(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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With my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, perhaps some of you have heard of the Anger Universal Church of America. It’s a place that celebrates rage and fury. Each Sunday, it practices rites of bashing of the heads and the Holy Sacrifice of Community. It’s mission is to serve its own agenda and NOT yours. They hold a monthly blessing of the guns. A statue of Sarah Palin shooting a rifle is above the altar – with the church motto underneath: “We worship the rogue in everyone.” Insults are traded instead of prayers. Church patron saints are Mel Gibson and Lorena Bobbitt and a frequent hymn they sing is Merle Haggards “The Fightn’ Side of Me”.
If that sounds like a perfect church for you, then perhaps you’re in the wrong place this morning! My topic today is the opposite of what might be celebrated at that fictitious church. Sadly, too many people attend churches that teach gentleness and self-control but, in their everyday lives, such folks act as if they attend the Anger Universal Church. We’ll consider today the second of my three uncommon New Year’s resolutions I’ve chosen for our January message series: “lengthening our anger fuses.”
Mark Twain, whom many of you know I like to quote a lot, he once said that if one is angry, he or she should count to four. If one is very, very angry, one should just swear! Such a witty statement seems to comically support the popular notion that “mad is bad.” In many churches and among a lot of well meaning people, anger is seen as an emotion we must work to eliminate. That’s an impossible task. Anger is a common human feeling and one that, from an evolutionary standpoint, has served us well. Angry feelings have allowed our species to survive because the emotion stirs us to defend ourselves. It is a physiological fact that the emotion of anger releases a flood of adrenaline into our bloodstreams initiating the well known “fight or flight” response. But like many other human emotions, our call is find a way to control angry feelings and to channel them so that they do not control us. To feel angry for a moment, is not bad. It is how we respond to that feeling that can be bad. Indeed, the title of this message is on lengthening our anger fuse such that we find ways to control angry feelings and appropriately express them before they ignite into something destructive – to ourselves and to others.
Almost all of us struggle with how we respond to angry feelings. We can either explode in fury at a person or a situation, we can engage in more subtle and hidden forms of anger expression, or we can learn to control it and express it in ways that create positive solutions. While we all know explosive varieties of anger, the passive aggressive kind is harder to identify. Usually, a passive aggressive pulls away and hides their anger while still pouting, demanding their rights, using sarcastic humor and quietly sabotaging a solution.
Ultimately, inappropriate expressions of anger are selfish acts. Our egos, our sense of self and our beliefs about how the world should operate have been violated and we seek vengeance! So, we explode or we passive aggressively retreat. But, too often we fail to deal with what initiated our feelings in the first place. We don’t calmly verbalize our feelings, we don’t seek a resolution of the problem, we don’t accept something we can’t control, and we don’t forgive and move on. Bitterness and resentment pollute our thoughts and actions. As the Buddha pointed out, “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; but you are the one who gets burned.”
Just as our bodies respond to feelings of anger by helpfully pumping adrenaline into our bloodstreams and prompting us to act, our bodies also respond in other ways, most of which are profoundly harmful to us the longer we stay bitter, frustrated and enraged. Adrenaline causes our hearts to beat faster, thereby raising our blood pressure. It tells our liver to shut down causing massive amounts of cholesterol to be dumped into our blood instead of being processed and eliminated as waste. Researchers at the Ohio State University showed that angry feelings also cause the release of an enzyme called homocysteine which narrows blood vessels. It’s an evolutionary response to pool blood in our core and thus protect us in any physical fight. People who are chronically angry, resentful or bitter, however, suffer increased heart disease and risk of stroke as a result of this enzyme. Those who are passive aggressive and hold onto their anger for long periods of time, they experience even higher and more prolonged levels of the enzyme. From a psychological and physiological standpoint, uncontrolled angry feelings – whether of the exploding variety or of the passive aggressive kind – both do significant harm. Uncontrolled anger is an acid that burns all who are touched by it.
