How to calm anger

Have you been hopping mad recently? Some people temperamentally seem to be more easily roused to anger than are others. Yet, to some extent we all get irritated at times. We feel cross when others attack what we love like our child or pet animal for instance. 

It could be something we love in ourselves, that when attacked, causes us a sense of wounded pride. We may experience `road rage’ in our heart, reasoning defensively in our head about it being the other driver’s entire fault. 

Photographer Ian Kahn

 We might then use our hands to make rude gestures or write letters making unreasonable demands. Offensive putdowns thrown at us in a condescending tone of voice also can get to us. Then irritation easily spirals when we retaliate in kind and the heated things that are said – which on reflection we often do not even mean – hurt both parties.

It is possible to harbour resentment for years especially if we continually avoid someone or allow ourselves to slip into the habit of not conversing with them when we do have an opportunity.

Making Up  
Making up may be easier said than done. In addition, not every attempt at reconciliation works. After all, it takes two to tango. We need to eat a little humble pie even if the other person does not. The trouble is as Harold Coffin said:

“The fellow who thinks he knows it all is especially annoying to those of us who do”

Even when we swallow a bit of pride the other person may not stop his or her ego trip. Unless the opponent meets us halfway, the attempt at finding a way forward may possibly fail.

To increase the chances of success we could try saying what we think in a low-key way. By seeking a common understanding, we are giving the relationship every chance to get past this difficulty. It means looking at the situation from the other person’s point of view; not assuming that he or she is entirely at fault, using our imagination to step into their shoes whilst at the same time not avoiding thorny issues. It is possible to explain our feelings without exaggerating and without casting blame. We can try to think of there being different points of view rather than one wrong one and one right one.

Sometimes we do not try hard enough to make up and rarely are the first to make a conciliatory move. One fallacy is to believe that “a relationship that needs working at is not worth having.” However, satisfying relationships are unlikely to develop unless all concerned are prepared to be committed and to make an effort.

We may wrongly assume that the other person who has hurt our feelings should know how hurt and angry we feel. Yet people cannot see into each other’s minds and however close we are to others, they will never be able to know exactly how we feel unless we let them know.

Good Sense
We need to show good sense when relating to others. Making unwise compromises that maintain destructive relationships is not good sense. In other words, doing good to others and forgetting their wrongdoing may not always be wise if the behaviour is harmful and persists.

Violence within the home and sexual infidelity are two serious examples. Acceptance of the other person’s limitations rather than simply saying we forgive them may be a more realistic goal if there is no remorse or effort to change. In extreme cases sometimes it is better to part company.

Letting go of very deep-seated hurt may take considerable time that requires real or imagined encounters with the perpetrators of our pain. A few of us have been so very badly abused and offended against that it has caused a long-lasting suppressed state of anger. We may firstly need professional help to work through our shock and denial and become more aware of the effects of the terrible wrong done to us. This may involve starting to appropriately express feelings to others of hurt, grief, anger and rage. It greatly helps if the fact of the wrong-doing is acknowledged by those previously involved.

Desmond Tuttu was a black clergyman living in South Africa during the apartheid period.  He and many other black Africans had every reason to feel very angry at the treatment meted out to them by the white supremacists in power over them. Separate public facilities were enforced on racial lines.  To all intents and purposes only white Africans had the vote. Black Africans were legally confined to rural reserves covering only about 7% of the country whereas they consisted of 68% of the population. Segregated townships for blacks working in urban areas were set up. Blacks had to carry a passbook identifying themselves and showing whether they were entitled to be in a white only area. Husbands and fathers were separated from their loved ones as a result of a pernicious system of migratory labour. Their children went to overcrowded schools in black townships and lived in inadequate shanty housing with a woefully inadequate system of transport. Black people who protested suffered long periods of detention without trial and there were deaths in detention. All this meant that the black people suffered frustration and humiliation.  They were a subject people.
Although not a pacifist, Desmond strongly believed in responding to injustice by asserting ones human dignity and rights in a courageous way with a view to possible reconciliation rather than revenge. He advocated civil disobedience rather than violence as a response to oppression. But when he and others joined illegal protest marches they risked being shot by police. Desmond with other religious leaders often intervened to try to help diffuse situations where violence was a distinct possibility calming down the anger and aggression. This was the action of someone who believed that problems could be solved by people sitting down together to discuss their differences rather than resorting to violence. He said that the campaign should be characterised by discipline and dignity because they were all involved in a moral struggle and that non-violent protest could only succeed resulting in their freedom. There were outbreaks of violence by black people but the overwhelming response to the violence of oppression was peaceful protest. Despite the great anger felt the struggle was to be based not on hatred but on the hope of freedom and reconciliation.

