Resentment and Formation

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When he had left there, the scribes and Pharisees formed a deep resentment against him. They began to draw him out on many issues, lying in wait to trap him in something he might say.
Luke 11: 53-4

In the film Network, his 1976 satire of American media, the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky portrays how a newscaster whose career is a dismal failure turns himself into a great success through expressing and evoking the rage of his viewers with the line: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” What was obvious satire in 1976 has in many ways become the norm in our day. If one knew American culture only from its mass media, it would be easy to conclude that the pervasive American disposition is anger and resentment, if not outright rage. It appears that we are in a moment of our cultural history where the overt expression of anger and rage, often born of the resentment of some real or imagined ill or slight, is actually fostered.

At the end of Chapter 11 of Luke’s gospel, the conflict, tension, and inevitable outcome of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem becomes more clearly focused. Jesus has cast a light on the actions and motivations of the lawyers, scribes and Pharisees who are attempting to bring him down, and the fire of their resentment will now continue to be stoked until it enacts its revenge on its object.

This year’s Booker Prize winner is the novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. As the novel opens we are introduced to its protagonist Dorrigo Evans as a young child. He is about nine years old and comes into the kitchen where he witnesses the extremely rare event of a man crying. He recalls that the only other time he has seen a man crying was when his brother returned at the end of World War I.

He had seen a grown man cry only once before, a scene of astonishment when his brother Tom returned from the Great War in France and got off the train. He had swung his kitbag onto the hot dust of the siding and abruptly burst into tears.

Watching his brother, Dorrigo Evans had wondered what it was that would make a grown man cry. Later, crying became simply affirmation of feeling, and feeling the only compass in life. Feeling became fashionable and emotion became a theater in which people were players who no longer knew who they were off the stage. Dorrigo Evans would live long enough to see all these changes. And he would remember a time when people were ashamed of crying. When they feared the weakness it bespoke. The trouble to which it led. He would live to see people praised for things that were not worthy of praise, simply because truth was seen to be bad for their feelings.

At times it seems that, as a people, our only compass in life becomes our feelings of anger and resentment — and when those feelings are stilled and we are off the stage, we would no longer know who we are. In the study of human affect, the point is often made that affect is biology and feelings are biography. Our feelings are our pre-reflective judgments of a situation that are based on our life experience. In this light, every feeling or emotion is an invitation to reflection and formation. For a culture that has lost most of its sense of transcendence and of the spiritual core of human personality, feeling or emotion becomes the standard by which we are to act and react. In a certain sense, we are reduced to the discharge of our own unconscious. As Luke portrays the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, we can recognize the inevitably horrible outcome of the living out of our fearful and destructive feelings of anger and resentment.

Since our childhood, our religious formation has taught us to love others and to care for them. What it has often not taught us as well is how to engage formatively our ever-present feelings of anger and resentment. How are we to respond to the infantile rage to which these feelings often lead? An aspect of the hard work of formation is to develop an attitude of gentle reflection around our intense experiences of emotion. It is to gently discipline the unconscious movement of discharge of the feeling and to allow time for it to teach us more about that place in us and our experience from which the judgment that is this feeling arises.

The Church father, Evagrius Ponticus teaches that the strength of anger is an important gift to us that we might have the strength and courage to fight against the evil that assails us. But, he suggests, the “demons” will draw our attention at the moment of anger to the outside world and lead us to blame and lash out at what is outside of us. In this way, instead of deepening our self-knowledge and awareness and so enhancing our true spiritual identity, it will lead us in the direction of greater self-deception and illusion.

Anger is given to us so that we might fight against the demons and strive against every pleasure. Now it happens that the angels suggest spiritual pleasure to us and the beatitude that is consequent upon it so as to encourage us to turn our anger against the demons. But these, for their part, draw our anger to worldly desires and constrain us–contrary to our nature–to fight against our fellow humans to the end that, blinded in mind and falling away from knowledge, our spirit should become a traitor to virtue.
Praktikos, #24

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