“This deadly cancer of anger… makes us unlike ourselves, makes us like timber wolves or furies from Hell, drives us forth headlong upon the points of swords, makes us blindly run forth after other men’s destruction as we hasten toward our own ruin.”
This quote by St. Thomas More goes a long way to explain the seeming “craziness” we see in the world today. Whether it is the vitriolic volleys of nastiness hurled by our own politicians, violent exchanges between ideological opponents, or deadly terrorists’ attacks, anger seems to be the primary emotion that motivates these activities. When anger finds a permanent home, it forges itself into hatred.
Anger, the Church teaches us, is a deadly sin. Now, not all anger is sinful, but sinful anger is easier to diagnose than we might think. We can define sinful anger as an emotional response to a perceived threat. It doesn’t just pop into our lives from out of nowhere. It has roots that have become deeply embedded in our lives.
Resentment, unforgiveness, and bitterness are all deadly roots that underlie anger. The first letters of these three roots are R-U-B, an appropriate acronym, since these things rub and chafe us to the point that we blindly run at another’s destruction while we hasten toward our own.
Anger is an intense emotion, and it needs fuel to maintain that intensity. Think of resentment as the firewood that stokes anger. Resentment occurs when we remain indignant at unfair treatment. It holds onto the wrong and refuses to let it go. Sometimes, resentment is based on real injustice, but other times it is a perception of unfair treatment. St. Augustine is sometimes credited for saying, “Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
Political conservatives might be resentful because of the perception that their values are not accepted in the public square. Political liberals might be resentful of having an election “stolen” by an opposing candidate. Terrorists might resent the intrusion of western morals into their culture.
Retribution is commonly understood to be punishment that is inflicted upon someone out of vengeance. Retribution may masquerade as justice, but it is nothing more than an imposter for true justice. In a more common language, we can rightly understand retribution as “payback”. The vengeful nature of retribution wants to exact a toll that is disproportionate to the original offense, and may not even target the perceived offender.
Retribution almost guarantees a cycle of vengeful acts. Angered by the offense of unjust punishment, the party that was originally the offender can actually perceive themselves as the offended party because of retribution and reprisals against them. The stakes in the game of retribution always rise. Retribution doesn’t seek justice, because rightness is not its motivation. With vengeance as its goal, retribution seeks a “pound” of flesh for an “ounce” of injustice.
Unforgiveness, and its counterpart, forgiveness, can be an emotional response. It is, though, first and foremost, a decision. It is an act of the will, and can occur even when emotions are counter to the forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t about letting the other “off the hook”. Forgiveness does not bind the offender to the hurt- it ties the ‘offended’ to the hurt.
Unforgiveness has been linked to early death, arthritis, cancer, heart disease, and a number of other physical ailments. There are four important keys to forgiveness: 1- The decision to forgive- regardless of emotions; 2- Dependence on God- grace is the antidote for negative emotions; 3- Pray for the other person; 4- Bless the other – speak well of the offender.
It is easiest to see the lack of forgiveness between individuals, groups and even cultures, simply based on how poorly they speak of each other. Name-calling is a sure and simple measure of the unwillingness to bless those who are deemed to have offended “us”.
In the letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul offers a strong caution against bitterness, “Be careful that no one is deprived of the grace of God and that no root of bitterness should begin to grow and make trouble…” (Hebrews 12:15). Bitterness is a poisonous root. From it come sarcasm, harshness, and hostility. Bitterness typically leads people to blame others for their circumstances.
While anger often produces some immediate results, its long term consequences are devastating, whether they be between people, political parties, cultures, or nations. The resentment, retribution, unforgiveness, and bitterness that underlie and fuel anger produce a toxic environment that ultimately produces no winners. Instead, we are propelled forward toward our own destruction.
There are no easy answers to the angry sentiments that seem so prevalent in the world today. The angry and hateful actions of others can create very real dangers to safety and security. They limit the true and meaningful exchange of ideas, and threaten to turn every ideological disagreement a pitched battle.
The Church teaches us that Patience is the counter-virtue to the vice of anger. St. Augustine stated, “Patience is the companion of Wisdom”. One might surmise that Augustine would have also thought that anger’s companion is foolishness. By exercising patience, the impulsivity that spurs angry and hateful behavior is negated. Patience starves resentment, retribution, unforgiveness and bitterness of the emotional energy they require. Patience allows us to measure right and appropriate responses to offending behavior. In a world that might almost be described as ‘angry’, the Christian ‘ethos’ is a valuable and rare commodity.