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Defusing Anger

My father had a temper. Generally speaking, I do not. I learned, early on, that an angry child is no match for an angry adult. I use to say I didn’t have a temper…until one of my young friends helped me discover it. I took him in with certain expectations; in lieu of rent, he promised to do certain things. He didn’t do them. I don’t recall the specifics, but it involved a container of powdered laundry soap hitting the floor at a high velocity, shattering, and scattering soap powder everywhere. So, okay, I do have a temper. Fortunately it takes a lot to provoke it. Sometimes, I’ve said, “You don’t want to make me mad.”  Not dangerous, just scary and ugly!

One thing that helps me resist angry outbursts is caring for others. Truthfully, I don’t want to hurt anyone. I barely understand physical or sexual assault, and I have no desire to hurt others with words (unless I’ve been provoked into an unthinking rage, which fortunately is very rare). Imagining the hurt to someone I love keeps me from doing many things that might cause pain, but anger should be near the top of the list. We indeed have too much anger in our modern world.

I have opinions, as most people do. I am not an “angry white male.” Things do upset me, like dealing with careless drivers or darkly dressed pedestrians crossing mid-street on a dark night. I don’t want to hit someone; I especially don’t want to hurt or kill anyone, even if it were their own fault. So, yes, such behavior makes me angry sometimes. When it comes to politics, I rarely get angry unless I see a group or party trying to rig the system. Elections don’t always come out as I’d prefer, but if the process and the politicians are honest and fair, I accept being outvoted. I don’t accept lying and cheating quite so easily; propaganda and insincere promises are despicable!

Even then, anger isn’t very useful. A certain amount of righteous indignation can be very motivational. However I decided long ago that I preferred not to be the epitome of pointless anger, the old man at a coffee shop decrying the state of the world or country to a handful of other old men. If I am upset, I prefer to do, not to rage.  Of course, intensely angry people can be frightening, verbally abusive, and violent; they can use anger to overwhelm and force them to do what they’d prefer not to do.  You might consider that “useful” in an ugly, oppressive sort of manner, but is that worth the price in terrorized loved ones or broken relationships?

Let me return to my opening paragraph. Why did my father have a temper? Was it genetics? Are people inherently programmed to be angry? I don’t think so. After my father died, I was visiting one of my aunts. She told me how my grandfather treated my dad, his only son. He was often angry and had unreasonable expectations of his son. After hearing about that, I realized my dad had made considerable progress compared to grandpa, whom I only knew as an ornery but basically lovable old coot. Dad didn’t become his father, and I appreciate that now.

The abused often become abusers, but this isn’t a prophecy set in stone. God will help anyone become a good and godly person. The process begins by refusing to believe we have no choice. While we are all sinners, God gives a clean slate to those who trust in the saving work of Jesus. Yes, we muck up that slate, over and over again, but God’s forgiveness is like an eraser that we can use every day, every hour, every moment we need it.

So my first suggestion for dealing with anger is to confess the wrong and seek forgiveness, from God, and from the person or persons we abused with our anger. Now God gives us a bit of leeway. Paul writes, “‘In your anger do not sin’:  Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.’ (Ephesians 4:26-27, apparently drawing from a version of Psalm 4:4.  “Don’t sin by letting anger control you. Think about it overnight and remain silent.”  Paul implies that anger is normal, but we have a choice.  We can review and rehearse an offense (or perceived offense) and keep the anger going, not just overnight, but night after night.  Or we can seek to understand and then let it go. 

That’s not the only choice. We can choose not to sin; we can stop the hurtful words. We may acknowledge our anger: “What you said makes me feel so angry.” Notice the words aren’t blaming the person but merely expressing the feeling. Such statements are much easier to handle on all sides. Of course, learning this method takes practice and time, and we will all mess up. Then we go back to the earlier suggestion, ask forgiveness. If not on the spot, which might be difficult if we are still boiling in anger, but at the earliest calm moment. If you’re a guy or a gal with a temper, you may have to work on this for a bit, but it will work. By the way, some need to walk away, and others need to let them. “We need to settle this, right now, is a prescription for war when a cooling off period is needed,

It will also help to focus in on where the anger starts. It is common for people to think that others are responsible for their anger: “You make me so mad!” Yet, with a bit of reflection, it becomes clear that not everyone explodes, when the same people do whatever they did to you, to them. We all have tender spots where we have been hurt by the words and actions of others, usually those we believe should only express love for and to us. I was helping my dad, one time, shovel corn. He wanted to empty a crib, and he was impatient to be done. He was probably tired from his real job, but this task needed doing. I was in my mid-teens and still a bit scrawny. My shoveling technique was, shall we say, underdeveloped, so I wasn’t providing as much help as my dad wanted. He called me a name. It was humiliating and degrading. A few hours later, he probably didn’t even remember saying it or being angry with me, but I never forgot it! Before I was 21, my dad was gone, and I was stuck with that and a few other troubling memories.

