Wanting to punch people in the nose is probably not a good attitude with which to go around. I’m fairly sure it’s also not a particularly Christian attitude, not if I take the “Turn the other cheek” bit seriously.
I’ve been angry lately. I’ve been angry for a while, in fact, and I notice I’m both getting angrier and getting angry more easily. I am swearing more, and using profanity more readily both in speech and in writing. That’s all part of it.
Anger feels great, sometimes. It revs you up, gives you a burst of energy, and most importantly, makes you feel like you’re doing something.
Some idiot writes or says something particularly stupid and insulting on the internet? Hit the keyboard and write a blistering post to excoriate him or her, then bask in the glow of gratified fury.
This is great, because it makes you feel like you’ve done something, anything, when in reality you haven’t affected the situation at all. You very probably haven’t changed anyone’s mind by firing off your angry shredding of their position, and very likely entrenched them in their position. So it’s entirely possible you’ve made things worse, not better.
And yet, the opposite of anger is sloth a shrugging, careless, “what can you do?” attitude that tells us that it’s impossible – or at least highly unlikely – that we can change anything, so it’s useless to even try. That makes us accept that this is the way the world is, life is unfair, you can’t fight city hall.
Anger is addictive. The rush of adrenaline, the feeling of daring, the warming glow of self-righteousness, the appearance of having done something in reaction to an evil, and the safety of anonymous or pseudonymous posting on the Internet, where nobody can reach through the computer screen and punch you in the nose, means that quite often we end up looking for excuses to be angry. We search for something to outrage us, so we can have an excuse to get angry and indulge in our drug of choice.
To quote Tolkien from The Hobbit, Chapter Four, ‘Under Hill and Over Hill’:
There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something (or so Thorin said to the young dwarves). You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after. So it proved on this occasion.
So it proves on many occasions, when we go looking for a chance to vent our anger, or to stoke our anger in the first place. Anger leads to contempt: instead of regarding others with charity, as we are enjoined to do, and as St. Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 13: 6 “[Love] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth”, we rather rejoice at what we perceive as the deliberate wrongdoing or the insuperable stupidity of others, because it gives us a chance to point out ‘the right way’ and to mock them, insult them, vaunt our superiority, and plume ourselves on how much smarter, nicer, more sophisticated, and better in every way we are.
The price we pay for this is that we need that fix of anger more and more, and instead of becoming the better, nicer, smarter people we like to think of ourselves as being, we build up a store of aggression – that may even manifest itself in physical violence in real life – and a hair-trigger temper. We end up with an anger that builds up and blows like Etna over a triviality: we had to wait in line longer than we thought reasonable, that person deliberately stole our parking place, how can your friend Sheila not see she’s making a fool of herself with her “mutton dressed as lamb”, all those people I work with are fools and liars.
And yet we have come to value anger as a sign of authenticity and sincerity, which are displayed as badges of worth and belief in the right thing. As Yeats put it in “The Second Coming:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
I don’t’ know if you’re familiar with the Enneagram. It’s a type of personality test for which, in Catholic circles, there was a positive craze in the 80s and 90s under the guise of spiritual direction (a lot of Jesuits were pushing it), to the point that the Vatican Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue issued a document called “Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age’ ” in 2000.
It says of the Enneagram:
“Enneagram: (from the Greek ennéa = nine + gramma = sign) the name refers to a diagram composed of a circle with nine points on its circumference, connected within the circle by a triangle and a hexangle. It was originally used for divination, but has become known as the symbol for a system of personality typology consisting of nine standard character types. It became popular after the publication of Helen Palmer’s book The Enneagram, but she recognizes her indebtedness to the Russian esoteric thinker and practitioner G.I. Gurdjieff, the Chilean psychologist Claudio Naranjo and author Oscar Ichazo, founder of Arica. The origin of the enneagram remains shrouded in mystery, but some maintain that it comes from Sufi mysticism.”
