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In the opening scenes of the motion picture Changing Lanes (2002), two men, strangers to one another, are literally on a collision course. Gavin Banek, is a self-assured and charismatic Wall Street lawyer, a partner in a less than honest legal firm; Banek is on a motorway speeding to a probate hearing. Doyle Gipson, is newly separated from his wife and children, and he is rushing on the same motorway, in the same direction, toward a custody hearing. Their cars collide. Banek, the smooth talker attempts to pay Gipson off at the scene with a blank cheque. Gipson for his part seeks to exchange addresses – but Banek quickly drives away, not knowing that he has dropped a critical legal document, integral to a multi-million dollar probate case. Gipson finds the papers, and, himself delayed by the accident, arrives late at the custody hearing only to be told that he has lost the case in absentia.
What follows is a bitter series of angry recrimnations in which Gipson refuses to return the file, and Banek, in revenge, has a corporate computer hacker suspend Gipson's credit, thus preventing the latter from purchasing a home, and stifling an opportunity to keep his estranged wife and children within New York. The pattern of deceit and revenge, fuelled by anger, becomes increasingly destructive. The viewer is left reflecting on how one reckless action became the catalyst for a pyrrhic series of counter-attacks. Spurred on by uncontrollable anger, both Banek and Gipson have metamorphosised into mere fragments of their previous selves — a metamorphosis which eventually horrifies and disgusts them both.
In his "Homily Against Anger", St. Basil the Great provided an examination that in part discussed how 'anger' "makes the human being entirely like a wild beast", quoting Scripture in both Proverbs (15.1) and Ephesians (4:31), as well as expanding on an alternate perspective of 'anger': "And the Lord threatens judgement for those who are angered without purpose [Mt. 5: 22], but he does not reject the use of anger for things that are necessary, as a medicine." (Basil the Great, 2005, pp. 81 & 90)
Oftentimes we are led to believe that 'anger' is inherently and uniformly, sinful and evil. Yet St. Basil clearly separates 'anger' into dichotomies, and speaks of that anger which is used righteously as well as that anger which has no cause other than a person's ill demeanour or blackened spirit.
In the first type of anger, St. Basil qualifies that one must always temper one's righteous anger with compassion: "Redirect your temper onto the murderer of human beings, the father of lies, the worker of sin; but sympathize also with your brother, because if he continues in sin, with the devil he will be delivered up to eternal fire". (Basil the Great, 2005, p. 90) A mother who chastises a child for not heeding her warning to keep away from a hot stove, is not sinning when she becomes angry when the child disobeys her. But her actions can be sinful, if her anger is uncontrollable, un-remitting, uncompromising, or violent. As St. Basil writes, the inherent problem therefore of human beings implementing righteous anger is that we need to ensure as best as we can, the goodness of our motives, and not act out of some selfish desire to exact revenge on another, nor wish a form of perverse pleasure by seeing the object of our anger in pain or inconsolable by our angry comments and actions.
According to St. Basil, all of us are obliged to become angry on occasion. The man who does not become angry at the sight of an evil or an injustice, is not a spiritual man — but a man who is either dead or ambivalent to virtue, and/or dead to the welfare of his neighbour. In such a light, Christ's cleansing of the Temple, was a good act even though it was an act completed in anger, for Christ was rightfully repulsed at the scandal that lay before him, and He sought to cauterise the sickness at its very root. (cf: Mark 11: 15-19). Yet all anger, righteous or not, has its consequences. For this reason, St. Basil cautions us to be careful that our anger only be roused when we are fully prepared to accept all that flows from it.
This being said, St. Basil's teaching on anger requires of each individual a search to the very depths of our spirits, honestly reflecting on our particular motivations for becoming angry. For example, do we become angry because the perceived protagonist has indeed done something seriously wrong, or more because we harbour a pre-existing hate awaiting the 'right' moment to be unleashed? Christ exemplified the former case of anger and not the latter. In the latter case, hatred and any other vice held in one's heart for another person, threaten the judiciousness of our actions. Each of us must step back for a moment before venting our anger and seriously investigate inward. This investigation can be quite painful for perhaps after searching deeply for the cause of our anger, we may in fact be left with a reflected image of ourselves — hating others for the inadequacies we perceive in ourselves, and not for anything they may have done to us. Banek and Gipson were in fact not angry with one another when their cars collided — yet they were angry at the course their lives were taking, and decided to turn the full vent of their frustrations, unjustly, fully on the other.
Above all, St. Basil's homily, with its theme of introspection, provides the reader with the notion that we all must seek greater self-discipline in controlling our anger so as to avoid the risk of doing evil. If we do not seek such self-control, human nature being as it is, we will pass like runners in a baton relay anger from one person to the next — through our families, across members of a society, and from societies to nations. We must realize what in life is worthy of our anger, and what can be easily deflected by a mature and healthy spirit.
Wherein it is nigh impossible for us never to become angry, we could do much worse than paying heed to some parting advice from St. Basil. Writing in words comforting to a soul that is being provoked to anger, St. Basil coached his audience: "When you are stirred by the temptation to abuse, consider that you are being tested as to whether through longsuffering you will come near to God, or through anger run away toward the adversary. Give your thoughts the opportunity to choose the good portion. For you will either help that person somehow through your example of meekness, or exact a more severe vengeance through disdain. For what could become more painful to your enemy, than to see his enemy as above insults? Do not overturn your own purpose, and do not appear to be easily accessible to those who insult you. Let him bark at you ineffectually; let it burst upon himself. For the one who strikes one who feels no pain takes vengeance on himself, for neither is his enemy repaid, nor is his temper assuaged. Likewise, the person reproaching one unaffected by abuse is unable to find relief for his passion. On the contrary, as I have said, he is indeed cut to the heart. Moreover, in these circumstances, what sort of things will each of you be called? He is abusive, but you are magnanimous; he is prone to anger and hard to bear, but you are longsuffering and meek. He will change his mind about the things he said, but you will never repent of your virtue." (Basil the Great, 2005, p. 85)
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©2009 Dr Andrew Thomas Kania