Don’t Take Your Anger to Bed

Anger inflates to seem a lot bigger and more important than it often really is

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Bible Faith Morals

Last Sunday’s readings focused on the corrosive effect of unjust anger and its ability to choke off — as in the case of the wicked servant’s debtor, literally — mercy.

There is, of course, the danger of thinking that all anger is always bad. That’s not true. Anger is an emotion. Emotions are neither good nor bad; they just are. Emotions are passions, and passions give us energy. The question is: what do our passions fuel? Do they advance the good? Or evil? I can feel passionate about my spouse or about a concubine. Both are “feelings,” but they clearly fuel very different things and actions.

When it comes to anger, there can be good reasons to be angry. When we see rank injustice, when we see innocence despoiled, when we see blatant lies in the service of evil spewn by those who should know better, we should be angry.

Bill Bennett wrote a book almost 30 years ago whose title, regardless of the merits of the book’s arguments (about the Clinton impeachment), is telling: “The Death of Outrage.” Are we ever today outraged, or has perversity so numbed our culture that it elicits a shrug at best? Are the only zealots now those who promote perversion? That may be what William Butler Yeats meant when he observed:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

So, yes, there are reasons to be angry. Sunday’s readings do not do away with “transgressions” or “sins” and tell us to “think of the commandments.” But, that said, they also warn us of the acidic nature of anger.

While we should have passionate conviction, Sunday’s Scripture readings (24th Sunday, Ordinary Time,  Year A) warn us that anger can be quite destructive. The First Reading from Sirach (27:30-28:7) is especially descriptive. Its language is quite concrete: wrath is “hateful” but something that, perversely, a sinner “hugs tight.” Anger is “nourished” and “cherished” as “enmity.” The Old Testament thus warns us that, though we might sometimes rationalize anger as “just,” we must constantly check our true motives, because anger is something that gets into one’s blood, a parasite needing feeding, a beloved security blanket clung to tightly. Anger is destructive. It is also seductive.

John Greenleaf Whittier, the 19th century American poet, gives good advice in this respect [see here]. His 1846 poem “Forgiveness” details just such a discovery of the seduction of anger [poem here]. Whittier was upset about someone who “abused” his “trust” and met his “kindness” with “foul wrong.” He was clearly angry but must not have gotten the sympathy he thought he deserved, so he decides to spend his summer Sunday afternoon moping around the local church cemetery.

There a discovery occurred. It was soon apparent to Whittier that “wronged and wrongdoer” both come to a common end at least in this life. If one did not know the history, how would one differentiate trespasser and trespassed? And who knows what debts, great or small, each of those debtors carried with him? God knows, which is why Sunday’s readings counsel leaving things to God.

Measured against the perspective of eternity, Whittier’s great grievance shrank down to size and in his eyes. Taking Sirach’s advice to “set enmity aside,” the poet concluded his thoughts with these words:

a mighty wave
Swept all my pride away, and I forgave!

Even “righteous” anger must be constantly examined to make sure that pride is not masquerading as “righteousness.”

The “examen” is a Jesuit spiritual discipline traditionally practiced at day’s end. It entails, but is more than just, an “examination of conscience.” The goal of the examen is to identify the wrong one has done and to be sorry for it, and to look at the past day through the eyes of God. How does everything that happened today—the good, the bad, the seemingly indifferent—possibly express God’s Providence? How did I grow in goodness or neglect to? How did that seemingly random thing perhaps point to something God wants me to address? What wrong did I think, say, or do? What motives drove that action?

The critical point of the examen is that, guided by the grace the Holy Spirit provides, we pray to see the day through God’s eyes — not how we saw things but how God saw things. How do I appear in God’s eyes at the end of this day?

If the wicked servant had seen his life through his Master’s eyes rather than his own, he might not have so readily throttled his fellow servant.

Finally, I have always found good counsel in the Church’s Night Prayer for Wednesdays. The passage is from Ephesians 4, in particular verses 26-27:

Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger;
Do not give the devil a chance to work on you.

As Whittier discovered, anger is like a blowfish, inflating itself to seem a lot bigger and more important than it often really is. How often are relationships, marriage, homes poisoned by anger which—even if once justified—should long ago have been forgiven rather than hugged tight? Cui bono? How often does the devil take glee in his “good” work at such long-term estrangement? St. Paul gives good advice: We’d all be better off if, at the end of the day, we put our anger to bed rather than taking it there.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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