Anger and the Self - Gordon Meyer

Have you ever noticed how anger can be used as a tool?  When I was teaching children with behavioral problems, one of the things that became apparent to me was that many of them seemed to use angry outbursts as a means for meeting their needs.  They didn't know how else to get people to pay attention to them.  Very often the parents of these children were behaving a lot like their kids.  There were no adults in the family.  This resulted in angry power struggles.  When these became severe enough to require professional intervention, the child had been sent to live in a residential treatment center, and that's where I worked as a teacher and where I got to know these kids. 

I remember one little girl in particular.  She was the only child of a divorced couple.  Her mother was attempting to raise this little girl, but the mother herself was a very conflicted person with a strong narcissistic streak.  The only way this little girl could get her mother to pay attention to her needs was to make her mother so uncomfortable that she was compelled to attend to her daughter. 

Let's call her Maggie, since I'm sure that wasn't her real name. 

Maggie was about seven or eight when she came to us.  She was a physically attractive child with curly brown hair and cute little dimples in her pudgy cheeks.  She could be sweet as long as she was content with her circumstances, but that didn't last long. 

Most kids, coming into a situation like a residential treatment facility and its school go through a period of adjustment we called the "honeymoon period."   Like newlyweds, these kids would be on their best behavior while they scouted out the lay of the land.  Once they discovered they were safe, they would begin to show their true personalities.

With Maggie, that didn't take as long as most kids.  As I recall, she was being physically restrained by the second day she was in school and the classroom was in an uproar most of the time because of her behavior.

After a couple of days of this, my assistant and I decided that our usual response to this kind of acting out wasn't going to work.  Maggie was clearly as determined as we were to control the classroom.  We decided on a different approach.  Whenever Maggie began to protest, we would simply ignore her until she asked appropriately for what she wanted.  Since she didn't tear the place apart, but rather tended to scream and cry and accuse us, we were able to refrain from restraining her. 

We had a very large classroom with no windows.  It had once been an industrial arts room.  My assistant had her desk at one end of the room and I was at the other, facing her.  We decided that when Maggie began acting out, we would either be working with other students at their desks or be seated at our own desks working with students one-to-one.  We would keep tabs on Maggie, but not pay attention to her. 

Of course, her acting out increased markedly.  She began having real tantrums, screaming and crying, laying on the floor kicking.  The kind of thing you expect in a two-year-old.  She kept it up all one afternoon until I thought I was going to lose my mind.  At one point, I took the rest of our students to the gym while my assistant remained in the room with Maggie. 

The next day Maggie seemed fine for the first few minutes.  Then she found something to complain about and we were back into the crisis mode.  The other students, fortunately, were very willing to cooperate with us.  They were experiencing her self-centered behavior both at school and in the residence and they understood what we were doing. 

They ignored her and went about their business.  Maggie kept up the screaming and demanding through the morning.  Her endurance was remarkable.  When it came time for lunch, I stayed behind while my assistant took the class to the lunchroom.  She brought Maggie's lunch back on a tray that Maggie promptly dumped on the floor. 

By mid-afternoon I was beginning to question the wisdom of our plan when things changed.  Maggie was standing in the middle of the room where she had been sitting on the floor screaming for the last several minutes.  Suddenly, she stopped and stood up.  I was watching surreptitiously.  She looked around with an angry scowl.  Then she burst into tears, stomped her foot, threw up her hands and yelled at this cruel world, "I'm real angry and nobody cares."  Then she collapsed in sobs on the floor.  She cried for a few minutes, but when no one reacted, she stopped and sat up.  My assistant went over to her and asked if she was ready to do her work.  Maggie nodded and went to her own desk with my assistant and began working.

That was the end of it.  We certainly had some relapses to deal with over the next weeks, but her need to control us by her negative behavior was gone.   What was most interesting to me was that her mother continued to report the same old routine at home during home visits.  It made it quite clear to us where the real problem lay.  But we had little control over that, and Maggie was learning to behave appropriately away from her mother.  She rarely displayed anger by the time she left our school and when she did, it was due to something that happened between her and another student. 

Incidents like this have made me aware of how anger can be used as a tool.  We use anger to get what we want or to protect our interests in some way.  Swedenborg wrote that anger is always an expression of self-love.  Whenever someone makes a generalization like that, it is good to look closely at it.  The old adage that "no generalization is worth a damn, including this one" applies. 

