Fr John McKinnon...
WRITER'S PREFACE: I am not a professional psychologist. The thoughts and observations that follow are drawn from what I have read, from what I have observed of my own behaviour, and from my interactions with others. I offer them as a help along our common journey to self-knowledge. Their truth for you should not be based on any professional expertise of mine but is to be verified against the background of each one's experience.
Feeling or Behaviour?
In any discussion of feelings, it is important immediately to distinguish feelings from behaviour (actions). Feelings are familiar factors of our inner life — inner sensations or emotions such as fear or anger or desire that occur spontaneously. In this they differ from perceptions or thoughts that we consciously produce. They are certainly different from actions. The feeling precedes the action, and between the feeling and the action, the mind and the will can become involved. Because feelings arise spontaneously, we are never directly responsible for them; we can, however, be responsible for our actions and our behaviour.
Because we are never directly responsible for our feelings, they can have no morality. They cannot be morally either right or wrong. They are morally neutral. By themselves, feelings can never be sinful. We can be responsible for our actions and behaviour, on the other hand, and so they can and do enter the realm of morality, i.e., of sinful or virtuous behaviour. Before behaviour and actions can become sinful, however, they require that we sufficiently recognize their wrongness and are sufficiently free to make a clear choice.
Let us apply this immediately to the question of anger. Despite what many people have told us, feelings of anger are neither right nor wrong. Not even angry behaviour is necessarily wrong either, though it can be so. Its wrongness depends on whether the behaviour is destructive or inappropriate in the circumstances.
Many people think that they do not have feelings of anger. That claim is simply an indication that they are not aware of them — but they still inevitably have them. Anger is one of the four general feeling reactions to the experiences of life. (The four are: joy, desire, anger and fear).
Putting Anger in Context…
Life experiences can be experienced as either good for us or bad, creative or destructive; and these experiences are either past, present or future. The automatic reaction to something we perceive to be good for us is pleasure. If the pleasure is present (either directly or in our memory), we feel joy. If it is not yet and still in the future, we feel desire. That is, we enjoy present or remembered pleasures; we desire future ones.
The automatic reaction to a bad or hurtful experience can be generally summed up as one of sadness and pain. If it is coming from a present hurt or a past one still retained in the memory, it tends to generate anger. If it is threatening but still in the future, it generates fear.
Hurt need not be seen as something dramatic. It simply means an experience that we do not like or want, or the absence of something we would like or want. It is something that is perceived to threaten in one way or other our security and peace, or our self-esteem and reputation, etc.. The experience of sadness or pain moves us to want either to remove or fight the source of the hurt or to flee from it — to fight in anger or to flee in fear (fight or flight). It is accompanied by an instinctive physical and nervous reaction that prepares the body for action.
So our basic feeling reactions to the experiences of life can be grouped under the four categories of joy, desire, anger and fear. And since the experiences of life cause us either pleasure or sadness in some form or other (and we cannot always prevent other people and situations being what they are), then we can expect our feeling reactions to life to be a constantly changing mixture of all four: joy, anger, desire and fear. The only way not to have them is not to be alive.
Importance of Anger…
Anger is an extremely important and necessary reaction to present hurt. It is an instinctive survival reaction, and draws its power and energy component from our survival instinct. Without it we would simply not survive in our hostile and aggressive world. It is the energy source that enables us to change what is wrong. It is the energy source behind the struggle for justice, for renewal, for change for the better. Without it the world — and we ourselves for that matter — would not be protected and would not progress. It is a very powerful energy source, as are joy and desire and fear. They are the energy sources from which our decisions to love (or hate, which is its opposite) draw.
We often call anger by other names which specify its nature. We experience disappointment, frustration, irritation, etc.. We experience it when our expectations (conscious or unconscious) of ourselves or of others (or of God) are not met. It has a thousand shapes, and a thousand degrees of intensity. But they are all basically manifestations of anger.
The degree of intensity of our feeling depends on a variety of factors. One is the perceived size of the stimulus. This involves basically an objective element — e.g. a light touch or a heavy blow, a light criticism or a serious calumny. The greater the wrong that is done to us, the greater the pain and the greater, therefore, the anger. A significant subjective factor is also involved, of course, and this consists not so much in the objective size of the stimulus as in how we subjectively perceive and rate it.
A further factor can be just as important, and perhaps even more so. It is the degree of rawness inside us, our subjective sensitivity. We have very little control over this; it is a fact of life and the result of our past history and experiences. A wrong that touches a raw spot produces a stronger reaction of hurt. A parallel can make this clearer: if we hit one hand with the other, we may feel a little pain; but if there is a severe gravel rash on the palm of the hand, then even a light touch can cause considerable pain. Similarly, even a slight rejection or criticism that touches the emotional raw spots of our unhealed (and accumulated) hurts from the past can generate a strong reaction.
Another factor affecting the intensity of the feeling is the cumulative effect of a series of previous minor irritations. The final stimulus seems to excite a degree of intensity well beyond a reaction proportionate to the stimulus itself and more proportionate to the sum of the previous unresolved irritations.
For some reason or other, the feeling of anger has inherited a bad name. We seem to believe that we should not feel angry, especially if we are trying to be good Christians (especially good priests or religious!). The same comment could be made about sexual feelings and desires. We have sometimes been culturally conditioned to feel that it is in some way ungentlemanly or unladylike or even sinful. To be consistent we should say the same about joy. (Perhaps some Christians do!). It is sad that anger has this bad name. It certainly does not deserve it.
NEXT WEEK: "How to Respond to Anger"
What are your thoughts on this commentary by Fr John McKinnon? You can contribute to the discussion in our forum.
©2008 John McKinnon