Defusing Anger

By Marjorie Foerster Eddington

When I was a little girl and there were thunder and lightning storms, my family used to turn off all the lights and sit in front of our wall of glass doors and windows and watch the lightning illuminate the mountains. It was beautiful. Our dog, on the other hand, would shake with fear, whimper, and try to hide. We would hold her, comfort her, and pray for her. She didn't see the beauty in the lightning.

Lightning happens when a charge of electrons builds up in the clouds, creating an imbalance of negative electric charges in the atmosphere. These negative charges naturally try to equalize themselves with positive charges. They eventually overcome the resistance in the air and zap, making the flash that we see, which heats up the air very rapidly. When the lightning is gone, the air cools quickly, creating a shock wave, which we hear as thunder.

Anger is like lightning and thunder. Negative emotions may build up in us. At times, they seem to outweigh our positive feelings to such an extent that we explode, strike, and send those negative charges through the atmosphere. Anger changes and intensifies the environment. We overheat. When we are angry, we are imbalanced, irrational, out of control. Anger can wound the spirit, kill relationships, and generally wreak havoc.

I was talking with a student who was sent to the office because he got angry at a teacher who, he felt, refused to listen to him and his side of the story. The student felt trapped, so he exploded. Even though he knew that he had not expressed himself in the best way, he felt he had expressed himself in the only way he could at the moment. He was trying to regain a sense of balance or control in his life.

How many of us get angry because we don't feel listened to, appreciated, or understood? And how often have we been on the other end -- not listening, not appreciating, and not trying to understand, thus indirectly adding fuel to the fire? It's interesting that most of the references to anger in the Bible deal with anger being "kindled." When we "kindle" a fire, it burns and destroys.

How can we help ourselves and others put out this fire of anger?

Certainly NOT by venting our anger or acting in anger! If we keep expressing or fueling our anger, we will stay angry. But we also should not bottle up our feelings until we explode. That's what happens with lightning. Rather, we must realize that it's okay to feel. There will probably be times when we do feel angry, upset, hurt. But it is NOT okay to let our anger destroy us or others, or overtake our ability to think calmly and make positive, worthwhile decisions.

We need to find effective ways to handle our feelings, to find our balance, so that we can express ourselves in the best possible way, regardless of the situation.

The most important concept to realize is that while anger causes many problems, anger itself is not the problem; it is only a symptom of a larger problem, a problem we want solved and don't know how to solve. Once we realize this, we must search for the solutions. This search:

  • requires a great deal of humility and maturity;
  • forces us to stop blaming others for being the cause of our anger;
  • makes us examine ourselves and start learning why we are reacting to situations and people with anger.

As we examine ourselves it is extremely helpful to ask:

  • Why am I angry?
  • Is what I'm angry about really worth all my emotional energy? Is it worth losing my control and equilibrium?
  • Is this "problem" worth sacrificing my self-respect? Do I really want to play the fool?
  • Am I making the problem bigger than it really is?
  • Do I really want to give someone else the power over my thoughts and feelings?
  • In twenty, fifty, one hundred years, will this issue be significant?

Except for cases of abuse, these questions usually help us see that we're getting angry about something that's not that important. Or sometimes we realize that we're the problem: we've had a bad day, and we're taking it out on our friends. Asking and answering these questions helps us put things in perspective and restore balance to our lives. We realize that our reaction, our anger, is disproportionate to the event that we believe caused our reaction.

If we truly feel that there is a real problem, then we need to ask ourselves:

  • What is the real problem, since anger is not the issue?
  • How can I best solve the problem?
  • Does the best solution to the problem include another person? Should we discuss the issues?
  • Or, is the best solution to the problem for me to work it out alone with God -- to work on my own relationship with God?

The best place to find answers is always God. The most important step we can take in freeing ourselves from the sudden grip of anger is to work on our own relationship with God. In so doing, God will tell us if we need to discuss the problem with another, when to discuss it, what to say, and how to listen to another. In our discussion, we must not kindle any anger. Therefore, we need to:

  • make sure that we do not accuse others by using the word "you…you…you…" (verbally pointing the finger);
  • make "I" statements -- "I feel…;"
  • watch our tone of voice; if our tone of voice is tense and angry, others will not want to listen to us, and we will have failed before we've even worked towards a solution;
  • listen openly to others and appreciate their point of view.

