The Purgatory of Anger

Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever  endures to the end will be saved.

Matthew 10: 21-2

 

The difficult sayings of Jesus that we read today were very literally the truth for the members of Matthew’s community. The discomfort they create for us, however, indicates their relevance for the lives of all of us throughout history. As we sing our praises of the beauties of human relationship and community, we must remember that it shall always be the case that we love and hate the same people. If we are really alive and truly relating with others, there will be both peace and the sword.

I remember many years ago telling a counselor and director I was seeing about an episode from my adolescence of which I was quite ashamed. It was of how my parents had given me a very expensive Christmas gift which I really did not want. Usually my tendency would have been to be passive and quietly receive the gift and then just not use it. In this case, however, I became angry and I told them I did not want it and they should take it back. The response of the counselor to my revelation surprised and even amazed me. He said: “That sounds like someone with real strength.”

Because I had felt angry with my parents, I was sure that this experience pointed to some significant deficit in my personality. I was astounded that this person whose insight I so valued was pointing to something very positive in it. The way most of us have been formed to read the scriptures and the teachings of Jesus leads us to think that human relationships, especially with those closest to us, should always be harmonious and sweet. For many of us, feelings of anger are a problem to be avoided or at least to be overcome. We tend not to recognize the place of anger in our interior and relational formation.

The roots of the word “encounter” point to the complexity of human relationship. The word itself suggests that in truly meeting another there is both the experience of “in-being” as well as “counter-being.” True encounter involves the experience of both sameness and difference. The depth and quality of developing relationship is largely dependent on how much our being with and in each other serves, at the same time, the continual unfolding and developing of our counter being, our uniqueness and separateness. When two people are serving and fostering this in each other, they feel closeness and love. When one or another disrespects the truth and uniqueness of the other, this leads to distancing and anger. We need each other but not at the cost of our own unique life call. We experience anger when we sense that the truth in us (and in the world) is being disrespected and denied by another, when we feel we are in the right and they are in the wrong, when the other, in some way, denies and rejects our freedom and unique call.

As with any strong affect, there is both a gratification and an anxiety in anger. The tension it creates in us is a potential for growth and deepening formation, but it is also very uncomfortable. So, unconsciously we move to dissolve the tension and the feeling. We do this in one of two potentially deformative ways. On the one hand, we may immediately discharge the anger and so refuse to remain with it and learn from it what is true and what is not. On the other hand, and those of us raised in certain religious traditions are very prone to this, we can repress it and live it out passively. Far too often religious communities suffer from severely limited levels of intimacy because of a pervasive passive aggression, a niceness which covers the feelings of resentment and anger with each other.

Anger exists in us as a servant of our self-defense. This is true, of course, at the physical level, but it is also true at the spiritual level of our personality. There is in us a built in reaction and resistance to any aggression directed toward what is most vulnerable and precious in us, the unique image of God in our soul that is never to be violated or aggressed upon. When conformity is needed or desired, for example in the military or in some previous modes of formation for religious life, the training is an attempt to break down what is most unique and singular in the person. When persons want to manipulate or control, either consciously or unconsciously, another’s life in service of their own needs and projects, they will inevitably aggress upon that which is different and unique in the other’s deeper truth. To be subjected to these or any forms of such aggression, blatant or subtle, will evoke anger in us.

So, in the gospel, Jesus teaches that even the most precious of relationships must be relativized in light of the call which the life of each of us truly is. No one or nothing is to come between ourselves and the God who “knows us, understands us, and loves us,” and who creates our lives as a unique call for the world. Even when others are not putting us to death, they may at times, wittingly or unwittingly, be a threat to our true life and call.

Of course, the judgment of a situation, which is what our emotions are, may not always be perfectly accurate. We may well often get angry at a perceived threat or slight, which is really nothing of the sort. We may be angry because we feel ourselves to be right and the other wrong, when the truth may be someplace in between. Because this is more often than not the case, we must learn to bear with our anger so that it can teach us its lessons. As Soren Kierkegaard says, we must learn to suffer the “purgatory” of our anger that it may purify our sense of what is the right.

One way we can do this in the realm of relationships is to, even in the midst of our anger, attempt to pass over to the anger of the other. We can try to empathize with the other’s anger, even as we struggle to understand our own. At least at times, we can engage, if the other is willing, in an encounter of mutual empathy. This is not about convincing the other of our sense of the truth. It is rather to appreciate the vulnerability of the other that has given rise to her or his anger. The purgation and purgatory of anger requires both the detachment of quiet being with and reflecting on our own anger as well as involvement, that is speaking and encounter with the other. Often this is not possible until the height of our rage has somewhat passed and we have to a degree quieted. But if we can, with both adequate gentleness and firmness as well as docility and humility, truly listen to ourselves and the other, we may find the formative potential of anger for us. Through the experience we can come to a clearer and a fuller experience of “the truth,” an awareness of what was true and what was not in our reaction, and a willingness to receive new form in our lives, personally and together, as a result.

As the two great commandments remind us, there is is order to be followed in our lives of love. We are first to love God, which also means to be faithful to the unique life and call to which God has called us. Our love of others deepens in truth and grows in communion to the degree that it is in accord with our first love. The best of friends are those who serve the unique life and call of each other. Being human, there will always be times when there are mistakes and failings in this love. Inevitably each of us, at times, will want the other to be exclusively for us over all else, to serve us rather than God, to conform to our truth rather than their own. At such times, friends will become angry with each other. Perhaps one of the greatest tests of friendship is a willingness to suffer the purgatory of anger with each other, to have the faith, hope, and love that trusts that continuing to commit to a love that is in service to each other’s love of God, they will through this purgatory purify and deepen their love for each other.

 

The secret in Job, the vital power, the nerve, the idea, is that in spite of everything Job is in the right . . . by his tenacity of purpose and by his power he demonstrated his authority, his well warranted authority . . . He buoyantly maintains his conviction . . . The greatness of Job consists in the fact that the passion for freedom within him is not stifled or tranquilized . . . the dispute with [his friends] is a purgatory in which the thought that he is nevertheless right becomes purified. (Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition: An Essay in Experimental Psychology, pp. 112-3)

This is a laborious process of purification of all that is not authentic in anger. At the end of the process, we gain access to that kernel of truth that remains once the anger has subsided. We will thus burn with anger for as long as is necessary to exhaust all the caricatures and death-dealing “solutions” that anger engenders when it erupts. It is something like a fever, and it is often a burning in both the literal and figurative sense. But in the Bible, paradoxically, it is God who at one and the same time ignites and seeks to extinguish the fire. Or rather, we could say that God behaves like someone who puts a match to the powder keg because he alone sees that the situation must explode, that anger has to burn off the dross in order to liberate that part of the human being that has resisted and will continue to resist all aggression — his or her incorruptible identity as son or daughter and heir of the God of Justice.

Lytta Bassett, Holy Anger: Jacob, Job, Jesus, p. 79

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