Many commentators had thought that bloodshed, violence and civil war were inevitable because a people can take only so much injustice and despair. But they were wrong. In my opinion international pressure and the emergence of political leaders of the calibre of Nelson Mandela and Frederik der Kerk were necessary for the avoidance of civil war but what was crucial in this outcome was the prevalent spirit of love and justice in the nation – other than within the white right wing reactionary forces. The spirit of love was the message of the New Testament when Jesus said `Love your enemies’
As has been said if we instead were to follow the old idea of revenge embodied in the teaching of `an eye for an eye’ soon all people would be blind and then where would we be?

It may be useful in our personal lives for us to try to see justice done and restitution occur and even attempt to ensure that the offences will not happen again. Some of these developments may help us to start to be reconciled to the offender in our heart, to let go of our anger and to move on with our life. There is no chance of finding a forgiving attitude if we harbour resentment, revenge or hatred. Alternatively we create continuing problems for ourselves if we try to forgive someone before we adequately explore and resolve our own feelings.

Our Inner Attitude
As we experience normal life and have thoughts, emotions, memories it appears to us that we are living from ourselves; that we are thinking, feeling, and remembering from a life originating in ourselves. This view differs from Buddhist teachings that regard the individual self as a delusion, and teach that spiritual progress depends upon recognition of this fact. Another Eastern religion, Jainism, takes a similar view.  The Western world, however, prizes the self-made man; individuality being valued in and of itself. We each have a strong sense of being the source and originator of all that goes on inside of us.

Subjectively, this is how it seems to us. It appears as though we are living from ourselves; that all our creative ideas, imaginings, desires etc. originate in our own minds. Any clever thoughts, for example, are our own self-intelligence. Yet, this subjective sense of self-originating being, that Swedenborg calls `proprium’  – a term whose root meaning is `what belongs to oneself’ – is actually an illusion. I would say that it is illusory because there is nothing really that we can claim credit for as our own. Just as I believe that all that is alive in the world comes from the creative source of life, so also all helpful thoughts, all original imagination, all good affections of the heart flow from this same creative divine Spirit working within all our hearts and minds. All bad or negative feelings and thoughts are due to our unconsciously distorting  and sometimes perverting what is flowing in from this divine source. It just seems to the individual that he or she is a self-sufficient person separate from this inspiration and that we each produce these thoughts and feelings ourselves.

The good thing about proprium is that it allows us to take responsibility for what we do and say. Unless we sense that whatever we think and feel are our own, we could not so readily accept that we are actually accountable for our choices in what we do with them.  

However, because of this self-sense termed proprium we tend to see things from our own perspective, often in a state of self-consciousness. Each person will see what is going on, say at a shared family meal or any other situation involving others, in a slightly different way, according to individual pre-occupation. For example one person might notice whether a certain topic about which he or she has strong feelings crops up in conversation. Another person might be sensitive to what others imply regarding their own personality and a third may be concerned with who else is helping in the kitchen.
This is all very normal if it does not interfere too much with the way the person functions within the group. However there is a danger that we might drift into an attitude of regarding most things from our own point of view and our own desires. Our modern society does not always frown upon self-concern. There is even a philosophical doctrine called `egoism’ claiming that morality has its foundations in self-interest. However, if we were to allow a self-centred attitude to dominate our thinking, there is a good chance we would soon become not only selfish, but also self-pitying, hard-done-by, or conceited and boastful.

We do tend to get angry when our own concerns are threatened. When we are self-preoccupied and do not heed the feelings and needs of others, our pride is more easily pricked, our desires threatened, our fears aroused, and thus our anger more easily provoked. Probably at some time or other, we have all become bad-tempered when we could not get our own way. Actually some of us behave as if we believed it is important to always have our own way.

Which one of us could have done what Christ did (without anger) when he discovered that his ministry in Judea had resulted in his rejection and ultimately his death penalty. Due to his selfless heart he accepted the situation rather than trying to impose his will.

It is true that he is said earlier to have overturned the tables of the money lenders in the temple. (Matthew 21:12). But is there not a difference between a zeal associated with a selfless heart and a hostile anger arising from self-interest? The way I see it is that Jesus was demonstrating a zeal (rather than anger) for what is right and proper. 
Whether we can let go of angry feelings depends on our underlying attitude. If it is feeding off selfishness and the attitude of `everyman for himself’ or `put the other fellow down’, then our anger will persist underneath the surface, and apparently making up with someone will not extinguish it. Rather, it would be quick to be re-kindled whenever we next felt slighted.

However, I believe that if our self-concern is not active, we will be able to let go of our anger more easily because it does not run deep. This approach to overcoming angry feelings is noticing and challenging any threatened or damaged self-concern in us. It also means adopting a tolerant attitude, looking for the good in the person who has angered us, and being ready to accept that we are all in need of forgiveness.

“Anger is the general emotion that results from anything which gets in the way of self-love and its desires”
(Swedenborg Arcana Coelestia section 357)

Extracted from the book Heart, Head and Hands by Stephen Russell-Lacy

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