Unchecked anger fuels violence and disease

A woman prays during a nonviolent protest December 10, 2018 at the US-Mexico border in San Diego in solidarity with the caravan of Central American migrants trying to reach the United States. Over 300 people, including many from different religious faiths, staged a procession to the border fence. Thirty were arrested. (SNC photo by David Maung)

Jit is the second in a four-part series on emotions. This issue is about anger.

It was an ordinary day on a country road and I was a kid riding a bike with one of my cousins. We sped down the road, crunching gravel under our bike wheels and kicking up a cloud of dust behind us.

I can’t remember why – maybe she said something that hurt me or I somehow felt offended – but as I was pedaling I felt my throat tighten and a vibration at the back of my throat. I screamed. I wanted to hurt her, hurt her.

The power of anger I felt alarmed me. I was troubled. I didn’t know how to release the energy that seemed to be fried and trapped inside of me.

Later, during the CCD in my parish, I would learn about the seven deadly sins, sinful attitudes that can lead to other sinful behaviors: laziness, pride, envy, gluttony, lust, greed and, yes, anger.

Thinking back to how I felt on the bike ride with my cousin, I quickly realized that if you’re not careful, anger can hurt. I realized then, as I know now, that if anger is not expressed in healthy ways, it can damage one’s relationship with God, family and friends.

Even as a child, I knew enough of world history to see how anger can become deadly: lead to outrage, violence and war. In the early chapters of the Bible, the story of Cain killing Abel makes it clear that anger is dangerous and can be deadly.

Throughout the scriptures we are told to be slow to anger. As humans, we have struggled with this powerful emotion since the dawn of time. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that “whoever becomes angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:22).

Church tradition teaches that “if anger reaches the point of a deliberate desire to kill or seriously injure a neighbor, it is gravely against charity; it is a mortal sin”, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says (no. 2302).

So is the answer to avoid anger altogether?

No, there is a place for righteous anger. We know that Jesus expressed his fury when the Temple was turned into a marketplace (Mt 21:12-13) instead of a place of prayer. Jesus Is Without Sin: What Does His Behavior in the Temple Tell Us About Anger?

First of all, it is not a sin to feel angry. Like other emotions, anger is neither good nor bad: all emotions are neutral. In fact, it is healthy and human to be in touch with our feelings such as anger; it is ideal to know and understand why and how we each feel anger in our body and to recognize its effects on us.

Self-knowledge and awareness are spiritual graces that allow us to make wholesome choices that help us grow in holiness. Being aware of how we feel emotions – having somatic intelligence – is one of the pathways to this holiness. Many psalms show us this.

God designed our bodies to feel emotions, including anger, so that our brains and bodies pick up signals of threats to our safety or the well-being of others. When we are alerted to an injustice, adrenaline pumps through our bodies, tightening our muscles and raising our heart rate and blood pressure.

For some of us, anger feels like a raw burn in the throat or chest, like I felt as a kid when I rode a bike with my cousin. For others, anger manifests itself in the body as clenched fists, tighter muscles, and shallow breathing.

Expressing our emotions instead of locking them away is also part of God’s design. We know that suppressing our emotions can cause disease. Medical research reveals that if anger is suppressed, physical pain worsens. According to the Mayo Clinic, unexpressed anger can lead to high blood pressure, ulcers, heart disease, and strokes. From a health point of view, as well as a spiritual point of view, it is better to express anger.

As Catholics, we express our anger in a way that does not harm others but works for the common good. We can protest injustice, contact our representatives in government, demand justice and freedom for those whose needs are ignored. We can say a mighty “No!” to cultural messages that divert our attention from anything that does not protect the sanctity of all life.

In our feelings and behaviors, we are called to imitate Jesus Christ. When Jesus expressed his anger in the Temple, he showed us how anger can be expressed in healthy and holy ways. If we are loving and strategic, like Jesus, we can disrupt the status quo and invite people and systems to transform, to better reflect God’s charity and justice.

The Catholic tradition of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience is rooted in this truth: creatively and lovingly channeled anger defies oppression. If expressed well, anger can inspire reflection and conversion. Nurtured and well-expressed anger can be a powerful force for building the greater good.

And we can know that not only does God understand our strong feelings, but He created us in His likeness, including giving us a rich palette of emotions to express.

(Sister Julia Walsh is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration who is part of The Fireplace community in Chicago. She is a spiritual director and vocations minister. She blogs and podcasts at MessyJesusBusiness.com.)

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