't this idiot speed up or pull over so I can pass?  I'm in a big hurry for _____ reason.  Your annoyance is reaching fever pitch.  There is clear irrationality in your desire for the car in front of you to vaporize in an explosion so you can go by.

It is easy to see that Anger is in play for both drivers... but are both of them in the right?  Unlikely... but they both certainly do feel as if they are.  Do you see how personal it is?  One driver is angry because of a perceived injustice against himself-- the other is angry for the same reason.  If they both reflect honestly on the incident later that day or the next, they will likely admit-- if only to themselves-- that they were not being the "best version" of themselves.

~~  "When a man is wrong and won't admit it, he always gets angry."  
--Thomas Chandler Haliburton  ~~

Now let's look at a different case that you can no doubt relate to.  11 September, 2001.  That day.  Do you remember the white-hot Anger?  I do and will never, ever forget it (it's literally tattooed on me).  By any and all objective standards, that Anger... that Wrath... was (is) as righteous as it comes.  Evil had come calling on that day, and every good person in the entire world knew it.  Our Anger was justified and appropriate... but it was not enough.  It became the motivator for action.  Unfortunately, the day-to-day Anger that we experience is not usually so easy to attribute to righteousness.

Bad or "vice" Anger desires evil for another for some personal, usually unjust, reason.  "Righteous" Anger/ Wrath also desires the evil of punishment for a person, but under the aspect of "just revenge."  That really is all the difference in the world, in my view.  The truth is, though, once the door to Anger is opened, the soul is armed for any act of justice, or any crime or sin.  Although all Anger dresses itself in the purest nobility, a central problem with Anger is that even the just and righteous kind can go bad and take over our personality.  So, let's break the two out separately and spend a minute on each, starting with the "good" kind.

~~  "He who is not angry, whereas he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but even the good to do wrong."  --St John Chrysostom  ~~

Righteous Anger is something we have all felt-- ironically, both rightly and wrongly.  Think of a time when you were very angry, but later found that it was incorrect/misguided (perhaps something like the aforementioned road rage case).  Here's an amusingly ironic note, by the way: when you return to reason after the outrage, you will likely be angry at yourself over it.  At the time of the Anger, though, it feels just and it feels right.  St Francis de Sales said that there was never an angry man who thought his anger was unjust.  The greater and more noble the underlying cause seems to be, the more powerfully right the Anger feels.  Again, in this way, Anger is a good motivator-- pushing us to address something that our conscience thinks or knows is amiss.

I think it is safe to say that the opposite of Anger is apathy.  In a curious way, Anger is a companion of Love... proving that we care about something/someone, because it's very hard to be angry about something you care nothing for.  9/11/01 is probably the gold standard.

~~  "Wrath is the strength to attack the repugnant; the power of anger is actually the power of resistance in the soul."  --Josef Pieper  ~~

Aquinas stressed with a very deep, yet simple point (his hallmark, by the way), that it is not incompatible with virtue that the "deliberation of reason be interrupted in the execution of what reason has deliberated: since art also would be hindered in its act, if it were to deliberate about what has to be done, while having to act."  That makes me smile, not only because of how brilliant his comparison to art was, but also because although I can picture the process inside myself (I think it through, become righteously angry, act properly on it, then return to deliberating again), I recognize how fraught with peril it is... since I have overdosed on the Anger pill more than once and stood on the same moral low ground as the road-rager.  So the trick is to make sure our Wrath is righteous-- simple, eh?

~~  "Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy."  --Aristotle  ~~

While it is true that Anger should be employed at times; the real problem is that for most fallible humans, using Anger most often resembles giving a monkey a machine gun.  St. Augustine warns us to moderate our Anger with reason to keep it from becoming something evil.  In that sense, I think of Anger as being something like a fire.  We can control fire and use it for good things-- but it sometimes comes along unbidden and becomes out of control.  We can either fight the fire or just let it burn itself out.  One way to fight fire is to starve it of oxygen.

So, what is the fuel of Anger that we can seek to deny to it?  One fuel I can think of is an old "friend" that we have already discussed... Pride.  If the cause really is just and not a matter of personal Pride, then our righteous Anger will dissipate at the appropriate time.  If not, then it will continue to burn... feeding itself on the fuel of Pride.  One of Gregory's "Morals" says that when we are using Anger as an instrument of virtue, "We must beware lest it overrule the mind, and go before it as its mistress, instead of following in Reason's train, ever ready, as its handmaid, to obey."  That is a fantastic metaphor: Anger as the mistress of our mind... in a special, untouchable place, with privileges not offered to other emotions.  Thanks to Gregory for that important safety tip!

~~  "Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it.”  --Seneca  ~~

So, we have our righteous Anger and we are using it to fire the engine of Justice.  This means we do not desire vengeance and evil to a person for that sake alone.  Instead, we desire vengeance as a corrective action of a vice and for the overall good of Justice.  That is a tough beam to balance upon... but it can be done.  Moderating and controlling Anger is, like most things, a matter of habit and training.  We should seek to come to the point where Anger is a tool that we sometimes use, but always in the right way and for the right task.  The Book of Wisdom (12: 18) reminds us that God does not rule in Anger, but instead He, being "master of power, judges with tranquillity."

