Place it under God's protection, and your anger will become a force for life and justice.
The West did not have to wait for Zen techniques to learn how to understand and manage anger. Seneca, Aristotle, Plutarch, Cicero, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Montaigne … all of them discussed, debated, and hated, as much as they defended, the emotion of anger.
The ancients believed that anger resides deep in the body, between the liver and the intestines. Anger comes from the Latin ira (ire), and the Greek hira, which means guts, bile. Many of us have felt at some time or another a sudden, sharp inner burning take hold in our gut, turn our stomach, and erupt out of our mouth. Anger is literally our gut crying out, they said. No wonder then that bile and ire are at the origin of our understanding of anger, literally meaning “to spew out bile.”
Anger and bile are one and the same. “I feel my bile rising!” people used to say. The analogy with this bitter yellow-green liquid, produced by our liver and stored in our gallbladder, is very instructive if we bother to open our old high school biology textbook. In our body, bile has a double function: it evacuates our waste products and acts to cleanse our stomach. In short, it cleans us from top to bottom — like our anger.
The “pressure cooker” effect
This is not difficult to identify. Two minutes is the maximum time you need to realize that you (or someone else) is going to lose your temper. Our anger rarely goes unnoticed. It needs to show itself, in all (five) senses of the word, to exist. Otherwise, it would be useless. Joy, fear, and sadness can be internal—imperceptible. But not anger. Even when it’s inside, sooner or later it comes out. It’s the “pressure cooker” effect.
Its trademark is to make an impact. Think of a grumpy old grandfather trying unsuccessfully to keep his irritation under wraps. Or that colleague who “saw red” at a department meeting. Our precious little ones are specialists in this field. They seem to have a good temper tantrum ready and waiting in their back pocket to spew out when needed.
Anger is a necessary.It is an outlet for our moods, our frustrations, our desires, our disappointments … In short, we all need to “empty out our bag” of bile. “It allows each of us to define our boundaries and our identity. It says no to what isn’t right for us,” explains psychotherapist Isabelle Filliozat. “It is a source of self-confidence.”
Inseparable from reason
Not all anger is good, however. We should not confuse anger, which is driven by the need to right an injustice, with rage, which is a violent emotional reaction. Aristotle was one of the first to identify the criteria for righteous anger. “It is not the anger itself that is moral or immoral, but the use to which it is put,” he says.
Anger is inseparable from reason. Without it, this passion would go mad, and so would we. St. Thomas Aquinas affirms this: “If one is angry in accordance with right reason, one’s anger is deserving of praise.”
This is a very difficult exercise for reason, whose role, Aristotle says, is to appraise the conditions in which anger claims to exert its influence. “It is up to us to judge its appropriateness, its intensity, its frequency; to decide whether, for example, we get angry at the right time, for valid reasons, against people who deserve it, for satisfactory purposes and under satisfactory circumstances.” Given that it takes “twelve thousandths of a second to react emotionally” and “twice as long to assess the situation from a rational point of view,” there is considerable room for improvement for most of us when it comes to reasoning through our anger.
Even if it is for a just cause, our anger would still be at fault if it falls into one of two pitfalls: too much or too little. When we overdo it, our anger becomes harmful if it causes quarrels or indignation, if it is sought to be used for personal gain, if it leads to blasphemy or contumely (a word or action that affects a person’s self-esteem). It is for this reason that it is considered one of the seven deadly sins. Conversely, “He who does not get angry when it is necessary, sins,” says St. John Chrysostom, “because unreasonable patience sows the seeds of vice, encourages negligence, and invites the wicked, as well as the good, to evil.”
When anger becomes beneficial to oneself and to others
Our ability to reason will not always be enough to dominate our temper. Our anger will also have to be put to the fire of the Spirit and faith to be cleansed of its impurities. This is what Protestant thinker Lytta Basset calls holy anger. “Holy anger is healthy anger,” she explains in her book Holy anger: Jacob, Job, Jesus (Labor et Fides, ed.). That is to say, it is the righteous struggle for the lives of others and our own.
It can be, for example, saying: “I refuse” in such and such a circumstance; or maintaining a choice or a project that is considered just and necessary for the common good. Oriented towards justice, this healthy anger “brings the human being to his or her inner core, to that indestructible seed of Life within them: something that deep down resists, and that something is related to Holy God.” Anger becomes a service to oneself and to others, and is not abuse.
But the conversion of this potentially destructive anger into a positive life force is only possible if we are willing to surrender ourselves, and our anger with it, into the hands of our Creator. And to renounce any desire for revenge. “A holy anger is certainly not the appropriation of God’s anger that makes us believe in a divine mission against others,” warns Lytta Basset. Moreover, it is inconceivable to compare our anger to that of the Last Judgment—the Dies irae or day of wrath—where God will render his justice.
Confrontation, rather than indifference
“God is not troubled by passion,” St. Augustine tells us. God’s anger is not a disturbance of the soul, but the judgment that inflicts punishment on sin.” “A holy anger is an anger that has been deposited in Him who never fails to see that justice is done […] If an anger has refused to commend itself into the hands of God’s wrath, it is because it has consented to fall by the sword: it is the Lord who will judge his people.” St. Paul encourages us: “Do not judge, but let the wrath of God do its work. For the Scripture says, ‘It is I who will do justice; I will render to every man his due, says the Lord.'” (Romans 12:19)
Allowing your anger to lead you to virtue means that you refuse to cut off your relationship with others. It means preferring confrontation to indifference. “If I am angry with my brother, it is because I believe at least minimally in his humanity, that is to say, in his ability to progress,” writes Basset. This bond that is maintained, even in the storm, is the only one that leads to forgiveness. “May the sun not set on your anger,” writes St. Paul (Eph 4:26).