In the heat of the moment, remaining calm, asking ourselves important questions, and speaking in a peaceful tone of voice is often hard to do. But we must make a concerted effort to provide ourselves with the best possible conditions in which to solve the problem. Anger strips us of our ability to think and act clearly, making honest and genuine communication impossible.

Therefore, our goal should be to respond rather than react.

  • Responding means that we are in control, able to think clearly about what to say or do.
  • Reacting means that we are out of control, acting before we think.

If we can put our trust wholeheartedly in the Father's hands, then we will find that we will be able to respond with love. Responding with love eliminates anger we feel and helps us defend ourselves against anger others express:

The Bible tells us:

A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.

A gentle response defuses anger,
     but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire.
     (The Message, Prov. 15:1)

  • Speaking gently to others is our best defense. If we return anger for anger and use "sharp" words that "stir up anger," all we end up doing is creating thunder.
  • If we can meet anger with love, patience, and gentleness, then we can diffuse it.
  • When someone is angry with us, it helps to separate the anger from the individual. That way, we can love the individual and deal with that person's fears, concerns, or problems. The person becomes the center of attention, not the anger.
  • Loving who we know to be the child of God, not the tool of anger, makes it natural for us to find ways to reach out to others, hold their hands, give them hugs, tell them we love them, understand them, or are sorry for our part in the problem.
  • We now become part of the solution rather than the problem.

There was one ongoing conversation I had with a friend in college about some now forgotten subject. As he was gearing up to start his argument, I told him something to the effect that I agreed with him or understood his point. I meant it. He spoke a few more words as if he hadn't heard me and then stopped mid-sentence. Turning to me, he asked, "What did you say?" It was as if I had just popped a balloon and all the air went out. When I told him that I agreed, he said, "But I had this whole argument ready to tell you." I replied, "Go ahead, but I agree." I can't remember if he continued or not; this was not a heated debate. But I do remember what an immediate and striking effect this had -- it stopped the argument right away. We laughed.

The Bible also warns:

A wrathful man stirreth up strife: but he that is slow to anger appeaseth strife. (Prov. 15:18)

Hot tempers start fights;
      a calm, cool spirit keeps the peace. (The Message, Prov. 15:18)

Sometimes it seems that in order to have a "calm spirit" we need to have more patience than we think is possible. Rather than think of patience as a human virtue that requires an amazing sense of self-discipline and control, we can think of patience as a divine gift enabling us to wait on God. If we're waiting on God, then we are not trying to fix the problem by arguing, yelling, or reacting to anger. We are trusting God to take care of the future, and we have no need to fear the outcome. Any reason for anger dies.

As a result of our patient and active waiting on God, we "keep the peace." This does not mean that we let people walk over us. This does not mean that we accept anger as a viable means of expression. Having a calm spirit provides a way for others to get back to a sense of balance, to restore equilibrium. Our calm presence also gives them away to get out of the situation with more dignity and grace, for anger makes fools of us all:

Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools. (Eccl. 7:9)

Don't be quick to fly off the handle. Anger boomerangs. You can spot a fool by the lumps on his head. (The Message, Eccl. 7:9)

We don't have to play the fool and send out anger that will come back to hit us -- nor do others!

We need to see anger as an outside invader trying to steal away happiness. Anger often seems to come from nowhere: someone can say something stupid, and we react quickly. Therefore, we must be active in our guard against anger. We must unmask it for what it really is -- a good-for-nothing sham that would try to make us think that by being angry we can regain control of our lives and restore our balance.

Unlike lightning, anger is never beautiful, never illuminates the darkness. But love does. Love illumines life. Love gives us the courage, patience, humility, and strength to remain calm in all situations so that we can respond with love rather than react with anger. The most effective way to restore our sense of balance is to throw our whole weight and trust into the powerful fact that "God is love" (I John 4:16).