Dr. Albert Rossi · January 30, 2012
Anger - express it or repress it? Dr. Al Rossi gives us guidance and helps us understand the healthy and Christ-like alternatives.
Today, I will continue to reflect on becoming a healing presence by saying a few words about cleaning ourselves out about anger, and the effect of anger, and the blockage it might have on becoming a healing presence.
I’ll begin with a quote from Abbot Macarius, who said, “If, wishing to correct another, you are moved to anger, you gratify your own passions. Do not lose yourself in order to save another.”
And a second quote to get us started, from Abba Agathon: “[The] man who is angry”—man or woman, of course—”[The] man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.”
Now, I’ll be the first to say, anger is a complex emotion and a complex issue. Let’s begin with a question. What do we do with our anger? We all have anger as part of human life. It’s just part of the passage. Is it best to keep the anger inside and consider that virtuous, or is it best to express the anger and to have that be a catharsis and be altruistic? That’s the two extremes that we’ll consider for a few moments.
The bookstores are filled with books on expressing anger angrily as the way to mental health. Many different approaches take the form of creative anger or getting even instead of giving up or whatever the approach might be. There aren’t many books that I have seen on repressing anger. No, the popular way is to fight for your rights, so to speak.
The short answer to the question, “What do we do with our anger; should we repress it or express it?” in a word, is neither of those two ways is recommendable. We neither repress anger, nor do we express anger angrily. Mm-mm.
Fr. Florovsky, past Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, said that Orthodoxy is the absence of extremes. And that insight applies to anger.
The theory that if we express anger, we clean ourselves out for creative work is the popular theory. The question is, is it true? The answer is, no. Examples abound about the falsity of expressing anger and then becoming more altruistic. It just doesn’t work.
For example, there’s a sport, professional boxing. And the theory of that is that a crowd goes and watches two people beat themselves up; one wins; and the crowd yells and screams for the fighter they want to win. When the fight is over and the crowd leaves, the theory would be that they all went there, they got their anger out vicariously, and now they leave better and cleaner persons.
Is that true? No. And the evidence is what happens in the parking lot. What happens is, after a fighting match or after many hockey games or even football games or other sports, often, fights erupt in the parking lot. Why? Because anger has been aroused and exaggerated rather than dissipated.
So I would begin by saying that the angry attitude which carries on is not the way at all for those of us striving for a better life, a Christian life, to be a healing presence. That’s not the way to go.
Let me give a little example. One day, I took a class to a shelter for abused women, a place where women go who have been beat up by their husbands or boyfriends or some man. We were given a tour of the building, which is just a great big house in a neighborhood, but protected by the police and kept private. We were given a tour, and then the director sat down with us, and we had a question and answer period. And some of the students asked questions.
And then I asked a question: “What is the busiest day of the year for this shelter?”
And I was surprised by the answer. I expected to hear New Year’s Day or some holiday. The director said the busiest day at the women’s shelter is Super Bowl Sunday. She said that the men are at home yelling and screaming and being angry at the TV screen for their favorite football team. And it doesn’t matter whether their favorite team wins or loses. The results are always the same. Game is over; man turns the TV off. Now, is he cleaner and more ready to become a loving husband after that afternoon or evening? And the answer is no. The man turns off the TV, and instead of being clean and loving, he does the opposite. He turns and starts to express his anger at his wife, at the woman who’s there with him. And she gets beat up.
I’ll tell the story of what happened to me a few years ago, more than twenty years ago, that I still remember vividly. I was teaching a course at the university where I taught, in January. And it was a snowy, slushy, gray, black kind of day. And I pulled into the gas station for gasoline.
In those days, the gas attendant routinely washed the windshield. The gas attendant did not look like he was in a very good mood. And I wasn’t in a very great mood either, I must admit. Well, he filled up the gas tank, he did not do the window, I paid him, and then I said, “Sir, would you wash my windows?”
And he simply took the wiper and wiped the windshield, leaving big black streaks across the windshield itself. And I was not a happy camper.
So I drove the car over to the side, and then I watched him until he was kind of watching me. And I ceremoniously walked up to the island with the spritzer and the paper towels, and I grabbed a couple paper towels, and I went over to my car and washed the window, myself, and cleaned it really nicely with the paper towels. And then I went back, and I watched until he was there, and then I put the dirty paper towels into the trash can and the spritzer back.
And he said to me, rather gruffly, “What? Wasn’t it good enough the way I did your windows?” And clearly, it was an angry expression.
I had choices. I chose to express anger back at him, by saying, “No!” I said it really not nice, angrily. I said, “No, having you wash my windshield was worse than not having them washed at all.”
He expressed anger, I expressed more anger, and predictably, he expressed more anger; he called me a name. “Oh, [grumbling, muttering].” And it began to escalate. And at that point, I knew that the scene was out of control. So I took a deep breath and nodded my head and walked away.
I still remember that scene to this day. And I still remember that man and his anger. And I don’t doubt that he still remembers me, this jerk, responding angrily to him.
That is to say, anger doesn’t go away. In fact, anger begets anger. And we can’t be surprised if we express anger and somebody expresses anger more back at us. No, that’s the law of the land. When we express anger, that expression of anger will predictably beget more anger in the other person.
So that’s the expression of anger angrily. That’s not the thing to do.
The other end of the spectrum: repression. Is repression of anger a virtue and recommendable and a way to handle anger? And in a word, the answer to that is no. Repression causes ulcers. It causes psychosomatic illnesses. So we don’t just repress and stuff our feelings. Not recommendable. What then is the answer?
Well again, looking for a model, a model might be the pendulum. A pendulum swings back and forth. At one extreme is repression, and at the other extreme is expression—angrily expressing anger. And both those extremes are not recommendable. The pendulum vertical is the ideal, and in terms of anger, that would be expressing the anger appropriately and to use the word, for lack of a better word, civilly. That is to say, to express the anger without the anger emotion.
So, one needs to pause and let the boiling blood subside enough that one can say in a regular tone, “I was angry when this and this.”
Now this also is a very delicate issue. There are times we cannot do that at the scene because doing that could easily hurt the other person or inflame the other person. So it may be that we cannot say something back and resolve it.
But what we cannot do is keep that anger inside us unspoken. So we need in some way then to express that to somebody else. A trusted friend. Make a phone call. Take a walk. Find somebody. May have to delay a bit, but then to find someone to say, “I just need to own my anger. It’s not the other person’s fault; it’s my anger. But I need to say I was angry, and I just want to surrender it to the Lord and to you.”
That at least is the ideal. That’s what—we win some and we lose some. We’re human beings, and sometimes, we aren’t as appropriate as we would like to be. And sometimes our nonverbal expression can be picked up by the other person, and they would know we’re angry whether we say something or not. We just do the best we can.
But at least we need to know that expressing anger angrily, as is taught on some TV talk shows and certainly in many books these days, is simply not functional, and it’s not virtuous. And repression of anger is not recommendable and not virtuous.
So, I will end this podcast with the quote that I began with. “The man who”—or woman—”[The] man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.”