Regina Barreca wrote in the Chicago Tribune Magazine, “. . .anger is . . . an itch, an allergic reaction to some little piece of life’s pollen blown your way.” Of all emotions, anger is probably the most common and most powerful. Hardly a day goes by without me experiencing some measure of anger—either my own or that of someone with whom I interact. My appointment is delayed. The traffic is jammed. A drunken driver kills three students at the local high school. My anger causes my face to turn red, my heart to race, and my eyes to water. I want to hit something or someone. The fire rages within. Anger is intensely personal. It is the quintessential individual signature emotion: I am what makes me mad.
Please understand, however, anger is normal and healthy. I am not responsible for the event or person that brought on my anger, only for how I respond to and use anger once it happens. Anger is not always sin. And not all anger is wrong. In the Old Testament, God became angry at the sin and wickedness of his people. In the New Testament, Jesus became indignant over the misuse of the Temple. And humans are instructed to express their anger, but not to become full of wrath and hatred. But anger can cause sin. A difference exists between “an angry person” and “a person who is angry.” An angry person is one who is controlled by anger—the fire is raging leading to sin. A person who is angry, on the other hand, is someone who has allowed a bit of life’s sparks from a certain event or person to ignite their anger—it’s a fire but not a wildfire.
What should I do the next time my smokestack starts to blow? Good question. I need to learn to control my anger. It has been said, “Your temper is one of your most valuable possessions. Don’t lose it.” Aristotle was right, “Anybody can become angry—that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” If I can’t control my anger, it will control me. So how do we keep anger under control?
Don’t bury your anger.
When my wife and I were in London one spring, we discovered that some of the bombs dropped on England are still killing people. They turn up and sometimes blow up at construction sites, in fishing nets, or on beaches fifty years after the war. Undetected bombs become more dangerous with time because corrosion can expose the detonator. What is true of bombs that are not dealt with is also true of people who have unresolved anger. Buried anger explodes when we least expect it.
And, when anger explodes it does all sorts of damage. It severs relationships. It causes ulcers. It leads to murder. When anger is turned inward it leads to depression. When it is turned outward it leads to aggression. So I have to deal with my anger, not bury it.
Anger is like a splinter in your finger. If you leave it there it gets infected and hurts every time you use your finger. If you remove it, the sore heals and you feel better.
Be wary of chronically angry people.
Anger is highly contagious. It’s dangerous to associate closely with people for whom anger has become a chronic way of life.
If we are not careful the anger of those we associate with will rub off on us. Their rage will become ours.
Take time to cool off.
We should never speak in the heat of anger. We tend to say words that hurt or wound. Sometimes we say things we never intended. We should give ourselves time to cool off because we want our anger to accomplish something positive.
Often, when I am angry my mouth runs faster than my mind. I engage my mouth before my mind is in gear. A sharp tongue only cuts one’s throat. Whoever said, “If you are angry count to ten, if you are very angry count to 100,” knew what he was talking about.
When I feel the fires of anger heating up I ask myself: Is this anger really worth what it’s going to do to others and me emotionally? Will I make a fool of myself? Will I hurt someone I love? Will I lose a friend? Am I seeing this event from the other person’s point of view? Many insignificant matters are not worth getting worked up about. We can win some battles and still lose the war. Perhaps one of the greatest cures for anger is delay.
Choose to forgive.
Anger is a choice. I am reminded of that every time I am in an argument with my wife and the phone rings. If you are like me, you don’t answer the phone with the same tone of voice that you are using in your fight. In a split second I can go from screaming to my calm, pastoral voice as I say, “Hello.” If anger is a choice, so is forgiveness. I can control my anger by choosing forgiveness over anger. Forgiveness is surrendering my right to hurt you back if you hurt me. It means that when I am the object of anger I don’t deserve; I can choose to forgive by not trying to strike back.
Forgiveness and anger cannot live together. I cannot be resentful and forgiving at the same time. If anger is fire, then forgiveness is water. Forgiveness is the water that puts out the fire of anger.