How to be good and angry
I’m not generally in the habit of arguing with strangers on social media, but this was one of the few exceptions. This particular stranger was my friend’s brother, an embittered atheist taunting her in the comment section of a faith-oriented link she shared on her Facebook page. She was exhausted of him, and invited some of her friends to come to her aid.
Like so many who oppose organized religion—and the Catholic Church in particular—he mentioned the pedophile priest scandals as a significant cause for his hatred.
“I think you can tell I'm absolutely horrified and incensed by the sex crimes within the church,” He wrote. “I spit venom, because contempt is the proper response.”
He and I strongly disagreed on many points along the course of our intense, two-day conversation, but this was actually one point where we could find some common ground.
In today’s culture, we’re experiencing a plethora of seemingly incompatible movements, aren't we? For example, we value the importance of having good energy, and living a positive lifestyle. We’ve made terms like good vibes and happy thoughts part of our everyday social vernacular describing invisible gifts we send to each other through the air, like satellite signals from the heart. But at the same time, we’re also witnessing an overabundance of injustice, hatred, corruption and violence in our world. Between terrorism, random mass shootings, human trafficking, polar ice caps melting, and any number of issues regarding moral depravity, most of us are exposed to some form of intense negativity on a regular basis.
How do we even stand a chance at responding to these difficult realities in a positive way without living in a constant state of denial?
In a word, we can rely on at least one very natural, healthy response: Anger.
Once we strike our matches, will we use them to light candles and lamps, or will we use them to burn the village to the ground?
With wrath listed among the seven deadly sins, we rarely view anger in a positive light. But feeling angry, and being controlled by anger, are two very different situations.
According to Ian Butler, Clinician and Executive Director of Holy Family Counseling, all of our emotions are actually good, created by God, and wired into each person to serve a good end. “Since God is easily the most angry person in the Scriptures, [anger] can't all be just the capital sin,” Butler explains.
Butler is not the only one who sees the potential in being good and angry. Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington recently wrote, “Of itself, anger is just a passion, an energy that is aroused in us when we sense that something is wrong or that something is threatening us. This anger energizes us for action, mental and/or physical. The body becomes involved in this as adrenaline is released into our system.”
That makes sense then as to why St. Paul didn't tell the Ephesians not to get angry, but instead, he said to them, "In your anger, do not sin," (Eph. 4:26) The problem isn't that some things are genuinely upsetting; the problem is that we use these things as an excuse to lose our minds, and behave terribly.
Anger only becomes either positive or negative based on what we do with it. If we deal with it in an unhealthy way—like trying to suppress it, or allowing it to take over and control our actions—anger can wreak all kinds of havoc in every area of our lives. But if we learn how to wield it properly, anger can be a catalyst for good.
Butler says this process starts with learning to acknowledge our anger, understand it, and apply reason to it. By acknowledging it, we raise our self-awareness, and spare ourselves the pain of suppressing our natural feelings. By understanding it, we get to the root of why we’re responding so passionately—whether out of pain, fear or frustration. And by applying reason, we allow wisdom to either transform our anger, or give it a healthy, integrated place in our lives.
As it would turn out, that place has something to do with love. Mgsr. Pope explains that anger often comes from charity. “I speak of an anger rooted in love and a deep commitment to the truth, an anger that arises from seeing the harm caused by lies, deception, error, sin, and injustice,” he says.
Conversely, Butler explains that anger can move us toward charity. “Anger, maturely handled of course, should be a very beautiful expression of love which moves toward justice in particular.”
So our natural anger, governed by wisdom and love, should ignite justice within us, helping us to be—as Ghandi so famously recommended—the change we want to see in the world.
“Anger, maturely handled of course, should be a very beautiful expression of love which moves toward justice in particular.”
That’s why, when my friend’s brother claimed that contempt is the proper response to the sex crimes within the church, I didn’t have to formulate some kind of defense, nor was I stuck in a corner with nothing to say. My love for the Church, combined with my anger towards the abuses within, had already moved me to action. So my response to his claim came as effortlessly as the original hurt and frustration itself.
“It is,” I replied immediately. “I'm extremely angry about the crimes of these men in leadership, too. Especially since it is happening in my own [global] Church. I am livid! So we do not disagree on that point. We just respond to that anger differently. You spew venom from the outside. I write books and give to charity in efforts to affect the system from the inside.”
Anger is passion, and it will move us. The only question is—how? Once we strike our matches, will we use them to light candles and lamps, or will we use them to burn the village to the ground?
Aristotle said it well: "Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy."
I think the only reason it's not within everyone's power is that not everyone has the awareness to acknowledge, understand and apply reason to their anger. But that's fixable. Like he said, not easy! But fixable.
If we’re paying attention, we don’t have to look very far in this world to find a reason to be furious. But this doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to becoming cynical, disillusioned pessimists—or embittered shrews perpetuating hatred. Nor do we have to ignore reality in efforts to protect our seemingly fragile positive energy. True goodness is not fragile at all. It’s the very stuff that wins in the end. And our anger can be a natural resource that helps move us in that direction.