We use the expression “anger management” confidently, as if our most intemperate feelings were easy to manage, as if anger is something we can easily control. Yet people usually describe anger as something that feels beyond control, like a storm that sweeps us up in its toxic wake and drops us off in a foreign country. People often describe anger transporting them to new and unfriendly territory, a place that’s hard to find a way out of when you’re stuck there temporarily.
Anger becomes a subject of rabbinic contemplation in a page of Talmud studied in this week’s daily cycle this week [BT Nedarim 22a-b]. The Sages two thousand years ago brought together biblical verses on anger and interpreted their meaning and relevance to human interactions. Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani specifically tells us what foreign country we’re in when we’re angry: hell. He said, “One who loses his temper is exposed to all the torments of Gehenna [purgatory].” If you can imagine hell as a place where you are your worst possible self, your anger becomes your passport into that unpleasant, threatening place. Therefore, Rabbi Nahmani concludes, “remove anger from your heart.” Move out of that country quickly.
Rabba adds to this discussion: “When a person loses his temper, even the Divine Presence becomes unimportant to him.” There is an underlying arrogance to anger, namely that I think my opinion or behavior is correct and yours is clearly not – that is what gives me license to release my inner venom on you. When I do that and spill out that anger on another person and make myself superior in the process, I remove the godliness of the other. God demanded that we act in God’s likeness. This means that all of our relationships should be colored by transcendence, not arrogance.
Rabbi Jeremiah said, “He [an angry person] forgets his learning and becomes more and more foolish, as it is written, “Anger rests in the bosoms of fools,” [Ecclesiastes 7:9] and it is written, “The fool is laid open to folly [Proverbs 13:26]” Rabbi Nahman ben Isaac said, ‘It is certain that his sins outnumber his merits, as it is written “A furious man abounds in transgressions” [Proverbs 29:22]. Because anger is a vehement and immersive emotion, it has the power to erase whatever was occupying the mind and heart beforehand: learning, commonsense, goodness, kindness. It all goes. We make foolish decisions in a state of anger.
The pastor and motivational speaker and writer Joel Olsteen discusses the myriad opportunities we have daily for anger and its many minions: offense, insult and stress, to name just a few. When you “indulge these negative emotions,” Olsteen says you give something outside yourself “power over your happiness.” Olsteen, like our Sages of old, emphasizes the way that anger takes over our psychic landscape and entraps us, making us into people we don’t want to be. We give anger power over us.
But when we describe anger as an animated almost extraterrestrial force, we also – perhaps unwittingly – attribute powers to it that it cannot have. We give it permission to live within us and dominate us as if we were victims. All we did was offer this force entry into our souls and then it hijacked us without asking.
Aristotle is attributed with this perspective on anger: “Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.” This is not the view of the Sages of the Talmud. The Talmud wants us to acknowledge the power and destructiveness of anger while still owning the anger. We are not its victims but its ultimate master, each and every one of us. Managing anger is an aspect of human free will. If we regard it as anything more then we deny our ability to tame and calm it.
Think of a time when you were really angry.
How did it make you feel?
Did you control it or did it control you?