Anything but Anger
Overcoming anger towards others can actually change our relationship with God.
Marriage counselor Susan L. Adler's #1 rule every couple should adhere to is “anything but anger”. Adler explains why anger is so poisonous.
Anger is often used as a coping mechanism to deal with underlying emotions that threaten our internal stability. Often times in our relationships we feel sad, hurt, anxious or fearful which make us feel vulnerable, a feeling many translate as weakness or powerlessness. So our primary emotion of hurt or fear triggers a secondary emotion of anger as a way to make ourselves feel more powerful and less vulnerable. Anger breeds an illusory sense of strength which can feel intoxicating, especially when the alternative can feel so terrifying.
Even though vulnerability can be uncomfortable, expressing it invites our partner into our world and can help create more love and closeness in our relationships. Anger masks that vulnerability and keeps our significant others far away, serving as a poisonous stand-in for the very emotional responses which can create the closeness and intimacy we all seek.
A woman might feel angry at her husband for not spending enough time with the family but underneath the anger is likely hurt feelings that she is not her husband's priority or a sense of loneliness and disconnection from him. Although manifesting those feelings as righteous indignation can make her feel more "powerful" and "in control", it will likely just escalate the conflict as the anger will set off a fight or flight response in him. Leaning into her vulnerability by sharing her hurt or lonely feelings without anger or blame is more likely to invite a supportive response from her husband. The "anything but anger" rule is a powerful principle that requires courage to face our underlying insecurity.
Unlike all other character traits that require balance, anger needs to be eradicated completely.
Maimonides saw anger as a unique emotion or character trait. When it comes to personality development Maimonides believed that balance was golden. He believed that every trait should exist in an appropriate measure. In fact, the Hebrew word for character trait, middah, also means measure, demonstrating this fundamental idea that every trait is appropriate in the correct measure.
But according to Maimonides, there are two exceptions to this rule: anger and arrogance. Maimonides says that anger should not exist within us at all; unlike all other character traits that require balance, anger needs to be eradicated completely. Maimonides quotes the Talmud that says getting angry is akin to worshipping idols. What does anger have to do with idolatry? Anger seems to be most destructive because of how it affects our interpersonal relationships, yet idolatry is the quintessential sin that occurs between man and God.
A fundamental Jewish belief is that everything in our life comes from God and is tailor made to elicit our spiritual growth. Anger is an emotional response when we experience something as unjust, when we perceive the world as being not as it should be. God, however, is the essence of perfection and does not make mistakes. When we experience anger we are in essence demonstrating that we do not truly believe that God is the source of everything that is happening to us. If we feel that what is happening is unjust and chaotic, as opposed to sent from God, then the seeds of idolatry are sown.
To be clear, human beings have free will and people can do things that are terrible and unjust. To ignore the cruelties that happen in a quest to eradicate anger is not an exercise in piety but is callous and cruel in its own right. Yet, these injustices should not suck us down the black hole of anger where we become entrenched in this pit of weakness that poses as strength. We must direct our passion towards pursuing justice and righteousness. Anger sees injustice and bitterly judges the world as flawed and chaotic; passion sees injustice and recognizes God not only as the source of the problem but as the empowering source who has planted within us the ability to overcome it.
We are in the month of Elul, the letters of which spell out the Hebrew mnemonic “Ani l’dodi v'dodi li, I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me” – referring to our relationship with the Almighty. Leading up to the High Holy Days, Elul is when it is possible to achieve closeness to our Creator that seems like a distant dream at other times of the year.
Perhaps one of the lessons of anger is that we cannot work on our relationship with others without recognizing God, nor can we get close to God while we push our brothers and sisters away. The very forces that erode our relationships with our fellow humans also serve as the breakdown in our fundamental faith in God’s goodness. Elul is the time to reconnect with God and one way that we do that is by affirming our beliefs that everything that happens to us is designed by God to elicit our maximum spiritual growth.
Faith cannot just be an abstract concept; it needs to be absorbed into our way of life by a constant awareness of God as a driving force in our life. Elul is the time to reflect on the frustrations and aggravation that come from living with imperfect people and remember that ultimately it is all coming from God. It is the opportune time to channel those feelings and energy into acceptance and resolve to take the package that God has given us and use this Elul to grow.
When our anger is transformed into faith we will not only save our human relationships but will also transform our relationship with God.