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On Anger

On Anger

by The Reverend Dr. Roman D. Roldan on May 01, 2024

TLDR: Anger is a normal reaction to a threat, sadly it can become disordered rather easily. Read on to see how I went full-on Ricky Ricardo the other day. Perhaps there is something to be learned here.

Have you ever seen cartoons of angry people with smoke coming out of both ears? You can almost picture the raging fire inside the person’s mind. I come from a culture which is quite prone to anger. The historic anger of Desi Arnaz in I love Lucy can be seen in all Latin-American countries. Classically defined, anger is a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility.[1] The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anger as “an emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something you feel has deliberately done you wrong.”[2] I agree with this definition. Anger is our reaction to our perception of injustice. This perception could be real or imagined, but the person feels the behavior of another person, or a particular situation, has deprived them of their rights, has injured their sense of self, or has threatened their security or happiness. The APA adds, “Anger can be a good thing. It can give you a way to express negative feelings, for example, or motivate you to find solutions to problems.”

As with all emotions, anger is a natural, normal, and healthy reaction to a stimuli that threatens your well-being. There is so much in our world that threatens us every day that an anger-free lifestyle is almost impossible. What makes anger so complex is the vast network of emotional, cognitive, and physical elements involved in the feeling of anger. Our thoughts race as our mind tries to discern what the threat means to us (Why is he doing this to me? Doesn’t he see this is utterly unfair? How will this impact me? What does this action or situation say about me as a person, my sense of self, my identity, my place in this system, my contributions, my talents, etc.?)  A myriad of thoughts fuel our feelings of injustice or threat. Closely connected to these thoughts are cognitive distortions about the person or circumstance (It is because I am a woman, a child, a Hispanic… He doesn’t respect me… He hates me… He thinks he is so much better than I am… He only cares for what he wants without regards for me… This type of thing doesn’t happen to anyone else. If I were wealthier, taller, more handsome… these things wouldn’t happen.) Once the thoughts and distortions take over, our body responds with physical symptoms: Our speech becomes pressured, we yell or scream, we flail our arms and hands around (typical of many people in my culture,) our heart rate increases, our blood pressure rises, we feel oxygen deprived, some feel lightheaded, etc.

Some people internalize their anger in the moment, perhaps afraid of making a scene, losing privileges or rights, getting additionally violated or threatened, etc. In many of these cases, the repressed anger results in loss of sleep, depression or anxiety, bitterness, passive-aggressiveness, and other more severe symptoms. A friend of mine says that “People who are conflict averse don’t react, they quietly plan their revenge.” When this repression of anger goes on for too long, the person’s physical and mental health soon become compromised. Ironically, anger doesn’t mean aggression, and many angry people turn their anger against their own selves.

The New Testament makes some profound statements about Anger. James 1:20, “A person’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” Colossians 3:8, “rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” Matthew 5:22a, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” The Old Testament has dozens of passages dedicated to anger as well. Ecclesiastes 7:9, “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.” Proverbs 22:24, “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered.” Provers 29:11, “Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.” Psalm 37:8-9, “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.” Now you may rightly ask, “Father, if what you say is correct and anger is a normal human emotion, then why does the Bible condemn it?” This is a great question. I don’t believe anger is the issue, I believe the problem is “disordered anger.” By the word “disordered” I mean anger that is not properly expressed, anger that turns to verbal or physical aggression, anger that leads to vengeful behaviors, anger that remains a smoldering fire inside your heart and separates you from God and others, anger that consumes everything in its path.

Now, here is a confession. I went full-on Ricky Ricardo the other day, using words I have not used in many years. I even invented a new word for the occasion. I felt a sense of injustice and every fiber in my being rebelled against it. My speech was pressured, my blood pressure jumped, and I became repetitive, stating the same facts over and over, as though casting out a recalcitrant demon. The intensity of my anger surprised and embarrassed me. Thanks be to God, this was a controlled burn in the presence of a friend I trust, and the tirade was not directed at her. But I learned a few things that day, which reminded me of Thomas Aquinas (Because that’s what you should do when you are angry, remember dead theologians from the Middle Ages!)

For Aquinas anger is not a sin. In fact, as with other passions (emotions,) it is normal, and when it confronts vice or injustice, it is even righteous or virtuous.  Thomas does give us a simple rule to prevent anger from becoming disordered. We must check the emotion’s intensity (What Aquinas calls “quantity.”) Is the level of anger you are feeling equal to the threat you are experiencing? Is it excessive or deficient? In my case, my head became filled with cognitive distortions about the offender (Whom I have never met). I assumed his behavior meant disrespect, was coming out of a place of superiority and arrogance, and it was unnecessarily thoughtless and cold-hearted. In other words, the intensity of my anger far exceeded the offence. I had excessive anger. For Aquinas, reason is the standard for determining quantity. Is my anger reasonable, would another reasonable person have felt equally threatened by this perceived injustice? Is it reasonable to become this upset about this type of perceived offence?  

I would add to Aquinas a warning about duration. If your anger remains for weeks, months, or longer, it is on its way of becoming disordered (or it may already be there!) With Aquinas, I would ask, does your anger stand in opposition to vice or injustice? In other words, is your anger helpful? Is it making you a more productive citizen? Sometimes anger serves as a signal to stand firm against injustice or vice, but if this anger lingers for too long, it can become disordered, even if it is righteous. In my case, my anger stands in opposition to injustice, but I have quickly identified healthier ways of dealing with the injustice, and there is no longer need for anger.

What can we do to solve anger problems: 1. If it is a normal type of anger, check whether or not it is rational (reason). Also check the duration. Is it lingering? If so, talk to someone you trust. Vent it out, learn from it, and move on. 2. If it has become disordered, consult a professional. I could not emphasize this firmly enough. Unresolved anger can lead to all sorts of emotional, physical, legal, and spiritual difficulties. God created you for freedom and disordered anger keeps us bound to the reliving of hurts and offences. It is a particular form of obsession that is extremely unhealthy.

Remember that I am here if you need me. May our Lord continue to bless you,

Fr. Roman+

[1] Dictionary.com

[2] https://www.apa.org/topics/anger

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