But perhaps this is the exception that proves the rule.  This generalization may be true.  Can it be that all anger is an expression of self-love?  Does anger only occur when our self-love is thwarted or threatened in some way?

Perhaps the answer lies in how we define self-love.  As a little girl Maggie was confronted with a caretaker who was so self-absorbed that she didn't provide for the young child's needs very well.  Maggie wasn't  seriously neglected to the point that removal from her home or loss of parental rights was considered.  Her mother wasn't a druggy or a criminal.  Nor was she insane.  She was just self-absorbed and put her child's needs second to her own. 

As a result, Maggie developed a coping mechanism that made quieting her tantrums one of her mother's needs.   We changed her behavior by showing her that her tantrums wouldn't get her what she wanted, but appropriate behavior would. 

Was Maggie's anger justified?  It would appear so, under the circumstances.   Was her anger an expression of self-love?  I think the answer is also yes, even though the circumstances dictated the behavior.  Broadly defined, self-love includes any behavior designed or intended to meet our personal needs.  In Maggie's case, her efforts to get her needs met were so thwarted that angry outbursts became the most effective means of meeting them. 

Are there other circumstances when anger as an expression of self-love, is justified?  I think so.   On the personal level, we can see that it is permissible and necessary to defend ourselves against people or animals that pose a threat to our lives.  Protecting others by violent means may also be necessary under the right circumstances. 

How does anger fit into these situations?  Typically, when confronted with danger a human being's first reaction is fear.  Fear can be immobilizing.  A deer in the headlights of a car is frozen by fear. 

Anger can be the motivating stimulus to gear us into action when confronted by something dangerous.  Certainly protecting ourselves is an expression of self-love.  But it is necessary self-love. 

This is a distinction we need to be able to make.  What self-love is necessary and what is just selfish?   We have to eat to live. And violence to defend against violent threats is also sometimes necessary. 

So when does anger cross the line and result in unnecessary selfishness?

In our reading from Matthew today Jesus tells us that if we are angry with another person we are liable to judgment.  He prefaces this by saying that we have heard the Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill."  But he is pointing out that killing means more than putting someone to death.  It is harboring any resentment against another, or having someone holding something against us that is unresolved.  This isn't about physical survival, where anger might actually be beneficial.  This is about love between us and our neighbor, where any kind of anger is destructive.  This is what Swedenborg had in mind when he said that all anger is an expression of self-love. 

We cannot allow anger to stand between us and another person if we are to truly love the neighbor.  Even if that person is an enemy who seems bent on doing us harm, we are not to be angry with that person.  We are to love them and seek to be reconciled to them. 

These teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount show us just how detailed we need to be in our examination of our self.  He says that we have heard the Ten Commandments.  Don't kill, don't steal, don't commit adultery.   These big headings have long lists under them of detailed behaviors that are not acceptable.  For the most part they play out in our lives as little feelings we have, mostly hidden and unexpressed. 

We feel minor irritations at something someone is doing or saying that we don't like.   We feel irritated by this other person and it barely enters our awareness.  Yet it is an expression of very mild anger and therefore also an expression of self-love that we imagine being thwarted. 

How subtle that is.  So subtle we don't even pay any attention to it.  Yet it is there.  It distracts us briefly from loving our neighbor.  Like Maggie's mother, those little irritations comprise a large part of our psyche and or character is formed by them.  We become a generally angry person. 

It is not uncommon for someone to be angry nearly all the time and not be aware of it.  If someone asks them how they feel about something, they are likely to respond with a description of what they think about it.  Another way of avoiding our anger is to project our feelings onto others, imagining them to be angry with us, when, in reality, we are the angry ones.

So is our anger a tool?  Do we use it to get what we think we want?  Do we use it unconsciously, out of habit, like putting on a jacket before going out in the cold.  Anger is a defense.  It is our ego's way of protecting itself.  Most of the anger we feel is under our radar.  We don't notice it.  It flits by and we move on to the next situation.  Some of us indulge in it more than others.  But almost all anger is destructive.  Spiritually speaking, it is the murder the sixth Commandment tells us not to commit.  The only way to overcome it is to recognize our anger when it occurs and then ask the Lord in prayer to help us overcome this habit.  If we truly desire to be a loving person we must resist being angry. The Lord can remove anger from us, and he will to the degree that we truly want him to. 

Let us pray:  Lord help us to see our anger and allow you to cleanse it from our hearts.  Amen.