A spiritual prescription for controlling your anger - opinion

It is clear that our society has become far, far too violent, with hostile words quickly turning into physical confrontations

 When faced by those who abuse their power, intolerance is the proper response (Illustrative for anger). (photo credit: Simran Sood/Unsplash)
When faced by those who abuse their power, intolerance is the proper response (Illustrative for anger).
(photo credit: Simran Sood/Unsplash)

Anger, you should pardon the expression, is all the rage.

As if we didn’t have enough to deal with already, it is clear that our society has become far, far too violent, with hostile words quickly turning into physical confrontations that almost daily result in bodily harm, even deaths.

We see it on the street, in traffic, on line at the bank or the post office or the supermarket. It’s often sparked by the most trivial of causes: “You cut me off!” “That was my parking spot!” “I was here first!” “What did you say?!’’ More and more people are starting to either avoid contact with others, or carry some type of weapon, such as pepper spray or a knife.

Where does this anger come from, and what can be done to lessen the bad blood and the flight to fury?

FIRST, LET us understand that anger is not always out of place. Like good cholesterol vs bad cholesterol, every emotion and character trait can be positive or negative.

 Anger (Illustrative). (credit: Usman Yousaf/Unsplash) Anger (Illustrative). (credit: Usman Yousaf/Unsplash)

Mercy and compassion, for example, are generally admirable traits. But, as the Talmud wisely teaches, showing mercy to those who are cruel, such as terrorists, inevitably results in cruelty to the innocent.

Tolerance is commendable, but when faced by those who abuse their power and deny the rights of the vulnerable elements of society, intolerance is the proper response.

Even the universal quality of love has two sides to it. Abe Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League, was kidnapped as a child by his parents’ maid, who had cared for him during the Shoah when the parents hid from the Nazis. It was a long, hard struggle to finally wrest Abe from the maid’s control. “Her problem was that she loved me too much,” said Foxman.

“Her problem was that she loved me too much.”

Former ADL CEO Abe Foxman on getting kidnapped as a child

And so it is with anger. When anger takes the form of righteous indignation, it can be worthwhile and totally appropriate. When we see injustice or inequality, we ought not to be calm or apathetic; we should become agitated, rise up in anger and try to right the wrongs. Indeed, I would suggest that most of the great movements for social change in history – from the Exodus to the American Revolution to civil rights – began with a wave of righteous indignation.

But clearly, there is a very negative type of anger that is unquestionably problematic. Deep, abiding anger that takes hold of us and won’t let go, an uncontrollable anger that results in caustic verbal abuse and horrendous domestic violence.

The Talmud teaches that a person with fierce anger loses his wisdom, insight and perspective. It says that “God cannot coexist in this world with one who is angry.” Indeed, the rabbis even equate extreme anger with idolatry. Says Gemara Nedarim: “When anger flares, the gates of Gehenom [hell] open up.”

“When anger flares, the gates of Gehenom [hell] open up.”

Gemara Nedarim

Anger is also bad for our health, contributing to high blood pressure and heart issues. It makes us unpalatable to those around us and creates a self-destructive disposition that leads to a dismal outlook on life. In short, the “bad cholesteral” type of anger has virtually no redeeming features. 

Where does harmful anger come from?

I SUGGEST that this type of harmful anger emanates from three possible sources.

The first is ego. Often, our anger stems from an overinflated opinion of ourselves that turns every less-than-perfect event into a personal attack on us or insult to us. When we are made to wait at the doctor’s office, when we perceive that another has slighted us, we react with indignation. We somehow think that we deserve royal treatment, that everything is coming to us, and when we don’t get it – right away, with a smile – we are personally affronted, and we blow up.

A second wellspring of anger results not from a superiority complex but from quite the opposite: inferiority. When we are unhappy with ourselves, when we question our own abilities and self-worth, we often take it out on others, deflecting our frustration onto them.

How many times do we identify in others a trait or accomplishment that we know we ought to be achieving ourselves, and we get jealous? Something registers in our psyche, causing us to judge ourselves and rate our own performance, and if we come up short and are lacking, we seek to divert the blame from us to them. We get jealous, and jealousy turned sideways is anger, anger at ourselves really, at our own failure, and not at the other’s success.

We never get upset with someone who has the talents that we lack. If we can’t dunk the ball like Michael Jordan or sing like Barbra Streisand (choose your own contemporary personalities), we won’t be too worked up about it. But those who remind us of where we could or should be – yet are not – force us to confront ourselves and our failings, and that is very, very painful. So, to avoid the pain, we deflect the self-judgment to others and try to find fault in them so as to mask our own deficiencies. This whole process – sometimes carried out subconsciously and without our awareness – can lead to deep, troubling anger. 

Finally, there is a third condition to consider: Anger often develops from, or is at least aggravated by, a lack of faith. We come face to face each day with a world that is often callous, indifferent, harsh, even cruel. We see all kinds of inequities and experience all kinds of disappointments that set us on edge. Without faith, we see the world as a capricious, uncaring, haphazard place where we are thrown about without meaning or mercy. Every negative occurrence causes us to curse our fate and get angry.

But with faith, I develop a very different perspective on life. I don’t go ballistic every time something seemingly negative occurs. I step back a moment and remind myself that there is a God running this universe who knows what He’s doing, even if it all seems chaotic and random to me. I can better face life’s valleys and setbacks with a belief in a higher knowledge that ultimately guides the course of human events. In this mindset, I can even accept that what appears to be a negative may very well turn out, in the final analysis, to be a positive.

In looking back, haven’t all of us at some time or another gone through some crisis that turned out to be a blessing?

So, if we want to make a dent in correcting this epidemic of anger, this is a path we should try to travel on: Work on our humility, letting a bit of air out of our egos and seeing the world not only through the prism of our own needs and desires; try harder to live up to our own potential, reminding ourselves that we fill a unique niche in the universe; and, even in the toughest times, fall back on a belief that “gam zu l’tova,” all things will hopefully turn out for the best. And stay calm. 

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]