Be kindly… patient in tribulation… bless and do not curse.
Anger, in and of itself, is really not the issue. Most of us don’t choose to get angry, it’s just how we feel sometimes. The issue is what we choose to do with our anger. We can choose to either react to our anger, or respond to it.
Reacting to our anger is allowing it to well up and explode. We say and do things make our lives more difficult, along with the lives of those around us, things that we end up regretting later. The more that we let our anger get the best of us, the more of a habit this becomes. One day we discover that we’re reacting to everything and everyone we encounter with harsh words and aggressive behavior. Needless to say, reacting to anger is toxic. This is when we enter to realm of sin.
Responding to anger is quite different. When I respond to my anger, I am finding ways of addressing it that are not creating chaos in my life or anyone else’s. And so we go back to St. Paul’s advice: “Be kind. Be patient. Bless and do not curse.”
A search on line for “anger management” will reveal a number of proven ways that we can use to deescalate our anger. For example, we’ve known for centuries that taking deep breaths helps to calm us down. Deep breathing reins in the racing pulse, elevated blood pressure and tight muscles and helps to bring us back to the ground.
Experts say that repeating a short phrase has a calming effect on us. Needless to say, I recommend prayer. Specifically, the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”) is perfect for this situation. We should always be mindful of that fact that Jesus is Lord, that he’s in charge of our lives, and that we make no progress in life without his mercy. The prayer becomes an anchor to hold on to as we’re swaying back and forth in our ill feelings, waiting for them to subside.
We can also exercise to burn off the physical energy of our anger. The websites recommend things like taking a walk or stretching. The Church’s desert fathers and mothers prescribed prostrations for dealing with negative emotions. A full prostration involves making the sign of the cross and bowing right down to the ground on our hands and knees. A half prostration is the sign of the cross and a bow at the waist. Trust me, after 40 consecutive prostrations you just don’t have the steam to be angry any more.
Another thing that we can do is remove ourselves from the situation. Timeouts aren’t just for kids; adults need them every now and then as well. It is important to never forget the value of the tactical retreat.
Once we’ve calmed down, we can address what made us angry in a way that doesn’t hurt others or try to control them. At that point we can start looking for constructive ways to resolve the issue. We can also try and figure out what is beneath the anger. Usually, anger is a secondary response to some other feeling. We feel neglected, and that makes us angry. We feel exploited, and we get angry. We feel betrayed, and that makes us angry.
We should pay special attention to moral outrage. An Orthodox Bishop I know calls moral outrage a form of confession. The sins of others that we find particularly enraging are ones that we fear the most in ourselves. So the next time you think about someone else’s sin, rather than getting caught up ruminating about how they could be so… (defiant / hypocritical / insensitive, etc.), ask yourself, “What does my anger at this person’s sin tell me about myself?”
Getting past our anger help us get to the core of the issue. On the other hand, we might come to the conclusion that what made us angry wasn’t that big a deal after all, or that it’s water under the bridge, and that we can just leave it in the past. Not everything has to end in meaningful dialogue. Sometimes it’s best to just let things go.
Everyone gets angry some of the time, but no one should be angry all of the time. If angry is your default setting, if you go from “Zero to Rage” in less than 10 seconds, it’s probably time to get help. If you’re not sure whether or not this is you, ask your family and friends. And if they pause for more than five seconds when they respond, that’s probably a “Yes.”
We should also keep in mind that suppressing anger in as unhealthy as letting it get the best of us. Negative emotions do need to be addressed. If we ignore them, they eventually ooze out like lava at a volcanic sight, often with lots of collateral damage.
Sometimes, anger is the most appropriate response to a situation. The saints teach us that God gave us to capacity to get angry to motivate us to get up and do something about the sin in our lives and in the world. We should feel upset by the obsessions, compulsions, and addictions that shackle people, families, and communities. We were not created to be slaves to sin. We were crated for freedom as God’s children. So, the Church doesn’t say, “Never get angry.” The Church counsels us to address our negative emotions in ways that do no harm to others or to ourselves.
The next time we feel anger welling up inside of us we can say a prayer, take a walk, do some prostrations, and let’s not forget to breathe. Learn how to respond to anger, and how to identify the feelings underneath it. Respond. Don’t react. And we can sum all of this up very nicely in one verse from the Bible:
Be angry, and do not sin. (Psalm 4:4)