Orthodoxy Today
Anger - The Boomerang Emotion

Chaplain's Corner Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California

he display of anger is so common that it frequently goes unnoticed. Rather, it has become the expected response to any slight, no matter how trivial or harsh, given to someone by someone else in society. Some "getting back at" or "vengeance" is the norm. No one is exempt, parents, coaches, athletes, referees, police officers, teachers or those acquitted of a criminal offense.

Interestingly, a recent news report noted that displaying anger at subordinates, especially combined with the use of scatological words, has also become the required norm to be an effective leader. [http://www.blogging4jobs.com/business/swearing-makes-you-a-better-leader]

Psychologically, anger occurs because we perceive ourselves to be "intruded on" to the extent that it justifies aggression, vengeance, and retaliation. To display this level of anger we have to have to see ourselves as very 'important.'

St. Basil tells us "Anger nurses a grievance. The soul, itching for vengeance, constantly tempts us to repay those who have offended" [St Basil the Great, Homily 10]. I am so important, so above others that I have the "right" to act uncharitably toward others. Note that I am making an important distinction between annoyance, which in fact could motivate a useful adaptive response such as being more focused or trying harder, with real anger.

There may be some who would perceive angry individuals as effective leaders, but, in general, psychologists have found damaging boomerang effects for anger displays: relationships are fermented, people will tend to retaliate; it cognitively distracts from solving problems, and even if what I am angry about has some truth to it, my over-reaction lessens my credibility.

This boomerang effect was not lost by ancient religious leaders. Buddha points out “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” The Hebrew writer Sirach (27: 30) writes: "Anger and wrath, these also are abominations, and the sinful man will possess them." Gandhi clearly saw: “anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.” [http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Anger].

The spiritual root of anger cannot be made more clear than in the Eastern Christian tradition. Thinking we have the right to be angry is really the vice of pride. St. John of the Ladder (1982) has told us: "Pride is a denial of God, an invention of the devil, contempt for men. ... the source of anger, the gateway of hypocrisy." St John Cassian calls the demon of pride " ... most sinister, fiercest of all ... " (Philokalia I).

To help us to be motivated to overcome anger the spiritual perception of St. Isaac of Syria is unequaled (Brock, 1997): "Just because the terms 'wrath', 'anger', 'hatred' and the rest are used of the Creator in the Bible, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger, hatred or zeal.

Many figurative terms are used of God in the Scriptures, terms which are far removed from His true nature. Among all God's actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and end of His dealing with us." May I add that this should be the beginning and end of our relationships with all mankind in which we are all made in God's image.


Brock, S. (1997). The Wisdom of St. Isaac the Syrian. Fairacres Oxford, England: SLG Press.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds). (1979). The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth . London: Faber and Faber.

St. John of the Ladder. (1982), John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent. NY: Paulist Press.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: September 1, 2011

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