Aw, hell. I was in the middle of this post about wrath when Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut became the victim of a mass killing of (among others) kindergarten students. I have completed my original thoughts, but have added, in the context of today's events, a comment about what happened. It's at the end of this post.
I started this series with wrath because it is perhaps the most deadly of the deadly sins — and not just because people who live in anger have a greater tendency to commit murders. Anger creates a condition of continual stress in your body, which, over time, causes heart disease, high blood pressure, and other physical ailments.
Anger vs. Wrath
When people come to a therapist, they usually have one of three emotions that they are trying to 'get rid of': anger, fear, or sadness. Leaving aside for a second that "getting rid of"
an emotion is not the answer, the key here is that anger is one of the top three most miserable emotions to live with... and it's even more complicated than that.
Anger is almost always tied up very tightly with anxiety. Sometimes the anger attempts to hide the fear, and sometimes the fear is desperately covering up deep rage, but they appear to be paired in many, many people.
On top of its marriage to anxiety, anger also sometimes serves an important function, by giving energy to people who are paralyzed by fear or depression, to function at a more or less 'normal level'.
Anger is a useful emotion.
That bears repeating: Anger is a useful emotion. Which is why I tell people I will not help them get rid of it, only to use it better.
It can help you identify wrongs in your life. Is someone consistently treating you with disrespect? Anger will let you know, if you let it. Are you being asked to do more than your fair share at home or work? Anger will give you a heads up. Are someone's lies hurting you? Anger will tell you (if you let it).
However. However. (And this is a huge however!)
Anger is a tool that needs to be wielded carefully, and with skill. And wrath, the wrath that is listed among the deadliest of deadly sins, is the careless or out of control misuse of anger.
Wrath isn't so much informative as it is explosive. Anger informs you that your husband's ongoing lies probably mean that he is cheating on you. Wrath causes you to stab him with a chef's knife instead of serving him with divorce papers.
Anger tells you that there is something wrong with a 'justice' system that disproportionately lets wealthy people off the hook and punishes poor people and minorities. Wrath causes you to take an AK-47 into the local courthouse and hold everyone hostage vs. creating or joining an organization to advocate for a better court system, or take a Glock into an elementary school and gun down an entire class of kindergarten students.
How to Channel Anger to Avoid Giving in to Wrath
(You're not going to like this.)
You are never going to not have anger as part of your life. You are never going to be able to make your anger go away. Anger is, just like anxiety and sadness are, hardwired into our brains for survival reasons.
Your anger is a part of you, and the best way to deal with it is to allow yourself to feel it, safely (more on that later), and to then use it to improve your life and the lives of those around you.
Right now, I am trying to write a post on the difference between anger and wrath, while I am so angry I am having trouble not writing a tirade about assault weapons, the second amendment, and difference between the ease of getting an assault weapon and the ease of getting mental health treatment. I am one step away from wrath that I can't back down from, from doing something I'll regret. So how do I handle it?
First, I need to put that anger somewhere away from me so that I can function. In my mind, I picture a box (you can picture a bag, a closet, a casket, a Tardis — any container you can imagine sealing will do). I then stuff my anger into my box. I don't fold it neatly and put it in there, though you may, if you want. I picture myself throwing it in like a bunch of dirty clothes, and then tucking away those little bits that tried to escape the top of the box.
I close the box, and then seal it. I lock it with an imaginary gold key that fits only my hand and vanishes when I'm done imagining it. I then put the box away. In my case, I bury it about three feet down in my garden, with a 'super shovel' that I imagine can do the whole thing in just a few moments. You're welcome to put your anger away on a shelf or under your bed instead, if you prefer.
Now, I know where my anger is. It's right over there. If I need to pull it out, it's simple enough to simply imagine digging it up, unlocking the box, and opening it up. But it's safe where it is, and I can function again.