I can think of a thousand examples of how Anger can motivate a person or group to do something just and worthy.  I can see how I myself have effectively used Anger as a tool-- often quickly and not in a premeditated way.  There is no doubt that there is plenty of good to be done when propelled by righteous indignation... so long as we keep both eyes open and fixed firmly on the true cause of the Anger, and not just the taste of vengeance for its own sake.  Ancient religious and pagan thinkers and modern day self-help gurus all agree that Anger is a tool that should have limited and controlled use.

~~  "There's nothing wrong with anger provided you use it constructively."  --Wayne Dyer  ~~

Now, let's take a moment to focus on the "bad" Anger... the fire that burns in us, through us, and out of us-- seeking vengeance for something barely visible through the red lens.  If the fierceness of our Anger pushes us away from God and the love of our neighbor, it will continue to push until we find ourselves trapped in other serious sins/vices.  As Aquinas said, Anger is a mortal sin when it is contrary to Charity.  

If even good and righteous Anger can sometimes cloud the eye of reason-- then how much more does bad Anger virtually blind that eye?  Think of a time when you were really, REALLY angry.  A time when you had no control-- and didn't even want control.  You were outside of yourself, watching the beast control your body and mind.  Somehow, though, the Wrath felt... good.  Nothing logical about that, but there you are.  The cause may or may not have been just or righteous- that scarcely matters at this point.  The only thing to do now is deal with this force that has the conn of your ship.  

~~  "Anger differs in no way from madness; it is a demon while it lasts, indeed more troublesome than one harassed by a demon."  --St John Chrysostom  ~~

Just control it, that's all.  Okay?  For some people, it is much easier to leash Anger than it is for others.  Maybe you have a hereditary disposition to it... maybe you are suffering from certain mental "strains" that exacerbate it... maybe you really do have a demon on-board, pulling the levers.  The bottom line is that you will either deal with the Anger, or it will deal with you... and that most often ends up in less than desirable ways.  I offer a timely reminder that you don't have to-- and really can't-- deal with it alone... Philippians 4: 13 applies, as usual.  

Gregory listed the six "daughters" of Anger as quarreling, swelling of the mind, contumely, clamor, indignation and blasphemy.  I tend to think there can often be more than six.  In myself and in others, I have seen Anger leave a terrible path of destruction and "collateral damage" in its wake.  In fact, Anger quite frequently is the poster child for unintended consequences.  Picture Dr. Bruce Banner waking up in some unknown place... clothing torn to shreds... rubble and chaos all around him.  "What did I do?" he asks himself.  Well, technically, it was not him, but the Hulk that did it, right?  What was it that made him "Hulk-out?"  Hard telling if it was righteous Hulking or not.  In any case, it's not good to have anyone that angry... especially an eight-foot tall green monster (or other such formidable persons).

 ~~  "Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger."  
--J. R. R. Tolkien  ~~

It's easy to quantify the many risks associated with Anger.  How, then, do we "deal with it?"  Each person will have to find his or her own exact prescription, but it seems intuitive that a quick self-exam would be in order when Anger begins its yeast-like rising inside us.

One question we can ask is "am I angry for my own inward reasons?"  Another very good question we may want to ask before employing righteous Anger is "would God also be angry about this?"  Now, I am not for one second saying we should "play God" and imagine ourselves to know what He would think of a given situation.  There are far too many variables that would only be known through omniscience.  What I am saying is that we have many clues and much evidence that will help us to know if we are on "righteous" grounds or not-- namely His word and countless saintly examples, not to mention our own conscience, if properly trained and listened to.  It's easy to not deliberate and just manufacture God's Anger in our own image, so to speak.  Anger can make the best among us overly judgmental and "holier than thou"... and that is not a good thing at all.  Best to remember that God really doesn't call us to be simply angry, per se.  Instead, He wants us to use it as a motivating tool for good and just actions.

The Virtues are, of course, very helpful:
   -in discerning the root and reasonable limits of our Anger (Justice, Temperance, and Prudence... not to mention humility to battle pesky Pride);
   -in remembering that the object of our Wrath is still a fellow human and should be treated with appropriate respect and dignity (Love and Charity, which lead us to forgiveness);
   -in bearing a personal affront and being able to carry on in a good and decent manner, even though it is very difficult (Fortitude);
   -and finally, in never forgetting that all true vengeance for any crime belongs to Almighty God alone and that He will ultimately deal with the situation in His time (Faith and Hope).

Thinking of Anger as a powerful and potentially dangerous tool-- not unlike a firearm-- will keep the serious person from misusing it.  Being oblivious to it and not taking the time to train with it and to ensure it is stored in a safe condition will ensure the non-serious person abuses it and thus suffers.  I have to say that I do believe in the just power of righteous Anger-- it is good when it nudges us toward good acts.  However, I also see very clearly how we are far more likely to surrender to Wrath's power than to shape it with our own.  We are, in so many ways, in danger of being that monkey with the machine gun.

The final word always and rightfully belongs to God, and He ultimately calls on all of us to do what we feel is right and just-- but not to hold onto poisonous feelings of Anger and hatred.  

"Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance,
for he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor's injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
Could anyone nourish anger against another
and expect healing from the LORD?
Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself,
can he seek pardon for his own sins?
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
who will forgive his sins?
Remember your last days, set enmity aside;
remember death and decay, and cease from sin!
Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor;
remember the Most High's covenant, and overlook faults."

--Sirach, 27: 30 to 28: 7

God bless!


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