“I can’t get behind that.” I am sure that if I asked any of you to make a list of things you can’t get behind, you could. We could all write our own versions of this song. We could go through life making a copious list of things that annoy us, that irritate us, that get us steamed, that cause us to clench our fists, or our jaw, or to mutter under our breath, or out loud.
Two recent news stories caught my eye. They both involve people getting angry about their neighbors’ improvised Holiday decorations. In Pagosa Springs, Colorado a home-owners association made national news when it threatened to fine a resident for displaying a Christmas wreath fashioned into a peace sign. The complainants accused the wreath of being a pagan symbol – well, technically-speaking, all wreaths are pagan symbols. They also alleged that the wreath was a political statement, and disrespectful of our servicemen and –women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But this wasn’t the only story of Holiday decoration controversy this year. In another part of the country – I forget which although I seem to think it might have been Arizona in which case I always chuckle when I think of Holiday lights in Arizona – amidst the holiday decorations in his sub-division a man fashioned a light to project – a la Batman – an anti- George Bush image on the side of his house. Apparently, some of his neighbors responded by threatening to kill him and others threatened to burn his house down.
Two comments: First of all, I have noticed that things like this tend to get amplified in December. Sunlight is less. The weather has gotten chilly and inconvenient. Vitamin D deficiency. And then, of course, there are the psycho-social effects of this season. Family pressures, perhaps. Obligations imposed on us: decorate this, attend that, cook for them, buy things for them – and do it all with a big cheerful Holiday smile. I hope it is not too cliché to say that The Holiday Season is, for many people, the time of the year when we feel like we’re not actually living our lives but are being forced to live up to others’ expectations, and that the world around us and the people around us are just imposing themselves on us constantly. I do want to qualify this though, because I do realize that some of you don’t feel this way at all. But, if anger is related to feeling like we are being encroached upon by hostile force, if anger is related to not feeling like we are in control, anger during the Holidays is absolutely predictable.
When I heard those news-stories about the peace wreath, I’ll tell you what my response was. “Give me a break,” I thought. People will get mad at the smallest things! Where is the anger, the outrage, at the things that really matter? Where is the anger about poverty? About global-climate change? About oppression? You’re getting angry about Holiday decorations. Holiday decorations? Holiday decorations? Give me a break! I can’t get behind that.
Last Spring I quoted a minister named Tony Campolo whose famous trick is to use an expletive in a sermon and then ask the congregation how they can get offended at his language but not be offended at, say, the fact that children are malnourished or the environment is being poisoned. The point I was trying to make when I mentioned Campolo’s example is that so often our anger is misdirected, misplaced. If only we were angry at the things that actually, really, and truly deserved our anger.
But, now it occurs to me, that this might not be the best strategy. Why do I think this? Well, let me just start by saying that I am sure that you all know that I am the perfect judge of what people should get angry about and what people shouldn’t get angry about, because my anger is based not on my own subjective experience but on objective fact. Wait a second. You mean to say I am not a perfect judge? You mean to say we all blow things out of proportion and spend time fixated and furious about things that might not matter that much? It is not natural for any of us to question the legitimacy of our own anger. We tend to believe that our anger is justified. Anger proves itself, legitimates itself.
In the reading from Pema Chodron we learned that it is human for us to direct our anger towards the things we identify as getting in the way of our happiness. It is only human to focus on those things in our experience that cause us to feel pain and to attempt to change, to reshape, to oppose, or to destroy those things. Or, as Pema Chodron says, we can cover our feet with leather, we can change ourselves, which does not mean we won’t feel pain although our suffering will be lessened.
Some critics of Buddhism say that this is too self-focused, that this “control-how-you-react” stuff just gives the world permission to walk all over you. I sometimes fall into thinking the same thing whenever I explore Buddhism. But then I stop and take a moment and count to ten and realize that things tend to go better for me and others when I can interact with others with compassion rather than anger or hostility.