God was good. The emotional scars I had faded with time, and I learned how to understand my dad and deal with those hurtful memories. I never had quite the issue with anger, as I noted above, but you may. To fully lay your anger issues to rest, you will have to face them and their cause(s). Some will burst out in anger, when they see or sense being treated the same way that some prior person treated them. Their anger may be magnified by not just a scar but an open sore. For example, when I was a teen, I seemed to have a perpetual problem with ingrown toenails; I often had sore toes that I did all I could to protect. So guess what happened if someone stepped on my foot? They got a quick reaction. What if they did it on purpose? My typically passive resistance quickly became active! People with quick or bad tempers may well be like that emotionally.

Now on a slightly different track, what is the opposite of love? I’ve written quite often about this. It’s not hate, and it’s not apathy. The opposite of love is selfishness. Too much of what people call love or romance isn’t love at all. When it’s selfish, it isn’t love. What about casual sex? It’s not love either. Jesus gave us a terrific measure of real love when he answered this question, “’Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is th first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Matthew 22:36-39). He doesn’t tell us to love others more than ourselves, but as ourselves. Learning to love is another challenge but one well worth the effort. Although often unconsidered, anger is selfish. We quickly blame others, submit them to the vilest verbal attacks, and sometimes even physically assault the very ones we say we love! Yet, if we truly reflect on the true nature of love, we may find the key to lock up our anger and keep it under control.

“Lock up our anger”? Do I really mean that? If I meant suppressing our anger, stuffing it inside and letting it grow and build until it exploded, then, “No, stuffing our anger won’t work.!” We need to find ways to release anger. I believe sincere love is one way. Recognizing that we get angry when our wishes are thwarted is not an expression of love but of selfishness. Many of us also get angry when we lose control; we assume we are in charge, and then get upset when it becomes clear we are not. I was briefly engaged to a highly opinionated pastor’s daughter. I gave her a ring on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and by late Thanksgiving Day we had our first major argument. My family lived about 200 miles from where I was serving as a pastor; her family was more like 500 miles away. When my grandmother asked about compatible times for our family Christmas, my then finance said we would not be attending. She hadn’t asked; we never discussed it. While attending alternate holidays with each of our families was one option, Christmas that year was on Sunday. I would be preaching and tied up till noon or so, and I felt driving to see her family in an old used car for such a long distance was asking for trouble and didn’t want to risk it. She wasn’t having it. I made several suggestions—going together on Christmas to my folks and then spending the balance of the week with here, splitting up for Christmas and then rejoining her at her folks, a couple of days later, and finally, “I’m going to Ohio. You make your own choice.” She came with me, and a couple of days later, we argued all the way to her family’s home!

Surprised we never married? Equally stubborn, no doubt! As the driver with the older car, I felt my concerns we valid and reasonable, and I still do. I didn’t really care which place we went first; I was accustomed to our family’s traditions, but they were already changing as my generation married and made their own families and traditions. My grandmother’s question reflected the already existing scheduling complications. I’d already dealt with car problems on the road, and we indeed has some on our return trip. On Christmas day, we likely would just have been stuck somewhere. I believe her issue was one of fairness, and I can’t imagine where that might have taken us in time.

We had an earlier argument. I had invited my church’s deacons and wives for dinner and made a rice and chicken casserole. When my ladyfriend arrived, the main dish was in the oven; she offered to help but most everything was done. I did have a pan of chicken stock, and I asked her to pour it into a container and put it in the frig. She put the broth into a jar and then sat it on the counter. I asked her why she hadn’t put it into the refrigerator, and that began the war. Wow! I literally did not know what I had done. I was merely curious, but she took great offense. Family custom, something about hot and cold, and a bossy roommate—she had to clear the air and settle our disagreement now. I had to get out of the same space and cool down, when she said I was just like her roommate, who apparently used questions to correct her. I really was just curious. I’d recently learned that waiting to refrigerate for something to cool first was unnecessary, and the quicker cooled the better, germ-wise. Since I think I had asked that, I just wondered why she didn’t do it.

My point here is that self-interest, self-protection, and ego can all turn little things into major brawls. Suspicion of the other person’s motives or behavior, taken personally, can easily become excuses for blaming, humiliation, and worse. We think, “You did that because…!” We should ask, at least think, “I wonder why he/she did that or said that?” The Apostle James is right, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:9).

Yeah, but what about those who explode before they are even able to listen, speak slowly, and hold off their anger? I believe such individuals need to explore their own history to see what made them so sensitive; they made need someone to help them. While there are techniques to help manage anger and angry responses (like counting to 10), digging out what makes a person so touchy is probably a necessity. It is often something like the man who comes home from a tough day at work only to explode at his wife and children. He may have kept his anger under control all day, feeling beset and unappreciated, and then he comes home already near boiling to find the people he loves ready to yell, complain, and demand his already overtaxed person. I admire so much the coach and father who said he drew a line between the basketball court and home when his two sons were playing, such that when he crossed the county line he stopped being couch and started being father. If only more of us could draw such a clear line between roles and relationships, between perhaps valid expectations and the necessary and appropriate expression of unconditional love.

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