Thursday, June 25, 2015

Don't Hate on Anger

"School thy feelings, O my brother; Train thy warm, impulsive soul. Do not its emotions smother, But let wisdom’s voice control."
-Hymn number 336 

       If we were asked, chances are most of us would agree that anger is bad. We would say that most of the time anger is inappropriate, ineffective, and offensive. This is the myth that surrounds that most misunderstood of human emotions. Anger is not inherently good, but it's not inherently bad, either. As Latter-day Saints, we often mis-categorize anger and try to avoid this useful emotion when it could be helping us accomplish righteous goals.

       Lest you think I'm advocating rage as a healthy lifestyle choice, let me draw a distinction. Anger, the feeling, can be useful. Anger, the temperament, is not. Being an angry person doesn't make for a happy life. It will turn others off to you and can make you do things you later regret. But you can get angry without having an angry personality. The feeling of anger is a tool, one which God Himself uses from time to time. So it is important for us to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy anger, and to use anger in a way that puts us in control and helps us accomplish our goals. Some might think it's easier to simply avoid anger altogether so as to avoid sin. Others might be fine with getting angry whenever they feel like it because they don't want to avoid what could be a useful emotion. Neither approach is helpful. It's very important to distinguish between righteous and unrighteous anger. 

       Unrighteous anger is sinful. In Proverbs 29:22 we read, "An angry man stirreth up strife, and a furious man aboundeth in transgression." Those who don't control their anger are likely to hurt others and do things they regret. Anger can also take a toll on your health. According to Dr. Redford Williams of Duke University, chronic anger can cause heart damage. Anger raises blood pressure and can damage the lining of arteries, making you more susceptible to heart attacks, heart disease, and even diabetes.1 So if you want to be healthy, don't make anger a habit. When something is really not worth stewing over, let it go. It will be better in the long term if you do.

       But anger definitely has its place. It's a relatively small place, but it does exist. Some wrongs need to be righted and sometimes it would be more inappropriate to let things go than to get angry. Anger motivates you to assert yourself and draw a line with those who don't have your best interests in mind. It protects you. One study highlighted by the Wall Street Journal shows that genuine anger can help you appear tough to those with whom you negotiate, enabling you to get a better deal from those who may not be inclined to treat you fairly.2 

       Anger can also signal loved ones that a certain action or habit is hurtful and needs to be taken seriously. Another study shows that those in intimate relationships who hide their anger from their partner are likely to let those negative emotions build up beneath the surface, creating a conflict later that is much worse than it would have been if their anger had been expressed earlier.3

       Anger also plays a role in motivating people to change. As Dr. Carol Tavris points out, the success of the women's suffrage and civil rights movements depended largely on the anger expressed by members of society.4 Their indignation motivated them to act, and it caused others to respond. 

       If anger is not expressed clearly and openly, then another, nastier thing often takes its place: passive aggression. When expressing anger is not socially acceptable, or when a person feels more comfortable keeping their anger bottled up, then passive aggression becomes a favorable alternative to outright anger.5 When you're passive aggressive, you take out your anger on others behind a facade of innocence. You withdraw, manipulate others, and thwart their plans whilst making it appear as if you mean nothing at all by your hurtful actions. This approach is dishonest, and in the long-term it does more harm than good for those involved. It is always better to either let anger out, or let it go.

       How then do you know the difference between righteous and unrighteous anger? To answer this, we'll turn to the scriptures. The scriptures are full of examples of both healthy and unhealthy anger, and a few stories reveal helpful principles to keep in mind when dealing with anger. 

       Take this verse from 1 Nephi. At this point Nephi is recounting the time when his wicked brothers had him bound on the ship while a storm raged around them. It says, "And I, Nephi, began to fear exceedingly lest the Lord should be angry with us, and smite us because of our iniquity, that we should be swallowed up in the depths of the sea; wherefore, I, Nephi, began to speak to them with much soberness; but behold they were angry with me, saying: We will not that our younger brother shall be a ruler over us" (1 Nephi 18:10). 

       Having an intimate acquaintance with the Lord and His ways, Nephi knew God sometimes demonstrated anger to correct the behavior of His children. God had good reason to be angry, and once Nephi was released and the people on the ship repented, God's anger ceased. Contrast that with the anger of Laman and Lemuel. Their anger came from pride. They wanted to gratify their egos and prove a point. God's anger ceased once things were set right. Laman and Lemuel's anger did not. They still carried their anger with them and they let it eventually divide their family in two. If we want to have godly anger, we must do as He did in this story. There must be good reason behind our anger, and once the problem is resolved, our anger should cease.

