“A fool gives full vent to his anger, but the wise keep the self under control.”
There must be something magical about the Kenilworth Post Office to all toddlers who enter. Maybe it is the way that the windows rise from the floor to the ceiling right next to a traffic light that puts everyone inside on display. Toddlers seem to sense that being in that post office is a prime opportunity for total parental humiliation and embarrassment. Temper tantrums in that post office happen so regularly that it is like the changing of the guard in our town.
Anger is a fact of life that began at birth when we became upset at leaving the comfort of our mother’s womb. Jacques Lacan was a famous psychoanalyst who theorized that when we are born we try to make sense of the world and piece together many different ideas about what the world is about and our place in it. Our identity is like a jigsaw puzzle. We finally learn how to portray ourselves to the world as if a unified whole existed within. Lacan taught that since we realize how fragmented we truly are, we become very threatened when something in the world begins to expose our weak interior. Almost as a protective instinct, we react with aggression and anger. There are many types of anger in the world, but today I would like to focus upon the anger that leads to a desire for vengeance. Anger ruins tomorrow’s Valentine’s Day’s goal- messages of love. It brings dark clouds of revenge into relationships.
Erwin Lutzer’s book Managing Your Emotions, tells the story of Alexander the Great. “Cletus, a dear friend of Alexander and a general in his army, became intoxicated and ridiculed the emperor in front of his men. Blinded by anger, quick as lightning, Alexander snatched a spear from the hand of a soldier and hurled it at Cletus. Though he had only intended to scare the drunken general, his aim was true and the spear took the life of his childhood friend. Deep remorse followed his anger. Overcome with guilt, Alexander tried to take his own life with the same spear, but was stopped by his men. For days he lay sick calling for his friend Cletus, chiding himself as a murderer.” Lutzer ends by saying, “Alexander the Great conquered many cities. He conquered many countries, but he failed miserably to conquer his own self.”
Anger gets us in its grip when we feel as if we must settle the score. We feel as if whatever caused us discomfort must be attacked. Whether the cause of the hurt is our best friend, or our spouse, or co-worker, or stranger, there is an urge to get even. That is the grip of anger, and it takes grip of the whole body. If a car were to cut you off in traffic, you body immediately reacts. The Better Health Channel states that “Anger triggers the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response….The adrenal glands flood the body with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The brain shunts blood away from the gut and towards the muscles, in preparation for physical exertion. Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase, the body temperature rises and the skin perspires…The constant flood of stress chemicals and associated metabolic changes that accompany recurrent unmanaged anger can eventually cause harm to many different systems of the body.”
The physiological effects are followed by psychological ones. There is a dislike for that person who cut you off in their car and a sense that they offended you in a very personal way. Then the body is called upon to react- you might feel the need to honk your horn at the car that cut you off, to wave or shake a fist, or to shout. Or there may be a delayed response. If your fuse is long then you may wait until you get home to express the anger, even manufacturing a situation that would warrant an angry response.
There is something lost in vengeful anger because it leaps over the reflection that might have occurred that might have been a teaching moment. Instead of examining the situation and contemplating what caused such anger, we can be moved straight to seeking vengeance. Thus all learning is lost. If we were to step back and examine the circumstances in light of ourselves, we might discover something new about who we are, at a deeper level uncover why we felt so hurt in the first place.
When we get angry we should stop or we might miss an opportunity to know ourselves better, but sometimes people are afraid of this kind of self-reflection and bury it deep down. If the person causing the anger is a loved one but we are afraid of damaging the relationship, we might deny our anger, and that could cause depression. Depression could be defined as “anger turned inwards.” When we blame ourselves for being angry at another but we are afraid to admit it even to ourselves we become lost in a spin cycle of despair. We believe that denying or hiding the anger would be a healthier alternative, yet ironically, examining the cause begins to loosen anger’s grip.
Some cultures teach their children to hide strong emotions like anger, but our culture celebrates anger and revenge. There are so many commercials, television shows, movies, and advertising campaigns that feature the premise that getting vengeance is the answer to irritants in life. Talk show hosts or political pundits wait for another’s response when an attack has been waged. Maybe that has an effect upon us. We feel that it is part of life to strike back and get even.
Some people get even and feel as if they are punishing others by making a mess of themselves, almost as if to say, “Look at what you did to me.” Maybe you are familiar with a situation in which a child punishes a parent by being dysfunctional. Some children continue to act out against their parents even when the parents are deceased.
People express anger on objects as well as people. We might throw a hammer down after we have hit our thumb instead of the nail. We know that we cannot hurt the hammer, but it helps regain a sense of power that has been lost. I hope that you have not missed a put on the golf course and flung the putter into the lake in a fit of rage!
All of these behaviors avoid feeling weakness. We heard last week how Jesus taught the disciples that the meek would inherit the earth. He taught that forgiveness is the key to avoiding anger’s grip. Forgiving when we are angry is one of the most difficult tasks. The writer of The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom, has produced many books about forgiveness and how she encountered Nazis in her life and was challenged to forgive. Once she was angry not at Nazis, but at some friends. She finally forgave them, but days later she woke up during the night as angry as ever. Two weeks of being plagued by anger kept her up at night. Finally she told a Lutheran minister about her bitterness. “Corrie,” he said, “up in the church tower is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. When the sexton pulls the rope, the bell peals out ding-dong, ding-dong. What happens if he doesn’t pull the rope again? Slowly the sound fades away. Forgiveness is like that. When we forgive someone, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be
surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for awhile. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.” She was in the grip of anger but made a deliberate decision to let it go.
How do we let it go? Gilda Carle made a video called, “How to Manage Anger and Take Control.” It contains a three step process that begins with, “Frame It.” We have been talking about taking a moment to contemplate why anger has surged. Framing it means looking at the situation. Carle states, “Count to 10 or take a walk around the block–whatever you need to do.” Her next step is “Claim It.” Being true to yourself that you are angry is a step that keeps the grip from tightening. Her third step is to “Tame It.” She wants the question to be asked, “Is it really worth it to give up this part of myself?” We should look at the problem closely. Does it warrant the kind of vengeful anger that has been provoked? Frame it, claim it, tame it. There is a Buddhist saying that anger is like picking up a burning hot coal in order to throw it at someone else, but we are the ones who get burned holding the coal. We can come to terms with anger and let go of that coal. Then anger is in our grip instead of vice versa. Life is too short to carry vengeance in our hearts and let the grip of anger suffocate our lives. The antidote for anger is love. Let us get out of anger’s grip. Let us exhale anger and breathe in love and forgiveness. Amen.