…for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God (Jas. 1:20).
Ignorance is not Bliss
When it comes to being angry, I’m afraid many of us are all too well acquainted with its effects, but less so of its causes and definition. If a doctor sees symptoms without knowing the disease or its causes, it’s difficult to treat. Similarly, it’s much easier to dispel anger if one understands its source and triggers. Therefore, let’s start with a basic Thomistic definition of anger:
Anger is the desire for revenge (cf. ST., II-II, Q. 158, A.1).
And revenge, is simply, the hope of just recompense towards the one we believe has wronged us. For example, someone cuts us off in traffic. The act, being contrary to proper driving, is perceived as a wrong. Then, the thought of correcting the driver or even just the thought of the correction due to the driver alone, elicits the passion of anger in us.
However, anger need not always be morally reprehensible. As a matter of fact, Scripture itself admits of a righteous anger, as it says:
Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil (Eph. 4:26-27).
St. Thomas, explaining the distinction between these two types of anger, says:
…evil may be found in anger, when, to wit, one is angry, more or less than right reason demands. But if one is angry in accordance with right reason, one’s anger is deserving of praise (cf. ST., II-II, Q. 158, A.1).
Examples of righteous anger are angrily defending one’s family against robbers or angrily protecting one’s country in just combat.
Needless to say, these occasions are rare, and undoubtedly most of the things that irritate us fall dreadfully low of right-reason. Therefore, if we are unsure, our default position ought to be to leave anger alone, as St. Alphonsus Ligouri councils:
But to be angry, and not to sin, is very difficult in practice. Whoever abandons himself to anger exposes his soul to imminent danger (True Spouse of Christ, Chpt. XII, Sec. II).
And according to St. Francis de Sales:
It is better to have it said of you that you are never angry, than that you were justly angry (Introd., P. III, Chpt. VIII).
What’s more, according to St. John Chrysostom, the only anger we can unequivocally trust is the anger directed toward ourselves, as he states:
Are you prone to anger? Be so against your own sins: chastise your soul, scourge your conscience, be a severe judge, and merciless in your sentence against your own sins. This is the way to turn anger into account. It was for this that God implanted it within us (Homilies on Eph., Chpt. 2).
But even here, one should be cautious, not to be too hard on oneself.
Angerers & Antidotes
What makes us angry? The things which make us sad. Sorrow, according to St. Thomas, is the passion elicited by a perceived evil, which is currently present to us (either physically or in thought). This, mixed with a desire for recompense, gives sorrow the outreaching element required to transform it into anger. In brief, anger = sorrow + hope of getting even.
Fortunately, within the composition of anger, lies the clues for the making of some effective antidotes.
The first antidote, is simply to drop the first part of anger’s equation: sorrow. How do we do that? Well, if can we see the thing that is making us angry as actually a good thing, then mission accomplished.
To help us out, Scripture assures us, “…that in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rm. 8:28). Therefore, we can be sure, at least conceptually, that every single thing that happens to us will, in the final analysis, have been for the good. At least for those who possess charity (as Romans 8:28 stipulates) and persevere in it.
Another antidote, would be to drop the other hand of the equation, namely hope of vengeance. This is also the recommendation of God Himself, as St. Paul writes:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rm.12:19-20).
A third antidote is to perceive evils inflicted on us as lesser evils or preferred evils when compared to the possibility of evil in a life to come; for justice demands that every evil deed be punished; and because “even the just man falls seven times a day” (Prov. 24:16), then either now or later, we must anticipate making some sort of amends for our faults.
And the more comfortable option (to put it lightly) would be to make reparation now, as opposed to after death, as St. Anthony convincingly illustrates:
…an angel proposed to a sick man the choice of being confined to purgatory for three days, or of being condemned to a continuation of his infirmities for two years. The sick man chose the three days in purgatory ; but scarcely had an hour elapsed in that place of torments when he began to complain to the angel for having condemned him to a purgation not of three days but of several years. “What!” replied the angel, “your body is still warm on the bed of death, and you speak of having spent years in purgatory? (P. IV, Tit. XIV, C. X, 4.).
A fourth antidote, and maybe the best of the bunch, is just sheer forgetfulness. Out of sight, out of mind. How can we be angry about that which doesn’t exist, about that which has dropped into the oblivion of disregard. For sure, this is not always practically possible, but worth a real wholehearted try.
Our final antidote, placed last because it is the most difficult, is just to have an ounce of humility, as St. Thomas writes:
All the causes of anger are reduced to slight…(and) slight is opposed to a man’s excellence:…Consequently, whatever injury is inflicted on us, in so far as it is derogatory to our excellence, seems to savor of slight (ST., I-II, Q. 47, A.2).
Therefore, the greater we are in our own eyes, the easier it is to believe we’re being treated unfairly. The opposite is also true, the lesser we are in our own eyes, the less-nicely we can be treated while remaining calm. It’s easier said than done; yet, discovering that one is proud, is half the battle towards obtaining humility.
Angry about Anger
What are we so angry about, anyway? Maybe, anger is too strong a word to describe our day-to-day annoyances. Nonetheless, when we feel an anger-like ailment coming upon us, let us remember these aforesaid antidotes.
And when the going gets tough, let us remember that we’re never without Help.