I don’t remember the vehicle, but I remember the wrench: a Craftsman 18 mm box/open combination. I snaked it through the nearly impenetrable maze under the hood and found the bolt head. Hmm. Very tight. A little more pressure and I felt movement. Was the bolt turning? No, it was just the sickening feeling of slowly rounding off the hex corners.
The repair challenge had become a problem now turned into a nightmare. In a moment of angry frustration, I yanked the wrench out and threw it to the garage floor. Whereupon it immediately ricocheted right back into my shin. Ah, so that’s why they say never to throw a wrench.
The wincing pain remained with me for a few days, but the lesson endured: Reactive anger circles back to wound you.
Anger has become a dominant theme today, and the long list of topics is familiar to all: in politics, in education, around issues of respect for life and the protection of the innocent, in the shocking violence we see daily at home and abroad. Exploring the complex origin and interplay of issues is not the purpose here; these words are rather about navigating anger and seeking peace and hope.
Aquinas rightly identifies anger as one of the passions — a human emotion we spontaneously experience in the presence of some perceived pain or loss. For those who struggle with impulsivity and a history of adversity, anger carries added force. It is not itself wrong or sinful, but it can dispose us to react in ways that could be and foster a habit of harm to self and others.
More to the point today, perhaps, Aquinas would not consider anger somehow virtuous, either. To bully, intimidate, feel justified in using harsh language or insulting others, spread rumors, even to harm self-proclaimed enemies — these are problems, not solutions.
Scripture frequently says the same; for example: “If you are angry, let it be without sin; do not give the devil a chance to work on you” (Ephesians 4:26f); “Human anger does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20); “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret — it leads only to evil” (Psalms 37:8).
Reactive anger circles back to wound you. Even if it is not a rusty bolt, anger works like rust; it is corrosive within. It slowly eats away at compassion, patience, trust and faith. A familiar anonymous saying puts it: “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting it to hurt the other person.”
The hermit St. Francis of Paola wrote vividly of the impact of lingering anger: “It is a rusty arrow and poison for the soul. It puts all virtue to flight. It is like a worm in the mind: It confuses our speech and tears to shreds our petitions to God. It remains planted in the soul like a nail. It is wickedness that never sleeps … a daily death” (see Epistola a. 1486, from the Origins of the Minims, Rome).
We seem today prone to interpret things as causes for grievance and to live in a state of constant alarm, panic and impending doom. While anger may simply express frustration around our personal preferences and expectations, Aquinas reminds us that anger is at times a fitting emotional response. If we do not experience proportionate concern about genuine wrongs and evils, if we can look on another’s suffering with indifference, something is lacking in our humanity. Yet raw anger is potent and can easily trigger words and actions we regret.
All that said, what might we do with anger?
As we encounter anger in others, it’s wise to recall that we can never determine or control another’s emotions. First, be safe. Realize that sometimes anger is directed at something we have said, done or omitted. Listening quietly and non-defensively to the grievance and offering sincere apologies can bring healing. Other times, we may simply be the target of anger that is really directed elsewhere.
Again, listening and empathy with another’s pain can help; it does not mean you agree with the other’s perspective, reinforce their grievance or join in their anger. But since anger is aggravated when it seems no one else cares about one’s deep concerns, a calm manner, objective ear and genuine assurance of prayer — perhaps in that very moment if appropriate — can bring down the temperature and help us from internalizing the other’s strong emotions.
Addressing anger within ourselves begins with awareness — recognizing signs of growing irritation, knowing our common triggers, and simply naming the emotion. Awareness helps reinforce that while we do not choose our emotional reactions, we can choose how to respond. Consider alternative endings to the phrase: “I am so angry I could just …”
- “take a deep breath” to avoid impulsive reactions.
- “think a moment” to understand what is triggering me and to seek a reasoned and calm next step.
- “keep hurtful words and threats to myself,” and ask if they would really resolve things or simply escalate them.
- “serve someone” — that is, do something positive and constructive rather than stew and ruminate on the negative
- “turn away” from whatever is fueling my anger — commentary, blogs, websites, gossip, remembered grudge; focus on a positive blessing instead.
- “pray” for peace, for serenity, for discernment, for patience, for healing of the suffering exposed by the anger.
Reactive anger circles back to wound you. In tense and highly charged moments, we might fail to manage our anger well; but we can learn from each experience and gradually grow in our understanding of God’s words to Isaiah: “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).
Your soul — and perhaps your shin — will thank you.
Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Sacred Heart in Sauk Rapids and Annunciation in Mayhew Lake. He also serves as consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud.