Imagine yourself in a two-seater with a steep climb ahead. Pressing the peddle, you feel the engine downshift. It’s responsive, powerful. As you crest the hill your foot instinctively taps the brakes. Nothing. Your car, normally a useful tool, has just become a weapon. So too with anger. Can you get angry without going ballistic? It’s possible when you learn to use it as a tool.
Anger is the immune system for the soul. It’s a flash flood of insight that something is wrong. It can be helpfully destructive. More often, though it’s just plain destructive, sometimes defensive, unfocused and even self-righteous. How do we control anger as a tool? Anger can help us set things right when we learn three important management skills: own it, aim it, and act.
There’s no shame in anger per se. Feelings are involuntary, but more important, feeling angry can be an important prompt. John Chrysostom was known for speaking truth to power not long after Christianity became official in the Roman Empire. He said plainly, “He who is not angry, where 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 the good to do wrong.” In Paul’s words, “Be angry but do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). There’s no shame in anger when there is just cause for it.
Owning anger is not only about permission to feel but also about awareness of how it affects us. Anger can hijack the will, so we need to learn to guide it, knowing we are still responsible for what the body triggers us to do. Paul spoke to a culture influenced by Plato who discounted the body. Most Greeks considered higher thinking and spirituality as something disembodied. But Aristotle, Hume, and most psychologists today understand how the body affects thinking.
Angry people live in angry bodies…tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them—not emotions…but the physical sensations beneath the emotions: pressure, heat, muscular tension, tingling, caving in, feeling hollow….”The Body Keeps the Score
With permission to be angry comes responsibility to set things right. We need to own it. But then…
In order to use anger as a tool and not a weapon, we need to name the exact problem. If you cannot name the issue, then you will not aim your anger. Think about the last time you fixed something around the house like that used lawnmower you’ve paid for several times over buying parts for it. Each fix requires a very specific tool. It’s not a greater force that makes anger an effective tool but a greater fit. Aristotle explains,
“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, that is not easy.”
Henry Cloud describes the importance of aiming anger through a story about a new business partner. The day they were to sign a contract binding them to an agreement, an important error came to light. The partner said, “I hate surprises.” That took everyone involved in the deal aback since the error was unintentional. But he went on to explain further.
He said partnerships rise or fall upon trust, and trust is usually harmed by something hidden. Henry Cloud said that was the moment he knew this man would be a great partner. He was willing to name the specifics rather than to spray everyone like a skunk. He was not interested so much in fixing blame as he was fixing the problem. He took the courageous risk to aim his anger by naming the issue. Paul says to the Corinthian church, “Love always protects.” When anger is aimed well, it becomes a tool of protection.
However, even if you name the problem, anger can still turn into a weapon if you fail to act. The immune system of the soul can become an autoimmune disease if it festers. After Paul gave permission to “Be angry,” he added, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Timely action can keep your imagination from filling-in the gaps with self-serving fiction.
Here’s how that happens. There’s an offense. You feel it but decide to stuff it, giving yourself credit for patient virtue. But it was was avoidance not patience. And now something in your view of the person changes. Even small matters become part of the story you tell yourself. Finally, after all the mounting pressure, something else sets you off and a small mushroom cloud lays to waste any chance of setting things right.
Did you see the turnabout? Anger ignored can lead to returning evil for evil. You may feel quite justified in doing so, but note the way it turns you into the very thing you hate. Nietzsche said, “When fighting the dragon, take care, lest you become the dragon.” Don’t let the sun go down. Don’t fill in the gaps and get paranoid. Act.
It’s good to have some simple steps for the next time you get angry. After you’re mad is no time to make a plan. At that point it’s complicated. Some will try to fix things by ducking like a turtle, and others will fight like a bird. But a good carpenter never blames a tool. Learn to use it.
Clifford W Foreman says
One of the best things you’ve written. With regard to becoming the dragon, I recommend James Dickey’s poem “Kudzu.”
Tim Filston says
Thank you Professor. My wife and I have an ongoing joke where I exaggerate the growth rate of kudzu. I will now just quote this poem, especially the lines about needing to close your windows in Georgia. But yes, more subtle than dragons and more pernicious than fighting fire with fire.