Desert Spirituality for City Folks - Part 17 - Anger
Dr. Bradley Nassif · April 5, 2008
At its core, anger is a dark and cruel wish for harm to come upon the person who hurt you. The Desert Fathers had at least three strategies for conquering anger: 1) don't be surprised when anger enters your soul, 2) deal with it quickly, and 3) die to your ego. A humorous story taken from the life of St. Makarios of Egypt illumines the way to an anger-free life.
Imagine this: you’re in your house and the phone rings. You go to answer it, but as you do, all you hear is static on the line. Something’s wrong with the phone, and it keeps ringing. So you frantically try to find another phone in the house before the person hangs up. So you go to the bedroom to get the portable. Now it’s the fourth ring and you rush over to the phone, and just as you reach for it, it’s gone. Someone took the phone off the hook and didn’t put it back. Now it’s the fifth ring, so you run to the other side of the house and find the phone. “Hello!” But just as you answer, you hear click. Now you’re frustrated.
“Who moved the phone,” you yell.
“What’s the matter?” someone answers back.
“Someone used the phone and I couldn’t get to it in time. Who did that? What’s the matter with these phones?”
You feel like revenge on the phone companies or someone else in the house for putting you through that ordeal. You feel angry.
Now, compared to really big things in life, this is a minor frustration. But this minor frustration could be illustrated time and time again. It happens when you’re driving and somebody suddenly cuts you off. It happens when the doggone jar won’t open, no matter how hard you try to untwist it. It happens when you open a sealed bag of food and find out that it’s been mechanically sealed so tight that it would take an atomic bomb just to open the darn thing.
Anger, anger, anger.
The Desert Fathers knew a lot about that emotion. Often many people imagine that sexuality posed the greatest struggle for the monks. On the contrary, ancient sources indicate that anger, not sex, featured more prominently. The Fathers knew that anger could evolve into something very serious in our lives, so serious that it just might become a barrier between us and other people.
In the fourth century, Evagrius Ponticus listed what he called the “eight evil thoughts.” These include gluttony, fornication, love of money, sadness, anger, listlessness, vainglory, and pride. Eventually, with some changes, these became known as the “seven deadly sins.” However, note that Evagrius does not use the word “sins,” but rather, “thoughts.”
Evagrius believed that “it is not in our power to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not, and whether or not they are to stir up our passions.” In addition, Evagrius called anger “the most fierce passion of all” in this list.
So, what is anger? Well, anger is a secondary reaction. It’s the response we have to a blocked goal of any kind. It’s often the second response we have to fear, frustration, or disappointment. It’s the response we have when we’re frustrated because the phone’s ringing and we can’t get to it in time. It’s the response we feel when we’re angry because the guy in the car suddenly cuts us off when we’re driving. It’s the response we give when we can’t open the jar of peanut butter because the company packed it too tight. Sometimes it can be much more serious than that.
Anger can be what we feel when someone says something bad about us. It’s what we feel when we suddenly lose a job that we thought was going to last for a long time. It’s what we feel when a person at work doesn’t care enough about us to even greet us when we walk in the door early in the morning. It’s what we feel when a parent whom we trusted ends up harming us as a child through rape or some other kind of sexual abuse. It’s the feeling we have after learning that a spouse was unfaithful to us. It’s a feeling we have toward our spiritual leaders whom we thought cared about us but never visited us in the hospital when we were sick.
At its core, anger is a dark and cruel wish for harm to come upon the person who hurt you. Psychologists tell us that its roots often go deep into childhood insecurity. Easily angered people don’t always curse and throw things; sometimes they withdraw socially or sulk or even get physically ill. Still, they’re hurt. They feel sad that someone was inconsiderate towards them in some way.
So what are we to do about it? There’s a lot to say about this emotion, but here’s just a few strategies that were used by the monks that you might find helpful when fighting this dark emotion.
First, don’t get discouraged or be surprised to find anger in your soul. You’re just a fallen human being, and that means you can get your feelings hurt. Some of the monks had a hard time admitting that. Many monks expressed anxiety about their inability to resist anger. They thought they were above that sort of thing; after all, they were monks, not ordinary Christians.
In one of the sayings of the Desert Mothers, Amma Syncletica addressed this concern. She said that anger overcomes all of us from time to time. We’re not to think of ourselves different from anyone else in this matter.
Second, Amma Syncletica tells us that when we do get angry, we must deal with it quickly and decisively or else it will take root in our souls. We shouldn’t let it linger and seethe in our conscious or our subconscious minds. Rather, we should keep short accounts with other people and mend the problem before the day has passed. She tells us that “we must bear in mind the words of the Apostle. It is not good to get angry, but if it should happen, the Apostle does not allow you a whole day for this passion.”
So keep short accounts with others. Anger will only keep you from the love God wants you to have for others. Agathon, a disciple of Abba Poimen, said, “Even if an angry man should raise the dead, he is not acceptable to God.”
A third strategy we can use in combating anger in our souls is simply to die to our egos. Instead of falling headlong into hostility and revenge toward the person who angered you, choose a reaction that is compassionate and fair. Choosing a reaction that is compassionate and fair can only be done if you’ve died to your ego.
Are you too sensitive about what other people think of you? Are you suspicious that others are talking about you behind your back? Are you feeling hurt because someone disappointed you? Are they expecting too much of you? Did they say bad and hurtful things about you? Well, if you feel angry from that, get in line behind the rest of us who want revenge on those who harmed us. We all get our feelings hurt from the stupidity of others. We all know what it feels like for someone to act discourteously toward us.
The remedy for this can be seen in a rather humorous story that comes from one of the desert-dwellers. They did have a sense of humor, you know, and I think that’s one thing that makes them so endearing. The story that I’m about to read is a good paragraph long. The central point it makes about the Christian life is the need to die to our own egos. And here it goes:
A brother came to see Abba Makarios the Egyptian and said to him, “Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.”
So the old man said, “Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.”
The brother went there, abused them, and threw stones at their graves. Then he returned and told the old man about it.
The latter said to him, “Did they say anything to you?”
He replied, “No.”
The old man said, “Go back tomorrow and praise the dead.”
So the brother went away and praised them, calling them apostles and saints and righteous men. He returned to the old man and said to him, “I have complimented them.”
And the old man said to him, “Did they not answer you?”
The brother said, “No.”
The old man said to him, “You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak? So you, too, if you wish to be saved, must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.”
“So you, too,” he said, “if you wish to be saved, must become a dead man.” And then, when we’re dead to our own egos, no one, absolutely no one, can defeat us. Neither their insults nor their praises can do us harm. Why? Because the Cross of Jesus Christ conquers even the foolish deeds of others who bring us harm.