       Next we have Captain Moroni. We all remember that Captain Moroni wrote the Title of Liberty, but remember what happened right before that? Moroni heard about Amalickiah conspiring to be king, and about all the people supporting him in that effort. When Moroni heard this, "he was angry with Amalickiah. And it came to pass that he rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children—and he fastened it upon the end of a pole" (Alma 46:11-12). Compare that to the anger of Amalickiah. When Amalickiah heard that his armies had failed to conquer a major city, he was very angry because "he had not obtained his desire over the Nephites; he had not subjected them to the yoke of bondage" and so he cursed God "and also Moroni, swearing with an oath that he would drink his blood" (Alma 49:26-27). 

       These two were polar opposites. Captain Moroni controlled his anger. He used his anger to put himself to work trying to correct an unjust situation. Amalickiah didn't channel his anger into productive channels. Instead he made vain oaths and lashed out in aggression. He threw a tantrum and acted childish. If we want to use anger effectively, we have to make sure we control our anger instead of letting anger have control over us.

       Lastly, there's the example of our Savior. (You knew this one was coming, right?) When Jesus saw the moneychangers manipulating temple patrons for profit, He got very angry. In John 2 we read that Jesus made "a scourge of small cords" and "drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise" (John 2:15-16). 

       It would be very hard to argue this was not a display of anger - fury, in fact. Not only did He bring a whip with Him, but Jesus turned over tables and even poured their money on the ground. But He did not act on impulse. He was deliberate. He took time making that scourge of cords, time which would allow Him to stop and think about how He would address the problem. He also communicated the reasons for His anger clearly. Every merchant who had his table overturned knew exactly why Jesus was upset, because He told them. If we want to follow the Savior's example, we also need to avoid rushing into situations out of anger and instead use our anger to go about things methodically, expressing clearly the reasons for our being upset.

       When you feel something is unjust you will naturally feel angry. There is nothing wrong with this, but in order to use that anger to your advantage you need to channel it. Once your anger is controlled it becomes an asset.  Christ began healing people immediately afterwards, probably without much time to cool off (Matthew 21:14). Jesus was in control of His anger the whole time, but that didn't mean He couldn't express it. We can do the same in our lives. When we channel our anger into appropriate action and communicate clearly the reasons for our anger, we can solve problems. 

       The best lesson on anger comes from the Sermon on the Mount, wherein Jesus said, "whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (Matthew 5:22-24). In other words, we should not get angry without good reasons, but if we feel anger for a legitimate reason, we shouldn't bottle it up. We should go to the one with whom we're angry and try to work it out, expressing ourselves clearly. Then a controlled, purposeful display of anger can help us resolve our problems and we will still be in good standing with God. 

       Now, just because we use anger righteously doesn't mean the problem will necessarily go away. But if we truly have only righteous anger in our hearts, we will be able to let things go and forgive once we've done everything in our power to see that justice is done. After Jesus cleansed the temple (the second time) He immediately began blessing those in need around Him, even though His enemies continued trying to thwart His work (Matthew 21:12-16). Jesus knew He had done the right thing, and when it was over, it was over. That is how righteous anger works.

       So the next time you feel angry, don't beat yourself up. Anger can be a gift. When you use it properly, it can help solve problems and keep you safe. By using it to motivate ourselves and expressing it clearly to others, we can follow the example of Jesus and right those wrongs that need to be addressed sternly. Then we can be reconciled with our brethren and actually come closer to Christ. Anger is a tool. You can lose control and get burned or use it wisely to bring about good. It's always up to you. 

1. Whalen, Jeanne. "Angry Outbursts Really Do Hurt Your Health, Doctors Find." The Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2015, Health & Wellness sec. Accessed June 25, 2015.

2. Akst, Daniel. "In Negotiations, Anger Helps Unless It’s Fake." The Wall Street Journal, January 17, 2013, Ideas Market sec. Accessed June 25, 2015.

3. Baumeister, Roy F., Arlene Stillwell, and Sara R. Wotman. "Victim and Perpetrator Accounts of Interpersonal Conflict: Autobiographical Narratives about Anger." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1990, 994-1005.

4. DeAngelis, Tori. "When Anger's a plus." March 2003. Accessed June 26, 2015.

5. Whitson, Signe. "7 Reasons Why People Use Passive Aggressive Behavior." Psychology Today. March 16, 2014. Accessed June 26, 2015.

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