Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California
Most of us know very well that daily annoyances are a normal part of life. I am sure we all have our own personal list of everyday nuisances. Most of my own personal favorites have to do with drivers and driving. For example, drivers not using signals, backing out of parking spaces and not moving at a green light, top my list. All events that we view as annoyances are seen as such because of personal rules that guide the way each of us looks at life. These rules may be likened to a colored lens that gives a hue to the events that are occurring around us. Cognitive science and clinical practitionersi would have us understand that the emotional reaction we feel is due to our psychological interpretation of what is happening around us. Furthermore, in the case of daily irritations such as those mentioned above, it would also be that when people or events are not the way I want them to be, I see this as a catastrophe of some type, something more than 100% bad. Re-evaluating events to discern how actually catastrophic they really are has been found to be helpful in keeping emotions in a ‘normal’ range.ii
Unfortunately, when ‘catastrophizing’ occurs, an emotional reaction way beyond annoyance ensues. This is an extremely strong emotional reaction of anger that often leads to other untoward problems in a way that can be likened to a 'domino effect.' Originally we have a problem, the situation we find “annoying." An angry emotional response is a new problem added to the original, which in turn is linked to other dysfunctional outcomes. It is much more stressful to be angry than to be annoyed.iii Also, anger significantly contributes to the extreme belligerence so prevalent throughout the world today. This is well illustrated in the regular media reports of murder, riot, uprisings, violence, and even genocide.
The deleterious effects of anger have not gone unnoticed by religious traditions. The Buddha is recorded as saying: “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.”iv Interestingly, anticipating the findings of contemporary cognitive science, Buddha also noted the relationship between thinking and emotion: “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”v The Dalai Lama explains this further: “As human beings we all want to be happy and free from misery we have learned that the key to happiness is inner peace. The greatest obstacles to inner peace are disturbing emotions such as anger, attachment, fear and suspicion, while love and compassion and a sense of universal responsibility are the sources of peace and happiness.” In a similar manner, Mahatma Gandhi writes: “I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmitted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmitted into a power that can move the world.”vi The Hebrew king and wise prophet Solomon tells us: “Be not quickly angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of a fool.” (Ecc 7:10) The Hadith, a tome of the Islamic tradition that reports the sayings and activities of Muhammad and his companions, states: “The strong man is not the one who can overpower others. Rather, the strong man is the one who controls himself when he gets angry.”vii
The Fathers of the Eastern Church link the absence of anger to Godliness. For example, St. Isaac of Syria tells us: “A wrathful heart is entirely devoid of the mysteries of God, but the meek and humble man is a well-spring of the new age. [God’s heavenly Kingdom]”viii Anger is a “killer.” It ‘kills’ us physically and psychologicallyix, it leads to the ‘killing’ of others, and worst of all it ‘kills’ our relationship with God. Most importantly we can work at healing ourselves spiritually by decatastrophizing our annoyances and thus pointing us more toward union with God.
i Beck, J.S. (2011); Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. (2nd ed.). NY: The Guilford Press; Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus NJ: Lyle Stuart.
ii Morelli, G. (2005, October 14). The Beast of Anger. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliAnger.php
iii Morelli, G. (2005, October 14). The Beast of Anger. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliAnger.php
viii Holy Transfiguration Monastery. (ed., trans.). (2011). The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (revised, 2nd edition). Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery.
ix A recent Live Science Report indicated: “In a study of more than 300 Vietnam veterans who were healthy at the study start found that those who scored high on measures of hostility were about 25 percent more likely to develop heart disease hostile individuals might experience more stress, which can cause spikes in an immune-system protein called C3 that has been linked with various diseases, including diabetes. In fact, the participants with higher scores on hostility showed an increase in these proteins while the non-hostile men showed no such increase.” http://www.livescience.com/17852-unhealthy-personality-traits-neuroticism.html
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V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.
Fr. Morelli is the Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion.
Fr. Morelli is a Senior Fellow at the Sophia Institute, an independent Orthodox Advanced Research Association and Philanthropic Foundation housed at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York City that serves as a gathering force for contemporary Orthodox scholars, theologians, spiritual teachers, and ethicists.
Fr. Morelli serves on the Executive Board of the San Diego Cognitive Behavior Therapy Consortium (SDCBTC)
Fr. Morelli serves as Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.
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