I had several enthusiastic people back in the day pushing this thing at me as a great key to understanding one’s inner self and helping one’s spiritual life, and my opinion of it is that as long as you don’t take it too seriously or treat it with the same credence as the word of God, it’s mostly harmless and no worse than doing an online personality test of the type so popular nowadays. Anyway, to quote you one personality type, the Type Eight, which is classed as the Leader, the Protector, the Challenger, the Boss: they can use anger as a weapon, as a means of testing others and as an expression of what they perceive as honesty and cutting through the bull, where it comes off to others as domineering or throwing their weight around.
Eights see how you react to their anger as being indicative of who you really are; that it cuts through the polite social façade. The trouble with this approach, as you can see for yourself, is that it means a constant attitude of “Ah- ha! I knew you were only pretending to be a nice guy!” when they’ve pushed someone beyond his or her limits and they snap. That’s unfair, but it makes the Eight-type feel justified in themselves as the only honest man or woman out there, the crusader for truth and justice, protecting others by their hard-nosed approach to life.
Meanwhile the people who have to live and work with them or interact with them at all see them as angry jerks who like making others miserable.
Those of us who look for excuses to indulge our anger may like to think of ourselves as St. Jerome, often regarded as the angry saint for his polemics. What we should be thinking is that saints are not perfect – that is not what sainthood means (despite the unfortunate tendency of hagiographies to turn their subjects into perfect people with no flaws from childhood onwards) – a saint is a fallen human being who was a sinner and who needed to be redeemed like the rest of us, and that it is possible to be a saint and still have flaws that need to be struggled with and overcome, like St. Paul’s thorn in the flesh from 2 Corinthians 12: 7-9:
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Anger feels great, and so the voice of conscience gets repressed and we even tell ourselves that it’s a medicinal anger, that because I hated doing it, it was good for me to overcome my objections and express myself like that. We like to convince ourselves that our anger is a righteous anger, not a mere indulgence of temper.
Too many of us like throwing the Wrath of God around and of course, if we’re being angry in a good cause or doing the Lord’s work then we like to think we’re justified. We’re modeling Christ scourging the moneylenders out of the Temple! We’re St. Jerome attacking the hedonism and wantonness of life in Rome amongst both laity and clergy, and trouncing the heretics! We tend to forget that a well-meaning if ignorant person on the Internet who gets a point of unfamiliar doctrine wrong is not in the same league as the Pelagians, and that a rhetorical style modeled on the training for the Roman law courts (where presenting your case for or against meant not arguing on the evidence but on trying to convince the hearers that the opposing party was an idiot and a criminal) is not the best way to demonstrate Christian charity in lovingly rebuking an errant brother.
Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord – so is anger. From St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica”:
“It is the same with anger; for when a man is angry, he wishes to be avenged on someone. Hence the movement of anger has a twofold tendency: viz. to vengeance itself, which it desires and hopes for as being a good, wherefore it takes pleasure in it; and to the person on whom it seeks vengeance, as to something contrary and hurtful, which bears the character of evil.”
Anger is not always wrong, and there is such a thing as righteous anger, but it is too easy for us to conflate our desire to show ourselves in the right with a desire for justice, and too easy to let a desire for vengeance persuade us that we’re only being zealous in trying to correct a wrong.
I can tell the bad effect my indulgence in anger is having on me: my lack of patience, my increasing irascibility, my willingness to believe the worst of others regarding their intentions and motivations, my rushing to judge others as stupid or wicked or both, my taking personal offense from general statements that are not aimed at me and have little to do with me, my craving to show off by cutting the ground out from under my opponent, my thinking of the person as an opponent when they don’t know me or the sky over me. I will try to curb it. Maybe I do still hit the keyboard first and think later, but I’m trying to train myself to step back from my immediate reaction, calm down, and look at my own motives for wanting to rush in with sword waving.
May St. Jerome and all the angry saints intercede for us!