About a year ago, my colleague across town Jim Eller preached a sermon on anger. In it he told this wonderful Sufi story:
The story involves a Sufi Holy-man named Nasruddin who knows a philosopher in the village who delights in arguing with him. The philosopher makes an appointment to go quarrel over philosophy with Nasruddin, but the absent-minded mystic forgets the appointment he had agreed to and goes off to play cards in the park. The philosopher arrives at the appointed hour only to find Nasruddin gone. He paces, swearing and cursing. As the minutes and hours pass the philosopher becomes increasingly agitated. Finally, he writes, “Stupid Oaf” on Nasruddin’s door and storms home. When Nasruddin returns, he sees his defaced door and realizes he had forgotten the appointment. Nasruddin sets off to the philosopher’s home. When he meets the philosopher he says, “My dear friend. I had completely forgotten our appointment until I returned home and found you had written your name on the door.”
The topic this morning did elicit interest from several members of the church. D. send me a small packet containing notes on a presentation he delivered on anger. If I can condense what D. says into a sentence or two, it is that while raging demonstrations of anger are bad, we often are conditioned to stuff or suppress or ignore our own anger. This tends to produce negative consequences as well. D. is interested in how it might be possible to express or channel anger positively. (Although I far from an expert in psychology, I might mention that the question of whether it is better to channel and redirect anger or resist it is a question that both psychology and religion have asked.)
A Bill Tammeus column from 1990 that D. included in his notes he sent to me talks about religious figures who approve of anger. Tammeus references Jesus’ altercation with the money changers in the temple, calling this display of anger “authentic and useful.” Before you think about going out and emulating Jesus, I want to remind you that it didn’t work out so well for him – and you’re not Jesus after all. Tammeus also quotes Aristotle’s teaching that if you get angry, it should be, quote, “with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way.” It’s that easy is it?
I also received a number of helpful resources from P. who shared with me a wonderful video featuring Pema Chodron as well as a book on anger control by a pair of cognitive psychologists. One of the learnings from this book is that it describes how anger is often expressed in terms of blaming, catastrophizing, global labeling, misattributions, overgeneralization, and demanding and commanding.
With “Blaming” you give up the power to change the situation. Assigning blame takes away your own responsibility and agency.
With “catastrophizing”, you magnify the significance of events in order to justify your experience of anger. “It’s the end of the world.” “A complete disaster.”
Global labeling – calling somebody a jerk or worse – objectifies the other person and conflates them with their actions. “Well, he is just a jerk.”
Misattribution is when you pretend to read somebody else’s mind. “She was trying to make me look bad.” “He is out to get me.” We misattribute when we personalize or ascribe motivations to somebody’s actions.
Overgeneralizations predict the future. “That person always says inappropriate things.” “He never remembers.”
What all of these things have in common is that they tend to distort the actual facts of things. In so much as anger leads to distortions, it is incumbent upon us to take great caution with anger – to understand that if we value thinking clearly, anger can distort and cloud our vision and keep us from seeing with clarity.
So far, I’ve been mostly talking about anger from a personal perspective. Anger can cause us to experience ongoing suffering. It can lead us to act in unhealthy ways. It can cause us to become like the ugliness we see around us. It can cause us a distorted perception of the world around us. But anger also has a community component to it, a relational component. It effects not only our own personal soul, but the soul of our relationships and community.
Jesus once famously said, “Wherever two or three are gathered, there I am.” Or, to put it another way, and take total liberty with this passage, wherever two or three are gathered, there’s a chance of some tables being turned over. Like I said, I’m taking liberty with this passage, but I don’t think it is a wrong interpretation. When two or three gather, there can be anger, conflict, and tension. When two or three gather, there is humanity… and there can also be amazingly good stuff as well. So, how do we respond to anger in community?
Probably we should avoid blaming, catastrophizing, misattributing, overgeneralizing, and labeling. There is a need for speaking directly, but kindly. To speak the truth in love. And the “in love” part is not to be ignored. Jim Eller’s sermon also contained this wonderful quote: “It is a true act of friendship to be able to speak truthfully and critically to your friend about what they have done that have caused pain… but the moment you take even the slightest pleasure in that criticism, it is time to hold your tongue.”
For the children’s story this morning, I took out a hand mirror and invited all of the children to make the angriest faces they could. I then asked them what they thought about looking at their faces with their jaws clenched and eyes narrowed. The children agreed that they didn’t look their best while angry. Perhaps that is a lesson worth remembering in our hearts.