Anger, we've been taught, is a deadly sin. But there’s a crucial ambiguity about anger. On the one hand, there is the anger-the-feeling, the body’s physiological response to a situation that isn’t right. On the other hand, there’s anger-the behavior, which can take the form of stewing and seething or the form of yelling, gesticulating forcefully, and maybe hitting.

Anger-the-feeling is not wrong, not a problem, not a sin. Anger-the-behavior is a problem, either as seething or yelling. Fortunately, anger-the-feeling doesn’t have to be expressed in the forms anger-the-behavior stereotypically takes.

Anger-the-feeling is a version of the fight-or-flight physiological response to a threat – with the emphasis more on “fight” than on “flight.” Our ancestors millions of years ago were prone to being attacked, and they needed their body to trigger an upsurge in aggressive energy so they could fight to defend themselves.

Anger gets you ready to fight; fear gets you ready to run away, hide somewhere and be very still and attentive. Anger increases your blood pressure; fear increases your respiration rate. Anger makes you more risk-seeking; fear makes you more risk-avoidant. Feeling anger, people overestimate their ability to overcome an obstacle, defeat an opponent, or handle whatever’s coming at them; feeling fear, people underestimate their ability to successfully confront a situation. If an attacker or opponent has about the same height and weight as you, the lens of fear makes that opponent looks bigger than you. The lens of anger makes the opponent look smaller than you. Fear is your body telling you, “don’t be idiot; run, hide, be conciliatory and submissive.” Anger is your body telling you, “don’t let this twerp push you around.”

When anger-the-feeling arises in you, the crucial first step is to pay attention to it. Notice exactly what you are feeling: do you feel heat in your chest, a tightness in your shoulders? If you don’t notice that the feeling is there – or if you’re in denial about what you are feeling – then the feeling takes over. You lose the freedom to choose your response, for the feeling, if not identified, will simply dictate whatever form of expression it habitually uses – usually either seething resentment or yelling and dominance.

Once you name it to yourself and have pinpointed how it is manifesting in your body, the next question to ask yourself is where is this coming from? Can I bring understanding to the person who is triggering my anger?

To illustrate the role of understanding, put yourself in this scenario. You’ve been grocery shopping. Now you must get the groceries home and put away. You’re under some time pressure because you have an appointment coming up. You get to your apartment building, but the parking places on that side of the street are taken, so you park across the street. At the grocery store, you had asked for paper rather than plastic, and what you’ve got are three brimming-full paper grocery bags. You decide you need to do this in one trip, so you scoop up all three bags. Your field of vision is now somewhat limited. You wait for the light to change. You know it says “walk” for only a few seconds before it goes into its warning blink, and that stopped cars are ready to proceed the instant the light changes back. You’re making your way across the street, when some clod walking by the other direction bumps into you. Your groceries spill in the middle of the street. Your body floods with that anger reaction. Blood pressure up, you see red. You spin around, clutching the one bag of groceries that didn’t spill, and the angry, loud words that are already starting to come out of your mouth are definitely not words you would want your children to hear. And in that moment you see...the white cane. The anger just drains right away as you see the truth of the situation with clarity.

Understanding doesn’t usually come so quickly and clearly. But if we can give ourselves the space to work out as sympathetic an understanding as possible, then we’re better able to decide if a fight is really what’s called for.

Neither indulge nor suppress. Don’t suppress the feeling. It’s got something to teach you. But don’t indulge it either, by seething or raging. There may be a productive and important use for the energy of anger, preparing you to take on obstacles.

Carroll Saussy, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, distinguishes "holy anger" from "negative or sinful anger." Holy anger is
“a response to the experience of being ignored, injured, trivialized, or rejected, as well as an empathic response aroused by witnessing someone else being ignored, injured, trivialized or rejected. Anger is also a response to the awareness of social evils such as prejudice, oppression, and violence. Holy anger is a call to action. Negative or sinful anger is a vengeful, hostile, sometimes explosive reaction to an interpersonal or social situation; it aims to injure persons or institutions and tears at the fabric of society by destroying relationships. Whereas holy anger seeks to right a wrong, whether the evil has been perpetrated on oneself or another, sinful anger is the expression of a wrong-doer, who inflicts evil on wronged people.” (The Gift of Anger 115)
Anger can be the energy to right a wrong. Social justice movements are initiated and fueled by holy anger, righteous wrath against oppression. On the other hand, “an angry reaction to personal or social offense is narcissistic, a self-centered need to secure one’s power or reputation” (114). How do we tell the difference?

Take some deep breaths, be aware of your feeling, and calmly assess. Does this situation call for using your anger and confronting? Or does it call for surrendering the anger? Surrendering is not suppressing, but rather, after fully acknowledging the feeling, deciding to let it go and not seek redress.

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See also
The Seven Deadlies

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