Anger, its Uses and Abuses

Reflection 23rd June 2013


In the book I’m reading as part of my education in French, we are up to the chapter on ‘anger’. The premise of the book is that all emotions are good and useful. The question the book deals with is: how to work with them, and what is the best way to express them.


When coming to anger, ‘Managing the Emotions’ says that anger is a means catalysing change, and as such is a good thing.


I can remember a couple of times when this has been the case for me. In about 1995 I was working as a parish priest. I had been on holiday in Germany, and had come back to the parish full of love for them, and hope for the year to come. I was also toying with study, but the parish work took up a lot of time (naturally) and I could not find the motivation to enrol in a course ‘just for the sake of it’. Coming back from holidays, we prepared to keep Shrove Tuesday. I invited members of the congregation to come to cook pancakes to distribute them to the commuters on their way back home. At the appointed tome, no one came. I was left to do the job on my own. I was angry. I said ‘What is the point of putting my time into this place when no one else thinks the tasks are worth it?’ I enrolled for some courses which eventually led to my writing my Doctorate. There was positive energy for change.


I have used this kind of energy to make some changes in government systems. Once, Robyn was visiting a person in prison. There was a young mum there, who had come all the way from the country to see her partner in prison. The time for visiting hours was up. She had not yet been ‘called’ from the visitors’ centre to see her partner. She had to go home in tears. I began to write to the ombudsman about a better system of visiting, and in a polite way, managed the change. The energy for action was generated by my anger at the injustice of the situation. The form that the action took was such that I did not alienate too many people and achieved what I wanted.


I have had less success in getting other people to change by being angry. Normally that breeds resentment on the part of the person at whom the anger is directed. Normally that breeds resentment in them. The truth is also that the situation is something that I am sad about and that I can express as a sentence that begins with ‘I am frustrated that I expected ‘X’ and found ‘Y’’  This generally elicits a better response from the person I am angry with, because it leaves them freer to respond, and also lessens the sense that they are under attack. This lessens the sense that they have to defend themselves.


Another good thing I found out about anger on holidays came after as very frustrating day of skiing. I had asked my friend if the way home was easy. ‘Yes’ he said. Then we reached a spot where I fell 5 times in as many metres!. I threw away my skis and stocks, and began to walk home ‘Why did you bring me here!!,” I said. ‘You said it was easy!!!’ All the anger of the day was released. Soon after, I said ‘You know, I was frustrated after a long day. What I said was just a strong expression of feeling.’ My desire for relationship was as important as my desire to express my feelings. No harm was done. My feelings were expressed, and the relationship was strengthened.


The book says that anger should be expressed at the time, or as close to the time as one feels it as possible. His is to prevent some poor person copping the anger of a whole week’s worth of frustration at one go, when it does not belong to them. As well, a small amount of anger is not going to hurt any one, and is quickly past. The principles in the book are (a) express anger as quickly as possible and (b) express anger proportionately. 


The book gives an example of being pulled over by a policeman. One is angry at oneself for being so stupid, and at the policeman etc. There is some sense in delaying the response until one is out of earshot of the officer, in order to achieve another important goal: the smallest fine possible!


Once, I was looking after a four year old child, while their mother was in a meeting. They wanted to go to see their mother about something, and I said ‘no, you can’t. They’ll be out soon’. Then began the tantrum. It was massive. I said ‘Look, Katie, this is a nine out of ten reaction to a three out of ten problem!’ She stopped! What I liked about this was the fact that I did not invalidate her frustration by saying ‘Do not be angry!!!’ The question was not whether she had a right to be angry, but the proportionality of the response. That I find helpful. Christians mostly use the faith as a stop to their true feelings, and since this is recognised by others, they are rightly called hypocrites.


As a Christian, I think that the idea of being as true as possible is a good one. Lots of trouble with anger comes because of the need to put on a ‘false self’ for the sake of appearing ‘good’ and then delivering the pent up feelings at some one else or in another place where it does not belong. Again, we hear a lot about the appropriateness of ‘righteous anger’ but never have I seen a Christian praise another for their ‘righteous anger!’


The biggest story about anger that the New Testament gives us is when Jesus ‘cleanses’ the temple. It is the proximate cause of the counter-action toward him by the religious and civil authorities that leads to his death, a response which represents an angry (violent) response in return. What does he say? ‘You have turned my Father’s house which should be a house for prayer into a den of thieves!’ At this point, Jesus is not thinking about the consequences, he is not thinking about the best way to be a change agent, he is just thinking about the huge gap between the reality he sees before him, sand the hopes he has for our relationship with God.


Sometimes the angry people who do not know how to ‘work the system’ see more clearly than others what is wrong, and suffer equally the pain. Jesus actions here remind me of how God must feel as one who bears all the pain of the world, knowing how it could bee, but experiencing it a it is.


There is much more to be said about anger, but for the time being, that will do.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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