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10.30.2006

DQ handout on Anger

What Marge brought to class last week

Ruth A.B. Bradley, Pastor
Poplar Ridge Friends Meeting
September 19, 2004

“Be angry; but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger…” Eph 4: 26 (RSV)

Our topic today is anger, and I selected that last hymn (“We Shall Overcome”) because I wanted us to be reminded of the profound anger present in our country at the time of the struggle for racial justice, and I wanted especially for us to remember how anger was put to both destructive or constructive purposes.

Many human beings have a problem with anger. I say humans have a problem with anger, and not that anger is the problem, because anger is just an emotional force. Saying anger is a problem is a little like saying that gravity is a problem. The force of gravity produces certain effects that are essential to life as we know it. Some of gravity’s effects are hurtful to us, as we realize when we have a bad fall. But, we don’t think to blame gravity for that; we try, if we are wise, to anticipate the force of gravity and to handle it intelligently.

Andreas put up sturdy scaffolding to ensure that those painting our meetinghouse were protected from the dangerous effects of gravity. We place babies and young children in cribs so that they don’t tumble out of bed while sleeping, and we protect ourselves when we are older with canes and walkers and such. And yet, we are not so wise or resourceful when it comes to the force of anger.

We frequently look for the cause of anger outside of ourselves and ignore the reality that anger arises as an invisible force from within ourselves. It is there that we must look if we are to understand it and become wiser about harnessing its energy in useful and constructive ways.

Quakers are not immune to the challenges of handling anger and managing conflict. Some of you may have seen the short article in Spark from the NYYM Conflict Transformation Committee that reflects this. Many Quakers apparently adopt a strategy of avoiding conflict altogether or giving in, in the face of it. Could this be due to some mythology that to be the peaceful people Quakers are supposed to be, we don’t get into conflicts? Or a myth that truly spiritual people don’t experience anger?

The emotion of anger is a natural response that arises as a result of a real or imagined threat, insult, frustration, or injustice to you or others who are important to you (Carlson, p.49). It ranges from mild irritation to rage and has cognitive, emotional and physical components. When a car races through a red light nearly colliding with us as we start into the intersection, we feel a rush of physical, mental and emotional responses and one of these responses is probably going to be anger. But it is important to note, and this example demonstrates it as well as any might, that anger is what is called a secondary emotion. The first is fear, after the recognition of threat. Anger comes following after. If someone were to drop a can on your foot, you would first feel and express the physical pain, then the anger. Likewise, if someone belittles or insults us in public, we immediately feel the emotional pain or discomfort of the threat to our identity or well-being, later we might express anger for the disrespectful treatment.

This is important to understand, because it allows us to go back to the source of our anger and be wise about how to proceed in the face of real threats to our physical safety or to our human dignity. If our actions do not acknowledge and address our fear or our physical or emotional pain, if we just lash out at the stimulus in anger, frustration or rage, we are on the wrong track. We are not likely, then, to respond effectively to the real issue(s) before us.

Both the Old and New Testaments repeat the wisdom saying which allows for anger, but not for sin (Psalm 4:4). “Sin” is a word we don’t use much in Quaker meetings. It is a word so laden with misconception that, like many religious terms, it is easily discounted as no longer relevant. But this is not so. The word itself may not be useful to us, but the meaning of sin is essential to us, so we will have find another term to replace it.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, who has such a talent for explaining religious concepts in contemporary terms, suggests the word, “alienation.” He writes, “Alienation suggests an uprootedness from one’s true self, from God (or whatever else ultimately matters)… Sin alienates. An action is sinful to the degree to which it causes alienation. Without alienation there is no sin.”

So, we might then say that in our Judeo-Christian tradition there is room for anger, but that our actions in response to anger must not alienate us from others, but find expression that honors the truth of our oneness. As the volubility and vitriol of divisive rhetoric increases in our nation, as the human and environmental and economic costs of international violent conflict mounts, the contagion of anger is all around us and, sometimes, if we are truthful, we are infected by it.

In a 2001 publication titled, Anger - Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thich Nhat Hanh gives us an image that helps us understand the common sense and the importance of taking care of the anger that burns within us. “If your house is on fire”, he says, “the most urgent thing to do is to try to put out the fire, not go after the person you suspect of being the arsonist. While you are chasing him or her, your house will burn down. So when you are angry, if you continue to interact or argue with the other person, if you try to punish her, you acting exactly like someone who is running after the arsonist while your house goes up in flames.”

Just as firefighters need tools to put out house-fires, we need tools to cool the flames of our anger. There are many resources to help us. This is important peace work for each of us to do. So often we give tribute to the leaders of the non-violent movements for peace and justice, and leadership is crucial, as it sets the tone. But, I want to give tribute today to the thousands of common people who were active in the civil rights struggle for racial justice, because I think that in them we can find a lesson for ourselves at this time in our nation’s history. When there was every reason for hatred and retaliation, tens of thousands of Southern Blacks had the patience, the courage, and the discipline to turn swords into plowshares (Micah 4) convinced, as was Franklin Mc Cain, one of the students who sat in protest at that segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, that there is no defense against the potency and power of love (Apsy, p. 55). Our equal conviction in that power is as necessary a force for peace today as it was then.
Comments:
I heard Peace Pilgrim (at the last Friends meeting she attended) talk about anger and using its energy positively. She told a story about a man she saw while staying somewhere who mowed his lawn with a reel push mower several days a week. She admired him for his physical vitality and ecological sensibility.

She was surprised when, one day, she saw him leisurely riding a power mower around the yard. She asked why, and he said, "Oh, those other times you saw me I was mad at my wife -- a good long fight -- but now I've made up with her and I'm not angry any more. I'd never have the energy to use the push mower if I wasn't mad about something."
 
You write about

"some mythology that to be the peaceful people Quakers are supposed to be, we don’t get into conflicts? Or a myth that truly spiritual people don’t experience anger?"

Yes, I think this needs to be said again and again. Because the myth persists and persists.

Then you write,

"The emotion of anger is a natural response that arises as a result of a real or imagined threat, insult, frustration, or injustice to you or others who are important to you (Carlson, p.49)."

Exactly. And I felt that your citation of a source lent a certain added authority to your remarks. This is a good thing to see in a blog. Might be good to identity that source before closing your post, though.

I like the way you go on to illustrate your thesis with real history:

"When there was every reason for hatred and retaliation, tens of thousands of Southern Blacks had the patience, the courage, and the discipline to turn swords into plowshares (Micah 4)"

I would just like to add more thoughts that go through my mind as I read this.

The patience, restraint, nonviolent resistance, and suffering that marked the civil rights struggle is not over. Nor is it by any means limited to our African American neighbors.

Gay Americans have been fired from their jobs; denied housing; denied access to health care; have had their reputations slandered; have been turned away as morally unfit to participate in both the Boy Scouts and the Armed Forces; have had their homes and assets seized by the families of deceased partners; and have had their children kidnapped by the state ("unfit parents"); and continue to be subject to misguided movements to convert them to "normal." They are also subjected to million-dollar political campaigns to deny them protection from hate crimes and marriage benefits. One gay American in recent memory was even crucified on a wooden fence.

If we're discussing models of people who handle their anger well, strait Americans need to ask themselves how they would react to such severe and systematic persecution. We would be remiss to pretend that the current struggle for human dignity is any less spiritual, or less worthy of study, than what happened in the 1960s.

-- Mitch
 
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