Anger and Helplessness

“You have heard that it was said to the ancients: ‘You shall not kill. But whoever does kill will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. Whoever says to his brother ‘empty-head’ will be liable to the the Sanhedrin. Whoever says ‘fool’ will be liable to the Gehenna of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you leave your gift there before the altar and go, first be reconciled with your brother, and then go and offer your gift.”

Matthew 5:22-3

 

There is a constant tension in the political life of the United States around the interpretation of the initial words of the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” One manifestation of this tension involves whether or not the Ten Commandments can be displayed on public or government property. For some of the advocates for such a display, the rationale is that these are the central tenets of our beliefs as a “Christian nation”. Few would debate that it is good and necessary that we have religious and legal injunctions against killing each other. Lacking such inhibitions there would likely be an even larger murder rate than we unfortunately currently experience. It seems as if we human beings are inherently violent animals who must have the external constraints of morality and law to keep us from killing those with whom we are angry.

In today’s gospel, however, Jesus would seem to call us to an innate potential that we are for non-violence and for love. His teaching seems, at first blush, to be utopian and idealistic. He teaches that the fulfillment of the law (Mt. 5:17) is accomplished in us when our hateful, resentful, doubting, and despairing dispositions of heart are transformed into love, mercy, reconciliation, trust, and hope. Although being angry makes us liable to judgment, it is only remaining angry that makes worship of God impossible. In this way Jesus also teaches that we are to spend our days humbly and docilely submitting to the formation and reformation of our hearts that will “by little and by little” transform our propensity for fear and anger into compassion and love.

It is possible, by law, to be deterred from killing another. It is not possible, however, for law to keep us from being angry with another. To grow in the disposition that Jesus teaches requires far more of us than a willful attempt to master our emotions. The history of humankind is replete with stories of “religious” persons whose repression of their most powerful emotions like anger have become agents of violence on others and the world. As Jesus says earlier in chapter 5 of Matthew, “For unless your righteousness exceeds that of the tribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:20)

A song from the 1961 musical Carnival told us that “Love makes the world go round.” In day to day experience in the workplace and at home, however, it often feels as if the pervasive energy in the world is not love but anger. The “law” of anger is that of a self assertion against the intrusions of others on our own lives and designs. We crave the security of constancy, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual, and we resist any outside force that would impinge on our own fragile sense of safety. It is the power of anger, expressed but especially repressed, that time and again blocks the possibilities of better relationships and good work. In family and community life a false “niceness” that is veiling deep resentment and anger is often at the root of inactivity and stagnation.

Jesus’ teaching, then, asks far more of us than to “behave”. It summons us to enter the core of our personalities and to ask ourselves what it is that gives rise to our anger and resentment toward others. Sigmund Freud suggests that it is our refusal to relate honestly, and in spiritual terms we would add humbly, to our helplessness. What angers us about the others is our need of them. Much of what we see as religion and morality, in Freud’s view, is merely our settling for so much less because we fear the disappointment of our own deep desires. Perhaps this is not so far removed from the teaching of Jesus, who says the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets lies in the flourishing of our lives of spirit. We need not merely protect ourselves from our own helplessness and the potential disappointment that comes from others. We are able to “enter the kingdom” where we dare to live in faith, hope, and love. We can bear with the disappointments of our needs and cravings because the God who made us loves and cares for us. As Julian of Norwich said of the hazelnut in her hand, “In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it.The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”

For the bodily and functional levels of our personalities, our “helplessness” is a scandal and an insecurity that infuriates us. At the level of spirit, however, our emptiness and dependence is the great gift by which God makes us, loves us, and keeps us. To realize this truth in the depth of our hearts is the source of empathy and compassion, for what is true of us is true of all. We need not blame the other who will never fully satisfy us. Neither must we repress the truth that in our helplessness we long to be loved and kept. As Julian says, if we become oned to God we can, even in our helplessness and drivenness, know “full rest and true bliss.”

For Jesus, the teachings of the Law and the Prophets are far more than limits on our actions. They are a way to a human flourishing that can come only from the reformation and transformation of our hearts in accord with our true original spiritual identity, an identity that in its “helplessness” is a “vacancy for God” and a life in communion with all others.

. . . all of what we think of as our moral problems spring from the fact that we are helpless subjects. And helplessness, or our relation to it, is something Freud thinks we need to get right; and we do the very worst things when we get it wrong; we start doing things like believing in God, or abiding by religious teachings, or adopting preposterous moralities. Or punishing/exploiting other people’s vulnerabilities or ideologies, or believing that we are exceptional creations rather than just another species of animal. Obviously, if frustration makes us aggressive and we turn against our own satisfaction, we are unconsciously cultivating our violence by disallowing our helplessness.

. . . In Freud’s view our helplessness doesn’t diminish over time, but we become progressively more disturbed by it. So terrorized are we by it that we will seek safety rather than satisfaction, magic rather than nourishment, disavowal rather than acknowledgement. We seem in Freud’s view, to be the animals who are tormented by our helplessness; the animals for whom it is, or it has become, the abiding preoccupation. 

Adam Phillips, On Balance, pp. 144-5

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