As with most life issues we face, I believe there is a spiritual response to feeling anger. Intuitively, we know there are universal truths of goodness and decency to which we are called to practice. Indeed, spirituality is about searching for ways to live more peacefully, cooperatively and lovingly. As I often note when we discuss matters of self-growth, we cannot hope to heal a broken and hurting world unless we also heal our broken and hurting selves. A spiritual effort to alleviate hate and injustice in the world must begin with a spiritual journey to heal the self – one’s mind, soul, heart and inner being. How can we hope to eliminate warfare, bigotry and hatred – all expressions of anger of one sort or another – if we cannot learn to better control anger within ourselves? As we often say, we must BE the change we want to see.
For myself, I don’t usually vent my anger with great outbursts of rage. As a conflict avoider, I hate violent, bitter or vicious expressions. Because I saw too much of that in my youth, my tendency is to retreat and suppress anger or conflict. That may be one reason why it took so long for me to come out as a gay man – I avoided confronting the truth in myself and the resulting conflict with all that I had been taught.
But by suppressing angry feelings, I do not eliminate them or resolve them. They still linger and they burn a hole in me. I can express those inner feelings in passive aggressive ways by withholding kindness or being more distant. Over the years, I have forced myself to be more open about how I feel and what I think. When conflicts do arise or when I do feel angry emotions, I am learning to engage in calm discussion and to find solutions versus avoiding conflict and thus feeling bitter. I am not even close to being cured of this issue, but I am growing.
The opposite of my approach of suppressing anger is to loudly and violently burst into rage and use physical or verbal violence. We see that too often today with shootings, war, hate filled speech, name calling, bullying and enraged tirades. Such visible manifestations of anger do great harm both physically and psychologically – to the victim and the perpetrator. An end to violence in our time requires a conscious effort to control and appropriately express any type of uncontrolled or inappropriate anger.
The Greek philosopher Horace said that an outburst of anger is momentary madness. And, when we see or experience such anger, we know that Horace was right. Angry people can act in ways that are irrational and totally contrary to their values. Almost all experts and spiritual commentators, however, assert that we can learn to control our angry feelings. The prophet Muhammad said that, “The strong is not the one who overcomes people by use of his strength, rather he is the one who controls himself while in anger.”
To that end, experts propose that the first and most important way to control our anger is to claim it, acknowledge it and identify it. Since feelings of anger are natural and a part of a survival instinct, to deny we are angry is to lie to ourselves and to others. When we feel angry, we should admit it and then identify what has really upset us. Too often we can feel anger at a person or event for no reason. Instead, we might really be upset about something else. We must learn to be honest with and about our feelings.
The second step we should take, after admitting we feel angry, is to simply pause. In almost all instances of feeling anger – ones where we are not threatened with immediate physical harm – we should make a conscious decision to overcome the instant impulse to fight or run away. Instead, experts suggest several practices when we feel anger. One is to engage in deep breathing – inhaling to the count of four and exhaling in the same way and to do this for as long as it takes to feel calm again. Such deep breathing oxygenates our brains to help us think more clearly and it immediately helps to slow down our heart rates. That, in turn, slows the distribution of adrenaline throughout our bodies and physically helps us counteract the fight or flight impulses caused by that hormone. Other experts say we should close our eyes to help refocus our minds. Still others say we should move into sunlight either by going outdoors or moving to a window. Sunlight affects how we think and literally brightens dark outlooks. With prolonged feelings of anger, some experts encourage exercise as a way to release pleasure causing endorphin hormones. And, still others, suggest finding humor in a situation. We might see the silliness in getting angry at something we can’t control – like shaking our fist at traffic – or the ridiculousness of an insult thrown our way. The ability to laugh at oneself or find humor in the middle of any conflict is a perfect cure. We so often take ourselves too seriously and feel insulted when we should simply laugh or let comments pass.
Whatever we do, this crucial second step is to purposefully pause and stop any impulsive action or speech. Importantly, we should tell the person at whom we are angry that we are not ignoring them but taking time to reflect and cool down. That admission may help the other person do the same.
In our digital age of instant and impersonal communication via e-mail, text messages and facebook, it is even more important to stop and pause when we feel angry. Far too many e-mails and text messages are sent out in anger, often making accusations and using speech that is not only hateful but incorrect. One should resolve never to send out an e-mail or other instant digital communication in any conflict, disagreement or anger situation without first saving it, waiting on it and then re-reading it a day or two later.
