I sat in my office staring at the couple before me. Their lips were moving, but I could make nothing of their sounds. Less than an hour earlier, I had received news that dad had died. My original plan was to get through my counseling appointments, and deal with my personal business after work. Apparently, I must have thought that I could place my shock and grief in some kind of psychological Tupperware, refrigerate it, and get back to it later, after my evening appointments. Problem was, my grief wouldn’t agree to remain neatly sealed within its container. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had to excuse myself, and cancel the rest of my appointments.
In my work, often enough, I have encountered physicians who think that their research and practice ought to provide a kind of immunity from the messiness of the human condition. For these naïve practitioners, a famous phrase was coined: “Physician heal thyself.”
Back in the day, I would bristle when a grief-group volunteer-in-training would say, “unless you’ve been through the loss of someone close, you really don’t understand another’s grief in a deep-down way.” I had the good sense to keep my thoughts to myself, but internally, I would protest. “Don’t you see that license on my wall?” “I have thoroughly reviewed the grief research literature!” “I’ve trained, and counseled many people who have suffered loss!”
It took my dad’s death, for me to recognize this curious brand of arrogant naiveté within my soul. But old habits die hard. Before all was said and done, I would attempt several different clever ways to seal off my grief in psychological/ spiritual Tupperware. Thankfully, my grief never cooperated. It started with a whisper, but eventually grew to a shout, “Counselor, get counseling for thyself!”
It was within a group populated by other counselors where I was challenged to own up to the less noble feelings that accompanied my grief. In particular, my colleagues challenged me to appropriate and express the disowned anger I felt toward my dad. In retrospect, I can see that in embracing my anger, I embraced healing, and eventually embraced my dad.
This Sunday’s Gospel passage, provided a great opportunity to reflect upon the experience of anger (“But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother or sister will be liable to judgment… (Mt 5: 22a).” As a clinician formed and informed by a spiritual life, I have observed that the emotion of anger appears to be a kind of spiritual hot potato for many sincere people who truly want to live a God-centered life.
It seems to me, that any spiritual reflection on anger should begin with the insight that, like all the other emotions, anger is morally neutral. The appropriate response to an emotion is to notice it, and to ask oneself, “What is this feeling revealing to me, and what will I do with it?” A deep and persistent emotion like anger can be a finger pointing to important values, or longings of the heart. According to mystics like Ignatius Loyola, we should pay attention to such inner movements. They have the potential to reveal a divine calling to take action.
I have come to the conviction that the capacity for anger was woven into our souls to provide us a way to notice injustice done to ourselves, or others. I have frequently noticed an impulse in Christians to use forgiveness as if it were spiritual/psychological Tupperware. “If I can just forgive the person who wronged me, I can seal it away.” Don’t get me wrong. Forgiveness is an essential part of spiritual resilience. However, I have noticed that many sincere men and women have unwittingly used forgiveness as a way to dodge psychological pain. I have noticed, for example, that in the healing process that follows a cruel childhood, or an abusive relationship, men or women will heal far more quickly when they allow themselves to feel and express their anger. When deep healing is involved, forgiveness is an achievement that takes place at the end of a process of healing rather than the beginning.
When a spiritually oriented client embarks on this kind of journey, I will frequently hear him or her nervously paraphrasing this Sunday’s scripture, “Didn’t Jesus say that if I get angry, I’ll be “liable to judgment?” The answer is that anger is a good stepping-stone in the healing process, but it makes a lousy destination. When sadness shifts to anger, it frequently dislodges resources that help a person to mobilize, get off the couch, and do something.
Several years ago, as part of my healing process, I allowed myself to feel and express my disowned anger at my dad for the injustices he knowingly, or unknowingly perpetrated. Strangely enough, on the other side of this expression was a deeper acceptance of dad…more love for him, and deeper appreciation of what dad meant in my life.
This week, would you allow yourself to experience your capacity for anger as a gift from God?