In my last blog post, I noted the vast difference between the theological/spiritual approach to anger seen in the fathers and the biological/naturalistic approach observed in cognitive therapists. Still as healers and helpers for the suffering, they both home in on an important principle: the necessity of identifying the source of the underlying anger before recommending a specific therapeutic intervention.
In a particularly rich passage on the pathology of anger, Saint John Climacus notes that, “As bodily fever is one thing, but the causes of this are not one but many, so also the boiling up of anger and the movement of our other passions have many and various causes. That is why it is impossible to prescribe one identical rule for them. Instead, I would rather suggest that each of those who are sick should most carefully seek out his own particular cure. The first step in this cure should be a diagnosis of the cause of each disease; for when this is discovered, the patients will get the right cure from God’s care and from their spiritual physicians. And so, for instance, those who wish to join us in the Lord should enter the spiritual tribunal that lies before us, and there they should test themselves somewhat concerning the above-mentioned passions or their causes.”
Although most people may imagine that they get angry on account of one thing that someone did to them, Saint John Climacus teaches that there are many and various causes for someone getting angry. This fits almost hand in glove with the cognitive conceptualization of anger as a response provoked by a life event that has physiological, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral cues that trigger an angry reaction. Among the many and various cues noted by cognitive therapists are an increased heart-rate, a clenched jaw, and tightened chess, feelings ranging from irritation to outrage, thoughts about how so-and-so has wronged me and how I need to get even, and behaviors such as raising the tone of one’s voice. In their Anger Management Manual, the authors note, “an important component of anger management is to become aware of, and to recognize, the primary feelings that underlie our anger.” Once these triggering events are recognized, a more thorough evaluation of the emotions, thoughts and perceptions can be undertaken to identify the underlying root cause of the trigger.
What both the fathers and psychologists are stressing is the fact that we are all unique in terms of the world around us and the world within us. And that uniqueness is present in everything we do, including when we miss the mark or get angry. That uniqueness must also be respected in seeking a cure. In suggesting that we carefully seek out a cure, diagnose the cause, and test ourselves, Saint John Climacus is stressing the basic necessity of self knowledge: we need to learn to know ourselves if we hope to get better and be better. On the one hand, that means looking at the physiological, cognitive, and emotional components that cognitive therapists point out and that we all share as human beings. On the other hand, it necessarily means going beyond those reasonable observations by placing everything in the context of God’s care and the counsels of spiritual physicians. In other words, the cure of the passion of anger, like the cure of every passion, requires, honest self-knowledge, profound trust in God and humble recourse to those most sure of guides who have progressed in prayer and acquired purity of heart. In simplest terms, we need repentance, watchfulness, and prayer.
In such a state of repentance, watchfulness, and prayer, Saint John Climacus describes what he discovered about the causes of anger as follows: “So let the tyrant of anger be bound with the chains of meekness, and be beaten by patience, and dragged out by holy love; and, being arraigned before this holy court of reason, let it be duly examined, ‘Tell us, base idiot, what is the name of the father who begot you and the mother who brought you for evil into the world, and the names of your foul sons and daughters. And not only that, but tell us the designations of those who wage war against you and kill you.’ And anger might be thought to reply: ‘Many are my origins, and I have more than one father. My mothers are vainglory, love of money, greed, and sometimes lust. My father is called conceit. My daughters are: remembrance of wrongs, enmity, self-justification, and hatred.” In short a desire for praise and respect, a desire for wealth and possessions, as well as a desire for physical pleasures are conditions that are ripe for anger, especially for those who lack humility and are full of conceit. For Saint John, anger, which he calls a base idiot, is the fruit of the thwarted desire of a soul that is proud.
With much less colorful and value-laden language, cognitive therapy directs clients to perform a similar forensic inquisition by searching for events in the past that may have led to triggering event and the onset of the anger cues. The authors note, “Many times, specific events touch on sensitive areas in your life. These sensitive areas or ‘red flags’ usually refer to long-standing issues that can easily lead to anger. For example, some of us may have been slow readers as children and may have been sensitive about our reading ability. Although we may read well now as adults, we may continue to be sensitive about this issue. This sensitivity may be revealed when someone rushes us while we are completing an application or reviewing a memorandum and may trigger anger because we may feel that we are being criticized or judged as we were when we were children. This sensitivity may also show itself in a more direct way, such as when someone calls us ‘slow’ or ‘stupid.’ In addition to events experienced in the here and now, you may also recall an event from your past that made you angry. You might remember, for example, how the bus always seemed to be late before you left home for an important appointment. Just thinking about how late the bus was in the past can make you angry in the present.”
Such examination of trigger events and anger cues is the first step in a successful anger management plan. Once the source of the anger is identified in terms of the present event in relation to a past issue, a specific set of therapeutic interventions may be applied. It is important that this first step be undertaken with discipline, patience, and vigilance. It would be unwise to apply a therapy before you determine the exact nature of the disease. For as Saint John reminds us, “If you want, or rather intend, to take a splinter out of another person, then do not hack at it with a stick instead of a lancet, for you will only drive it in deeper.”
And so, both ancient fathers and modern therapists carefully seek the causes of anger. Looking at one’s history, being aware of one’s physical response, considering one’s thoughts, being in touch with one’s feelings are all important. The fathers, however, would add that it is important also to look at one’s spiritual landscape and one’s relationship with God. Anger can also be the result of desiring the wrong kinds of things and having an inflated estimation of one’s own importance apart from God and neighbor. The causes of anger are truly “many and various.” If we have a problem with anger, may we also embrace the solution of seeking out those causes on every level of our existence from the beating of our heart to the highest desires of our soul.
—Hieromonk Alexios of Mount Athos