The great spiritual fathers of the Church have insight into every aspect of human psychology and spirituality. At the beginning of the life of the Church they were able to describe, categorise, and provide from their own experience a very detailed understanding of what goes on inside of us.
These are a few thoughts about anger, based on the teachings of some of the fathers. It is only a few reflections to begin with, and more will be published in future posts.
Anger is one of the eight principal faults which we experience. These eight faults, to which every weakness is related in one way or another, are gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, boasting and pride. These are all connected to each other and also tend to lead on from one another. We can easily imagine, even in our own experience, that if we indulge ourselves the this leads to an increased desire for things, and whe we have a desire for things we start to want more and more, and what others have, and when we cannot have what we want then this leads to anger.
This is what St James says in James 4:2,
You want something you do not have, so you kill. You want something but cannot get it, so you fight for it.
The fathers teach us that anger is most often caused by factors outside of ourselves, while some other faults are caused by things inside of ourselves. They also link anger and avarice, or covetousness. But anger, although caused by factors outside of us, takes root and grows within us, just as we experience. We become angry because of the actions, words and behaviour of other people, which irritate us and provoke anger within us.
Avarice, or covetousness, is considered by the fathers to be an expression of desiring more than we need, even things that we have no real need for at all to preserve our existence and health. We need some food, some water, some shelter, and almost everything else is what we want and not what we need. This becomes apparent when we think of anger and its causes.
There are three types of avarice or covetousness. There is that which makes us unwilling to let go of something we own or possess. There is that which makes us want to get back something we have given to someone else. And that there is that which makes us want something we have not owned or possessed. We shouldn’t imagine that this is just a matter of expensive things. If we are careful we can see this fault appearing in many ways every day.
If we are watching a TV programme, there is a sense that we own it, and we are often not willing to let go of it if someone comes in and changes the channel. This is not about what is fair. But when we feel a powerful emotion building it is because we have something, and we don’t want it being taken from us. If we are expecting to watch a TV programme the same thing can happen, because we have created an idea of what we want to do, and when the idea is taken away from us we also feel these same emotions building.
We wanted something or owned something, even the idea of something, and when it is taken from us, or when someone else has it, we often find that avarice or covetousness stirs inside us, even when it has nothing to do with gold and silver. It can be a matter of wanting a cold drink, and discovering that someone has taken the last can of coke from the fridge. It is not that we need a drink more than anything else. But the idea of having a drink has been snatched from us and we are filled with emotion because what we had wanted and expected is gone. And when we someone else drinking it, then the emotions can become uncontainable and become anger.
The fathers describe three types of anger. There is an anger which eats us up inside and causes all sorts of stress and illness. There is an anger which explodes all of a sudden and then is done. And there is an anger that lasts for a long time and becomes bitterness and hatred. We should seek to overcome all of these. There is a proper use of anger, which we will come to in due course. But all of these types of anger, rooted in desire and self-indulgence, are neither according to our true nature, nor are they ever helpful to us.
They are caused by us not being able to have what we want, or imagine, or plan. And all of the thoughts about what we want so much that we are willing to get angry about the littlest things come from avarice, which is fed by desires, which arise in self-indulgence and gluttony.
We can do a thought experiment. Imagine that you did not mind what food you were served, nor how much. Even imagine that if you were served food that would be fine, but if you were not served any food then that would be fine as well. Whatever you were served was something to be grateful for. If someone ate all the food on the table that would be fine. Imagine that you were grateful for food but did not want it. It was just something that you were fine with when it turned up. It would be very hard, impossible even, to become filled with avarice or anger if we had such an attitude and outlook. If someone took the last cake, we would not even notice. If the meal wasn’t what we had hoped for, we would not even notice.
We can do other thought experiments. What if we did not mind at all what service we performed in Church? What if it was the same to us whether we were asked to do something, or not asked at all? What if we had no idea in our mind already that we were going to do this or that, so that we could not feel any loss if we were not asked, or if someone else was given the service? It would be very hard to become covetous over a service that we did not imagine belonged to us, or should belong to us.
Or much more mundane. What if we did not mind what was on TV? What if we did not think that we owned the TV controller, or should control the TV controller? It would be very hard for us to become covetous, and then angry, if things did not turn out as we expected, or thought that we deserved, because we would not have let the thought that we owned anything, or should own anything, to take root and feed angry thoughts.
There are other aspects to anger, which we will consider in other posts. But much of our ordinary anger comes from this sense of us not having what we want, or losing what we think we have, or wanting back something which we think others have taken. This can be something which we build up as an image or idea in our head, so that we desire it and want it more than anything.
How do we overcome this fault? The fathers teach us that doing the opposite, making the opposite a definite choice, is the way to begin overcoming them. We overcome this type of anger and the covetousness which feeds it by deliberately not allowing ourselves to want something. Of course we cannot do this all at once and without also turning to God with as much prayer as possible. But we can consider one or two aspects of our ordinary daily life were we find ourselves becoming angry, irritated and provoked by others, because things do not turn out as we want or expect.
Do not allow yourself to have thoughts of being in control or ownership of whatever the things that make you angry. For these one or two things try not to demand in yourself that you be in charge but let things happen as they happen.
If we are reflective, we will will often realise that inside ourselves we are saying…. I wanted to… or I wanted… or I expected…and this often reveals the inner source of our anger. Not the only source. We will discuss that in another post. Nor is anger always bad. We will discuss that in another post. But if we feel ourselves saying these things or thinking these things, even over trivial matters, then it is a sign that covetousness, the desire for things and for things to be as we want, is behind our anger.
In these cases, we must say to ourselves, and learn to think by repeated practice with prayer, it does not matter, it is what it is, thanks to God! The words, “Thanks to God!”, save us from covetousness and the anger that springs from it. We must try it. We must examine our thoughts before and after we have felt angry. Our thoughts illuminate our attitudes and produce these disturbing feelings.
Try this today, for or two of the things that cause you to become heated and disturbed, and see whether learning to resist desire and covetousness can reduce and restrict the expression of anger in this way.
If this has been helpful, there are further thoughts about anger here.