Refining and Owning our Anger…

by the Revd Canon Professor James Woodward, Principal of Sarum College, Salisbury

James Woodward

The decision of bishops blocking the introduction of a new prayer celebrating a transgender person’s change of sex has rightly been the cause of frustration and anger to many of us. While no one from the bench of bishops has been able to offer a view of how their decision was made this inevitably plays into deep feelings of hurt. Younger generations re-enchanted by a commitment to social justice and social activism will wonder how long it will take to build a spiritual economy founded on equality and inclusion.

And that is just the present. Those of us who have been working for inclusivity over the past decades may wonder why change has been so slow. We know of individuals and groups who have worked to undermine, devalue and diminish our commitment to equality. Perhaps we sometimes wonder what we might have done that would have made a more significant difference to our faith communities?  We have to live with imperfections, limited horizons, ambiguities and contradictions in our human relating. The things that block and diminish human flourishing make us angry. Articulating why we are angry is an important part of the searching of the soul.

When we have connected with the causes of anger, we might consider how to transform its destructive potential. It is important to understand that it’s not people or events that make us angry, but our reaction to them. Anger turned inwards may also result in a lack of assertiveness, stress, low mood, or even self-harm. We can get locked into a denial of how we feel.

Repressing or ignoring anger may give the sense of dealing with it, but this inward control fails to harness creativity. Unless anger is managed properly, it can have a devastating effect on our family, work, and overall well-being.

Anger is generally interpreted as a dangerous emotion in Western culture.  We are told not to get angry. Most of us have learned to evade or ignore it (see the Bishop of Liverpool’s excellent piece  Calm Down Dear – Love and Anger in the Church.)    We fear harming others if we get angry with them. When we do express anger, we often justify ourselves. “My partner is stubborn and doesn’t care if I am upset; so I teach him a lesson by showing how angry I am.”

The Bible recognises the redemptive aspects of anger. Jesus expressed anger in a number of circumstances, demonstrating concern for particular individuals. In the Temple, Jesus threw out usurers and others who were taking advantage of the poor (Luke 19.45-46). Jesus was also angry with the Pharisees, who wanted to catch him breaking one of their laws (Mark 3.1-6), yet were unwilling to consider the real morality of the law.

In both cases, Jesus was angry with people who were doing wrong and who refused to listen to God. He feels for others, rebukes those with power, and uses anger as an expression of care when confronting individuals with truth, so that they might repent. The Bible asks us to make anger redemptive. We are right to feel anger and express it. When it enables change, anger becomes trans­formative.

Here are the ways in which I have learnt to use this powerful emotion and put to creative use.

First, we can try to understand what it is that triggers our anger. Working out what makes us angry now can be a step towards acknowledging strong feelings, and lead to the possibility of changing our attitude towards these feelings. We can talk about them, and try to accept that nothing can change what has happened in the past. A journal can be useful to give shape to these reflections.

Hanging on to angry feelings from years gone by can cause unnecessary problems, but, if we can identify them, we may be able to change the way we deal with current situations.

Second, if anger is building up, we need to deal with it. We shouldn’t let it simmer away until we have a violent outburst. If possible, we could try taking ourselves away from the situation, thinking about the bigger picture, and considering the consequences of our behaviour before we react.

Third, we might ask ourselves how far some of this is associated with our lifestyle. Do we pack too much in so that we are struggling to cope? We might need to do fewer of the demanding tasks, and spend more time doing things that we find relaxing. Find a pleasurable way to let off steam, which will prevent the build-up of tension and increase self-confidence. Even simple pleasures such as a relaxing bath, a pleasant walk, or a good book can help.

Fourth, make sure to eat a healthy diet and get enough sleep. Lack of sleep and food can make us feel irritable. It may help to talk things over regularly with a friend or member of the family.

Fifth, learning to keep calm may help us cope with our feelings. Learning to breathe slowly, prayer, silence, meditation, and other relaxation techniques can help us to slow down, and to see and feel more. Sometimes we have to learn to let go of our desire for control, and to allow God to take and shape us. A regular life of prayer can place our lives into the broader shape of God’s narrative of love.

Sixth, confrontations are usually hard to deal with. It is important that we try to express ourselves assertively without losing our cool. We can do this by preparing what we want to say. If the discussion gets heated, it can be useful to remember that it is OK for someone else to have a different opinion.

We can try to express ourselves as clearly as possible, and use phrases such as “I feel angry with you because . . .” rather than being abusive. We can also try to be clear about what we expect to come out of the discussion. We can listen to the other person, and avoid taking things too personally.

Anger is complex. This fearful emotion can be embraced and transformed. It is essential that we explore with ourselves and others what we do with our anger. Reflecting on what makes us angry, being aware of the different ways anger shows itself, and finding ways of putting our emotions to creative and spiritual use might be part of our journey of self-discovery this New Year. There will certainly be much in 2018 that continues to make us angry – our challenge for human flourishing is to name it and use it for building transformed communities with emotional and spiritual intelligence at their heart.

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