Once we sense our anger is under control – that we don’t feel impulses of rage – we can begin to deal with the feelings. Spiritual advisers encourage people, as a next step, to tap into their inner values of kindness, mercy and forgiveness. This must be a conscious decision. It won’t be easy. If we focus on being graceful and kind to the other, angry feelings will dissipate. Acting with grace means understanding why the person acted as they did, feeling compassion and love for the person and then simply extending mercy by offering forgiveness. As I said, this must be an intentional effort on our part – at least while we are trying to change. In time, turning anger into mercy will become increasingly natural.
The fourth step in controlling our feelings of anger or bitterness is to think about, and then seek, solutions to the issue. This involves calmly communicating to the other person, if possible, why we feel angry. One should avoid loud and accusatory words while, instead, making calm statements of fact – saying, for example, “When you forgot my birthday, I felt ignored and angry.” With such a simple admission, people can move toward a solution and find ways to prevent future conflict. Ultimately, as we all know, the spirituality we all seek is to live in peace. Do we pursue vengeance and thus an increase in anger or do we seek peace – a way to move beyond our hurt? Are we part of the problem of anger in our world or part of the solution?
Last but not least, we can help reduce future feelings of anger by recognizing their triggers in us. By admitting to our anger triggers, we can better plan control strategies for the future. And, by knowing our anger triggers we can also explore the underlying causes of them. Are there issues of self-confidence or self-esteem involved in my anger? If so, how can I work to feel better about myself? If being angry at a lack of control over people or situations causes me to feel anger, what thoughts help me feel better? Might I focus on areas of life I can control – and simply accept the rest? Or, might I seek strategies to solve the problem and thus reassert control? If traffic makes me feel out of control and angry, perhaps I can drive at different times or use a different driving route or listen to soothing music or practice deep breathing. Those who are impotent, they rage and fume at the world. Those who are powerful, they work toward a solution.
One of Jesus’ primary concerns was the hypocrisy he saw in so-called moral and religious persons. Addressing that concern, he spoke against appearing outwardly good while being inwardly flawed. People can be like whitewashed tombs, he said. They can appear clean and bright on the outside but be dirty and full of death inside. To those who piously speak against adultery, he said that lusting in one’s heart and mind is virtually the same thing as actually being unfaithful. Regarding perfectly valid opinions against murder and violence, he pointed out that people symbolically murder others with their inner anger even as they appear outwardly pleasant and nice. That can hold true for me and perhaps some of you. Outwardly, we can appear kind but inwardly we can seethe with bitter thoughts. We act on those thoughts by withholding affection, kindness and resolution of a problem. Some of us don’t hide our anger but verbally abuse others as a result of angry feelings. Based on Jesus’ ethics, however, if we hold onto or express uncontrolled and unresolved anger, we are no better than the violent thugs we all condemn. We have symbolically committed murder.
But such anger and violence toward others is exactly what all of us oppose. We sing hymns yearning for peace. We pray against hate. I sign most of my e-mails and letters extending peace. If we actively seek peace in our world, if we speak against violence, rape, intolerance and hate, if we voice protest against war, if we decry horrible mass shootings, then we must also be true to those ideals with our hearts, minds, words and actions. We must seek to control the anger that poisons our souls.
In the year ahead, I encourage us to consider the uncommon New Year’s resolution to lengthen our anger fuses by learning and adopting ways to control it. Let us find solutions to issues that divide us and then let us open our hearts to show mercy and forgiveness to any and all who have angered us. If there is anyone in our lives right now with whom we hold active or suppressed anger, we must let it go. Let us undertake in the weeks ahead to do so. We must search out that person and seek resolution of our issue with him or her. If they do not respond, we have done our part. If they do, we have helped build peace in our time. Whatever we do, we must forgive, let go and move on to renewed love. Holding onto anger and expressing it in hateful or passive aggressive ways helps to destroy the world. Let us, instead, build a better world by resolving to build better, more peaceful and less angry selves.
And, indeed, I wish us all much peace and joy…