Abigail and I were recently corresponding about the subject of anger. I don’t know whether it’s my background as a spoiled only child or my Irish genes or my naturally selfish disposition, but I think that the majority of my day-to-day sins involve getting disproportionately angry and frustrated when things don’t go my way.
For example: the other day I was in a desperate hurry to get out of the house, my two toddlers were fussy, the baby was crying, and I needed to print something before I could leave. I hit “Print” on the document, ready to snatch the paper as soon as it fell into the tray, and…nothing. I waited. Nothing. Not only would the printer not print, but there wasn’t even an error message so that I could diagnose the problem. I was furious. I eventually gave up and stormed around the house, shutting the kitchen cabinets extra hard, slamming my purse onto the kitchen counter, and indulging in other childish behaviors. I’m sure I made my kids miserable with my grouchy temperament, and it certainly did nothing for my soul to fly around in such a state of disquiet and agitation.
Shortly after this incident I received Abigail’s email bringing up the topic of dealing with anger in daily life (which she also wrote about here). It was a wakeup call that this is an area of my life that I need to work on right now: having three kids ages three and under often puts me in situations where I feel out of control and things aren’t going my way, so it would be a great service to my family (and my soul) to learn to adapt a more serene disposition in the face of frustrating events.
I thought I recalled St. Francis de Sales saying something about this in his amazing Introduction to the Devout Life, so I got my copy off the bookshelf to review. I opened it to a random page and my eyes immediately fell on a paragraph discussing the control of anger. (Dear God: point taken.) The great spiritual director writes:
It is better to attempt to find a way to live without anger than to pretend to make a moderate, discreet use of it. When we find ourselves surprised into anger through our own imperfections and frailty, it is better to drive it away quickly than to start a discussion with it. If we give it ever so little time, it will become mistress of the place, like the serpent that easily draws in his body where it can once get in its head.
When I first read this it struck me as impossible. I thought back to the printer incident, muttering something along the lines of, “How am I supposed to not be angry when my printer won’t print and WON’T EVEN GIVE ME A FREAKING ERROR MESSAGE?!?!” Surely my anger in this incident was completely justified, even if my actions were out of line. So it once again seemed like St. Francis was speaking directly to me when he wrote:
[Anger] is nourished by a thousand false pretexts; there never was an angry man who thought his anger was unjust.
Hmm. So it sounds like step one is to stop justifying my feelings, to silence that voice in my head that assures me that anyone would feel angry in such a frustrating situation and that my feelings are completely justified. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but I wouldn’t be able to properly discern the truth in the heat of the moment anyway, so I might as well banish that line of thinking altogether.
Next, St. Francis recommends that we work on meekness as a counter-balance to tendencies toward anger:
[W]hen we find that we have been aroused to anger we must call for God’s help like the apostles when they were tossed about by the wind and storm waters…Prayers directed against present and pressing anger must always be said calmly and peaceably and not violently. [...]
Correct the fault right away by an act of meekness toward the person you were angry with. It is a sovereign remedy against lying to contradict the untruth on the spot as soon as we see we have told one. So also we must repair our anger instantly by a contrary act of meekness. [...]
[W]hen your mind is tranquil and without any cause for anger, build up a stock of meekness and mildness. Speak all your words and do all your actions, whether little or great, in the mildest way you can.
He then exhorts us to seek a calm state of mind, even when (perhaps especially when) we find ourselves in a state of anger:
[A]t the first attack you must immediately muster your forces, not violently and tumultuously but mildly yet seriously. Among the crowds in certain senate chambers and parliaments we see ushers crying, “Quiet there!” thus making more noise than those they want to silence. So too it often happens that by trying violently to restrain our anger, we stir up more trouble within our heart than the wrath excited before. [...]
When overcome by anger [many people] become angry at being angry, disturbed at being disturbed, and vexed at being vexed. By such means they keep their hearts drenched and steeped in passions. [...]
We must be sorry for our faults, but in a calm, settled, firm way.
In the short time that I’ve been trying to apply St. Francis’ ideas to my own behavior, I think it is actually his wisdom from the chapter on temptation has been of the most help to me. He writes of dealing with any kind of temptation, whether it’s to anger or lust or gluttony or anything else:
Temptation to a certain sin, to any sin whatsoever, might last throughout our whole life, yet it can never make us displeasing to God’s Majesty provided we do not take pleasure in it and give consent to it. The reason is that when we are tempted we are not active but passive and inasmuch as we do not take pleasure in it we cannot incur any guilt. [...]
Never think of yourself as overcome as long as [temptations] are displeasing to you, keeping clearly in mind the difference between feeling temptation and consenting to it…Our soul does not always have the power not to feel the temptation but it can always refuse to consent to it. Therefore, no matter how long a temptation lasts it cannot harm us so long as it displeases us.
With Thanksgiving coming up and lots of friends and family around, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to feel frustrated. Maybe this one person didn’t follow my directions about what food to give the toddlers, my children were misbehaving, and someone gave me some unsolicited parenting advice. What would typically happen in these types of situations is that as soon as I felt upset, I’d feel like I’d lost. “Well, there I go again, getting upset about little things!” I’d think in defeat, huffing around and making sure everyone knew of my displeasure.
Yet this advice makes me realize that, when those familiar emotions of frustration or anger or exasperation arise, I haven’t lost yet. As long as I don’t indulge in them — walking around with an inner dialogue about how annoying it all is, shutting doors and cabinets extra hard, wallowing in a “woe is me” mentality — I have won. Even if the feeling is still there, if I reject it with calm displeasure and refuse to allow it to impact my thoughts or actions, good has won out.
I thought I’d share this since it’s sometimes interest to hear what others struggle with and what is helpful to them in overcoming it. Also, since big family holiday gatherings like Thanksgiving are sometimes stressful, I thought that these excerpts from St. Francis de Sales might be helpful to some people this week.