Jim Pappas, reflects at Jonathan Hagger’s blog, Of Course I Could Be Wrong, on anger, what it has to teach us and when it becomes destructive:
My spiritual director likes to say that anger is a costly emotion. Sure, it might give us energy for a time to get something accomplished, but while it does it is also burning us up. Better to listen to our anger and then let it go. The anger has many important things to tell us, especially about needs that are not being met and about injustices that are being perpetrated. But after we hear its story, what then? Anger too easily moves to violence, or if we are too vigilant for that, it moves to resentment. It tears at us and eats us. And while we think that we are crusading for righteousness, we too often become the very thing that made us angry in the first place. But when we have really listened to our anger and responded to it with compassion, somehow it transforms in us. Then we can act for change from a place of peace. This work of transformation is not a fast thing – it can even take a lifetime. But in little fits and starts we can find ourselves acting not from anger, but from compassion.
The first time I saw a bishop who had wronged me with compassion instead of anger, it brought me to my knees in tears. What he had done to me had not gone away, and my desire to see that he didn’t do it to others hadn’t gone away. But I no longer wanted revenge or even just payback. I wanted his transformation. I was looking at him with love, and the anger melted away into deep sorrow. In these tiny ways, I learn to walk the via crucis, to become, as St. Paul says it, crucified to the world.
At its root, living in anger is about power. Under the anger is our experience of being powerless. We are the victim of some injustice, or we witness some injustice, and we are powerless to stop it. We do not like being powerless. Anger promises us that we can seize power back. But the way of the Cross is the way of kenosis, of self-emptying. The paradox of our way is that to gain power, you must let it go. If we can let go of our anger and allow ourselves to be powerful, then we can begin to heal. We can allow ourselves the deep sorrow and fear and even despair that comes from powerlessness (Psalm 22?). And then as we shower compassion on those pains that we feel, we can begin to heal and find ourselves in a place to accept compassion from others. It probably won’t come from the people we’d like to see offering it. Idiot bishops don’t often turn around and show compassion to those they have stepped on like bugs. But others around us can and will show compassion if we let them.
This compassion is healing – not because it undoes the wrongs we have experienced, but because it sits with us in the place of pain. True compassion doesn’t try to make everything better; it doesn’t attempt to exercise power for us. True compassion becomes powerless with us, empties itself and suffers alongside of us. And when we are ready, true compassion is transformed alongside us. From the emptying of power, new power is resurrected. We go out to confront injustice with compassion for ourselves and for the one committing injustice.
This is not an easy lesson. I go from compassion one moment back to anger too easily. And sometimes I stay angry for days or weeks and resist the work that I know I must do. But resurrection is only found on the other side of a tomb. And no matter how much I try to force it to stand between me and the Cross, I know that I must bear that Cross if I am to embrace the Risen One.
Fr. Jim Pappas
Reprinted with the Rev. Jim Pappas’ permission.