If you call anger “wrath” it’s the first of the seven deadly sins in the mnemonic WASP LEG – Wrath, Avarice, Sloth, Pride, Lust, Envy, Gluttony. There’s a great many more sins than these, such as murder, rape, and pillage. But the thing that makes these seven sins so deadly is that they are SELF destructive. Sure, they can bring others down with us, and they can lead to other sins, but, first and foremost, they do great damage to ourselves. I could ramble on about the whole list, but I want to focus on anger in this post.
On the positive side, anger gets condoned in the Bible along with it being condemned at times. God’s wrath is engendered by errant humans a number of times, especially in the Hebrew Bible, implying that anger is not inherently sinful. Apparently there are times when it’s all right to be angry – God does it. Even Jesus, who generally advocated turning the other cheek, was reported as getting angry once or twice. His dealings with the vendors and money changers in the temple are legendary in this regard, although the descriptions of him driving them out with a whip and overturning their tables does not specifically mention anger. Nonetheless, we are supposed to gather that he was ticked off. In other places he is expressly described as angry:
1 Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there.
2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath.
3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
5 He looked around at them IN ANGER and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. (Mark 3:1-5)
Stuff like rank hypocrisy, greed, pride, and stubbornness got to him. The lesson we are supposed to draw from all of this is that even God and Jesus can become enraged by acts of inhumanity and, in a way, I see the point, but only in a way. That is, if your anger at cruelty, injustice, and so forth spur you to action to right these wrongs, I suppose it’s all right. I’m just not sure that the anger is necessary. Can’t you just be stirred on by sheer goodness of heart?
I suspect that in the modern world a show of anger can demonstrate seriousness of purpose, and I confess that once in a while when my students are fooling around I give them an angry word or two because it is an efficient way to get them to stop. It’s actually feigned anger, but I dislike it nonetheless. In fact there’s very little that can actually make me angry these days. Not so in the past.
There was a time, not so long ago, when I would get angry frequently – with my girlfriend, store clerks, unhelpful people on the phone, you name it. Sometimes getting angry was effective, but more often than not it just made the people I was dealing with angry too, and did not resolve anything. More importantly, it upset me. After getting angry it would take me a long time to calm down, and, in the process of calming down I would see how counterproductive my anger was. Sometimes I would subsequently apologize to the person I had been angry with and seek a more rational solution to the problem. Always I knew I had made a mistake.
The insight that I came to finally was that my anger was nothing more than a bad habit born of laziness. It’s painfully easy to excuse bad habits by putting them down to raw emotion, and everyone knows that we can’t do anything about our emotions. WRONG !!! I’m well aware that certain primitive emotions are engendered by the reptilian parts of our brains – such as “fight or flight.” That does NOT mean that we have no control over them. It’s one thing to feel anger welling up from deep within, it’s entirely another thing to succumb to it.
What it comes down to in the end is choice. You can choose to succumb to anger or not. We can fail to make that choice for any number of reasons. If we think our anger is working for us we may persist. I thought that my anger was working for me for a long time, then I reconsidered. Sure, it often got me what I wanted but was it the best way, or the only way, to get what I wanted? In the process of getting what I wanted in the short run, anger commonly failed to get me what I wanted overall. Short-term fix; long-term disaster. In the same vein, I realized that getting my way with others was hurting me at heart.
My last boss in the U.S. was terrible in this regard. He got angry at the drop of a hat and almost everyone at the university was afraid of him because of it. He would bark at people at a moment’s notice, and everyone tip-toed around him. He seemed perfectly content with the situation. But then he hired a consulting firm to assess the management of the university and they did a survey of people’s feelings about the administration. He was horrified to discover that he was universally despised. He had no idea. He thought he was just being the prototypical tough boss and that everyone admired him for his productivity and efficiency. So much for that delusion.
Self examination had much the same effect on me. I realized that getting angry was nothing more than a bad habit, and the more it got me what I wanted in the short run, the more I did it. It was only seeing the negative effects in the long run that got me out of the rut I was in. But changing bad habits takes time. The most important first step was recognizing that I had a problem. Then I had to find a means to work on the problem. No need to go over all the details. Probably everyone needs to find their own path in this. My point is that it CAN be done. We are not victims of our emotions; they are under our control. The only question is whether we are going to be lazy and make excuses for our actions, or do something about them.