Discerning anger

March 20, 2024 in Uncategorized

BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: One of the most difficult things to discern is the appropriate use of anger. Anger is such a powerful emotion that it can drive everything else out the window and sometimes get out of control in a spectacular fashion. Often it begins with a sense of injustice, a sense that some wrong has been done, and naturally you want to right the wrong. And anger is a gift in terms of getting the courage to stand up for yourself, but unfortunately often the anger takes over, consumes us, and can lead to very negative consequences. So even though there is something to be done, some assertive move to be made, the anger can be all consuming and we can’t see anything else. So we set about attacking other people using strong language, taking a very adversarial approach, and often people react in the same way become defensive or angry in return and no one gets anywhere.

Ignatius Loyola was a man of strong passions and desires. Initially as a courtier and then as a soldier he was vain, proud and explosive, given to fits of anger and even violence (before a judge on charges he was described as “violent and vindictive”). It was just part of his life and culture at that time. However, a life changing injury saw him redoing his whole life and priorities. He discovered by accident that certain actions, thoughts and feelings brought him peace and inner harmony and other ones brought him turmoil and unease. It was a revelation that this was God working with him, within his every day experience, to bring about radical change of perspective, moderating his impulsivity, and especially towards more balanced decision making. 

In particular, he used reflection on experience to review what was working and genuinely helping him on his journey to God and what wasn’t. So certain actions and their after effects were for him key learning experiences. For example, he noticed that getting worked up with strong emotion into a state, such as anger, left him in turmoil and often making poor impulsive decisions, reacting and not really dealing with things well. Reflection showed that over indulging in these apparently ‘strong inner impulses’ sometimes led him to a ‘bad’ place. As a result he began to modify his extreme behaviour and temper his impulses; he found more peace and consolation in a more moderate path where emotion wasn’t in charge. Similarly, he noticed this tendency to react and act often didn’t involving God at all; rather he recognised his ego driven human tendency to let emotions dictate. He noticed that impulsivity meant short term alleviation of emotion or passion, but often with unpleasant longer term consequences which didn’t help him in his desire to become closer to God. He developed his discernment process accordingly, checking that things were good (of God) all the way through meant checking in continually by reflecting and reviewing with God the ‘movements of the impulses or spirits’ within him. He was eventually able to detect ‘good movements’ that lead to an increase of faith, hope and love (i.e. consolation) and also ‘bad movements’ that led to the opposite (i.e. desolation).

Anger is one of the strongest human emotions that engages the whole person, which makes it difficult to discern. The ‘red mist’ or angry reaction rises almost immediately and makes it difficult to think or see any other option but explosion or suppression, both not great options. There often doesn’t seem to be a middle or balanced way, yet it is possible to train oneself to build in a filter that could moderate action and hopefully give people better choices. The first thing to remember is that we are not our emotions, there is a gap between you and your emotion. With practice we can learn to be aware of our emotions and not to be a victim of them, rather being able to decide how this energy needs to be channelled. Often it can be helpful to let the anger out in a safe way first, e.g. a therapeutic letter that you never send, and then come back to the issue with a bit more perspective. Contrary to popular opinion, assertion and anger are not the same thing. While passivity and suppression of anger can be unhealthy, similarly the popular notion of ‘out of control’ anger responses highlighted during the pandemic (public sector workers subjected to tirades of abuse), is equally unhelpful. Assertion is the difficult art of harnessing the anger in a creative way to express a sense of injustice in such a way that it gives others options about how to respond. A more mature Ignatius was able to successfully defend himself against the Inquisition, allowing his writings to be examined, and was exonerated. Anger is a gift from God but need to be wisely used to bring about God’s kingdom.