Anger acts as thief. It steals away serenity, ability to focus, and the ability for self-awareness.
After 9/11 Fred Maples, like most of us, felt angry about what happened. But then he did something that may perplex (or perhaps anger) many seeking a just revenge on these terrorists who caused such suffering: he began to pray for them.
Such a forgiving frame of mind doesn’t come easy, he says. It was the result of a journey through his own anger and into a level of self-awareness that ultimately helped him see terrorists in a new way. “Forgiveness,” says Maples, “is the far side of anger. We forget that a just anger is as interested in the victimizer as it is in the victim. Everyone, even bad guys, should feel the fruits of the spirit.”
Maples is a Jesuit priest, a diplomat Jungian psychoanalyst and a spiritual director at Loyola Spirituality Center in St.Paul, which will be celebrating its 30th year of existence in June. Maples has been part of Loyola since 1997.
Anger as a thief
After 9/11, Maples began to see that his anger could be used as a doorway into self-understanding and, eventually, to a forgiving heart. At the same time, he saw its potential for danger, especially when making decisions in the heat of anger. “Anger is a gut-wrenching emotion,” he explains. “It is full of passion and heat and I see this heat as a crab with powerful pinchers that attaches itself to our anger-even our justified anger. That heat takes on a life of its own.”
When angry, for example, Maples realized he became obsessed and was constantly “analyzing the situation or rehearsing responses. Even when I tried to get out of that obsession, I quickly fell back into it.”
He also describes it as a form of “codependence” because, in obsessing about the person who caused his anger, he lost sight of himself. “To the extent that I was caught up with that person, I couldn’t learn about myself. The other person was the problem!”
“So this obsession was like a thief. It was stealing away my serenity, my ability to focus, even my ability to become self-aware. It’s unpleasant, but it’s also seductive. As unpleasant as it was, there’s still something I liked about it. There was something satisfying about being a righteous victim, even as my joy disappeared.”
Anger as a doorway
While anger may rob us of peace and joy, it can also deepen our relationships with God and with other people. By paying attention to our anger, Maples says, we can grow in honesty and self-knowledge—which are at the heart of all healthy relationships. To combat the heat of anger and to “come back to our true selves,” he suggests asking these questions. What set me off? What’s really going on? Have I felt this before? “Anger is telling us that something is at stake here,” he says. “Something important is being threatened.”
He sites an example: “As a youth, you may have had some bad experiences with women. Now, if it seems a woman is dismissing you, it taps into that old anger. You are hooked by the heat, and you may become abusive. The key is to become aware that this is happening. This moment of heat can represent a doorway to self-discovery. You can use your anger as an opportunity for self-exploration, rather than for action or revenge.”
Maples tells the story of a father who’s had a bad day at work and drives home in a rainstorm. But he can’t get into his garage because his son’s bike is blocking the driveway, so he takes out his anger on this seven-year-old child.
“It’s not about the bike,” Maples says. “It’s about what he experienced at work that day. The crab has gotten hold and he’s been hooked. But this dad will look at what happened and realize he overreacted. He’s learned something about himself, will apologize to his son, and will show him that parents aren’t perfect. In fact, he will acknowledge his imperfections without shame, and maybe the two of them will laugh about it.”
Forgiveness: the far side of anger
Men and women experience anger differently, says Maples. “For men, feeling anger is more comfortable than feeling hurt. Feeling hurt is a sign of weakness; feeling anger, a sign of strength. For some men, hurt immediately turns into anger. Women, on the other hand, are usually groomed to be peacemakers. They’ve been told it’s unladylike to express their anger. So their anger may go inward and turn into depression.”
Addiction, of course, is another way to deal with anger and other strong emotions. “We do that by medicating them out of existence,” he adds. “So a recovering person must embrace these feelings, which include anger. It may be difficult, but it leads to self-knowledge, serenity, and ultimately, to forgiveness.”
He emphasized, however, that there’s a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. You can forgive an abusive husband, for example, but you don’t have to reconcile with him. “Forgiveness is about healing and not staying trapped as a victim.”
He sites the experience of Terry Anderson, an Associated Press reporter, who was imprisoned for seven years by a Lebanese extremist group. After he was freed, Anderson continued to cling to his just anger. But he soon realized these feelings were keeping him imprisoned. In order to free himself and live again, he had to forgive.
Forgiveness represents the far side of anger, Maples says, and reaching it involves a journey. “We can’t ignore our anger and jump immediately to forgiveness,” he emphasizes. “The primary imperative of Jungian psychology is to make sure we pay attention to, and understand, the emotions we feel. It’s a process and we can’t bypass it. We must learn to stay in the tension between these two opposites-which is a good place to be, because it stretches us and makes us think.”
In fact, it is “thinking” that can save us from the heat and help us act wisely when anger strikes. “That heat can take hold, like a crab,” Maples says. “It can even lure us away from the justice of anger. Instead, we must learn to let anger serve us-as a gateway to self-awareness and a way to build quality relationships with other people and with God.”
Kathleen Lindstrom was a spiritual director at Loyola Spirituality Center. This post was originally published in the May / June 2007 issue of The Phoenix Spirit.