While my anger is safely in my box, I pull out and examine the coping skills for anger that I use again and again, the ones that work best for me (yours may be different from mine). I do some deep breathing. I write out my thoughts and feelings. I knit. I play video games, usually Sims 3 or Star Wars the Old Republic these days. I spend time with my husband or kids or pets or friends. I go workout. I bury myself in work for a few days.
Every now and then I peek back into the box and pull out a bit of that anger, little by little, like opening that soda can your kid sister so kindly shook to kingdom come. A tiny bit open ... pssst ... and a little bit more ... PSSST ... I wipe up that little bit of spillover you always get when you try to salvage that shaken soda can, and keep working it, a little at a time, until I can open that box without my anger exploding all over me.
If I pull out too much, I put it back in the box, lock it back up, and try a few more coping skills. Maybe watch some romantic comedy movies or Star Trek or Doctor Who reruns on Netflix. I call a friend and vent, or Skype them, or Facebook them. Sometimes my anger turns into a post on my website or a rant on my personal (and not ready for primetime) Facebook page.
Sometimes, I even give into my anger in small ways. I cuss like a sailor. I say 'Fuck cancer' and 'Fuck assholes who shoot little kids with assault rifles', and mean it. Sometimes I yell and scream and cry, in the safety and comfort of my home surrounded by those who love and understand me. And sometimes the anger is so huge that I have to wait past the numbness before I can act at all, because if I poke at that numbness even a little bit, my anger will turn to its destructive cousin, wrath.
- Put your anger away in a 'box' in your imagination when you need to be doing other things.
- Pull it out, little by little, examine it, and figure out what it's good for.
- Use coping skills you've developed (or try some of mine) to deal with each bit of anger as you examine it.
- Put it back in the box when you need to.
- Just as you've used up all the anger in the box and used it to fuel something that improves your life or lives around you (and probably screwed up and used it destructively a bit too), a new load of shit to be angry at falls in your lap.
- Repeat as necessary.
On the Murders at Sandy Hook Elementary
This is the destructive power of wrath. We will probably never know what motivated the shooter, and frankly, it doesn't matter. He probably had reason to be angry at someone. We all do. He took his anger, the same anger we are all given, and rejected the many opportunities life hands each of us to do productive things with our anger, and chose instead to murder at least twenty six people, at least twenty of whom were five and six year old children.
He was not a monster, he was a human being who made a choice that hurt us all. It is quite possible that at the time when he committed his murders, he was at the point where he was no longer able to channel his anger — but to get to that point he had to ignore chance after chance after chance, just of all of us do who, on occasion, succumb.
The murders were entirely his choice. Whether his choice was limited by mental health is an important question, but it's a question that indicts us, not him. Whether his choice was abetted by gun laws that make assault rifles easy to obtain is also an important question, but again, the answer indicts us, not him. His indictment is for succumbing to wrath and committing an atrocity.
When we see acts like this, we understand why some Christians have for nearly two millenia considered wrath to be an unforgiveable, or deadly, sin. Wrath pulls us away from our humanity enough to permit us to forget the humanity of others.
And it is in avoidance of that sin that I refuse to call the murderer a 'monster', or a 'subhuman'. I refuse to deny him humanity in any way. Instead, I invite all of us to reach into that anger we all have, that anger that is in all too much danger of turning into wrath, and decide what each of us is going to do to make the world better with regard to this shooting.
Are you going to have a long talk with a group of children or teens to help them understand what happened? Are you going to hold someone overcome with grief and anger and help them release it safely? Are you going to join or start an organization to make it easier for people who need it to access community mental health? Are you going to join or start an organization that calls for a re-instatement of the Brady Act and its ban on assault rifles?
Or are you going to succumb to wrath? Don't tell me you have no choice. It was a cop out when the shooter used it, and it's a cop out when you do. You have a choice.
My choice? I'm going to fight like the dickens to make sure I do all of those things listed above, especially including advocating for the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban. And even then, at some point this weekend, when the numbness wears off, I am going to yell, and scream, and cry about the injustice of it, about the loss of those innocent lives, and about all the ways this senseless tragedy could have been avoided, if only the will had been there.