Anger and Love

“Let everyone be swift to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” -James 1:19
“In your anger, do not sin.” -Psalm 4:4

heart in the mud

Source: Benjamin Ellis (Flickr)

Anger is a tricky emotion, and it is one of the things were the direction I have felt called to go is not one that I would counsel for other people. When I first started doing something like centering prayer, one of the first things I noticed is that I was more aware of my anger, and especially more aware of it as it was arising. I usually realized that I had a choice to make concerning it right after I had made that choice, usually the choice of getting angry. I get angry at other people while driving, I get angry at politicians and pundits, I get angry with my family, and I get especially angry with people on the internet. It’s something I may struggle with in my blogging.

Anger is not bad, by any means. Like all emotions, it is morally neutral in and of itself, and it can express love. But it can also hinder the expression of love. It can explode, it can boil, it can seethe. It can turn into hatred of other people, or subtly sabotage relationships.[1]

This is an area where I have learned much from St. Augustine. He inherited a Stoic understanding of the human psyche, but was not constrained by it. According to most Hellenistic and Roman philosophers, there are four basic emotions: desire, fear, happiness, and sorrow. The Stoics, at least as Augustine presents them in City of God, thought these four were equally disruptive of the peace of mind their philosophy aimed at, and taught that the goal was to minimize or even eliminate them (Vulcan philosophy millennia before First Contact!). But for Augustine, they could be expressed well or badly, depending on the will. Emotions are volition for Augustine. The fact that feeling and will seem to be at odds so often is not because they are different things, but because our minds and bodies have become dis-integrated through the Fall.

Another thing you must understand about Augustine is that the will is love, or at least can become love. So when he says that each emotion is an act of the will and is good or evil based on the volition it expresses, he is saying that any emotion can express love.

And one other thing: choice becomes habit. The more we consent to something, good or bad, the more quickly we assent to it in the future, until eventually our habits limit our choices. “Habit unresisted becomes compulsion,” Auggie says. If I understand correctly, neuroscience backs him up here.

Now I think there are more basic emotions than Auggie’s four, and I’m not sure I would want to make a strict equation between emotion and volition, though I do think that emotion, especially anger, involves an element of choice. Alas, one of the reasons that anger is dangerous is that especially leads us to make choices before we’re even aware of it.

So something happens, and I feel a flash of anger. Someone cuts me off at an intersection, says something stupid, or is standing in my way (where they have every right to be). Now I’m angry! But what do I do with this anger?  But when my anger isn’t righteous anger–it’s just anger–I have a choice to make. Cuss at them? Give them the finger? Give myself over to my anger so that I decide that the person who has made me mad is a {censored} son of a {censored}?

Did you catch that? Decide.

Do I express my anger in a way that decides to regard the object of my wrath as something less or other than me? Once I start thinking this way, it will be hard to stop. What God has been teaching me (with mixed success) is to slow down and make this decision deliberately. And sometimes what I need to do is acknowledge my anger and then let it go. It, like fear, is just a wave on the surface of my being. You can’t stop a wave, but you also can’t hold onto it without hurting yourself (and usually someone else). Or sometimes I really need to ask the question of whether my anger can express love by being angry, but still deciding to express the belief that the person I’m angry with is a human being, like myself, loved by God.

Then again, perhaps I have witnessed or become aware of an injustice. Justice may require that I open wide the gate and let it come out. After all, God is wrathful in the Bible. We live in a time in which a lot of people are justly angry. And while I am feeling called to let more and more of my anger go, I cannot and will not say that the oppressed people should in any way limit their anger. Sometimes their voice of rage is the only time people will listen to them. That’s mostly another post, and probably one better written by someone else. But maybe even this anger expresses love. Maybe that’s not its conscious motivation in the moment. Maybe it just seems destructive.

But sometimes destruction is necessary to create the necessary conditions for love.

1. Dear CPE Supervisor from seven years ago: You win.
2. I am currently reading Franz Fanon for the first time and am not very far in. But if I understand correctly, this is more or less where he’s going. Or at least that is how I understood a lecture I once heard by J. Kameron Carter at UofC’s Race and Religion Workshop.