I’ve been posting on the “capital vices,” which in the Christian tradition were seen as source vices from which a multitude of other vices spring. My reflections have been prompted by the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by the philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. As an older adult, I’m particularly interested in how these harmful thoughts and inclinations occur among those of us past midlife. This post is on the vice of anger.
DeYoung reports that there is a disagreement among Christian moralists as to whether anger in itself is wrong. Even Biblical authors seem to have had differing views in this matter. The apostle James wrote that “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:19), which seems to proscribe all anger. On the other hand, the apostle Paul instructed the Ephesians to “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). The idea here may be that anger can be legitimate, but continuing to dwell on what has made us angry, prolonging it from one day to the next, is wrong.
Anger that is good, suggests DeYoung, “is a passion for justice, motivated by love for others. We get angry when someone we care about is hurt or threatened.” (p. 121) Unfortunately, anger often fights not for justice but for self-aggrandizement. My anger may protect my interests instead of the welfare of others, or may take the form of rage about some slight to my honor or status. Even anger that has a worthwhile aim can be destructive if it is expressed in the wrong way. DeYoung follows Aquinas in distinguishing three wrongful ways that anger can be expressed:
“We can get angry too easily (for example, when we are quick-tempered); we can get angrier than we should (for instance, when our anger is disproportionate to the offense); and we can stay angry too long (that is, when anger smolders into resentment and grudge-holding).” (p. 124)
So, do older adults tend to have problems with anger, and, if so, of what sort? Most of us can probably remember examples of old people who haven’t conquered the demon of anger. Often, though, these angry oldsters were just as angry, if not more so, when they were young. Also, it’s not uncommon for those who were angry when they were young to mellow as they age, so that they are no longer explosive or excessive in their anger.
Of the three wrongful ways that anger can be expressed, it may be that, collectively at least, older adults are less prone to the first two–getting angry too easily or too intensely. That leaves Aquinas’ third form of harmful anger–staying angry too long–and this is where some older adults experience difficulty. I know a few people past the age of 60 who are masters of resentment. One man, for example, has been collecting grievances for decades. Sometimes when talking about a wrong done to him thirty or forty years ago, his outrage seems as intense as if the incident had happened yesterday.
It’s not just events from long ago that can provoke anger in older adults. During later adulthood, we are likely to experience multiple losses–of loved ones, of status, of health, of hope. In his book The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic priest, writes about the importance of mourning such losses:
“…perhaps the greatest spiritual and psychological challenge for us once we reach mid-life is to mourn our deaths and losses. Unless we mourn properly our hurts, our losses, life’s unfairness, our shattered dreams, our radical inconsummation, and all the life that we once had but that has now passed us by, we will live either in an unhealthy fantasy or an ever-intensifying bitterness.”
So to his way of thinking, one of the two outcomes of not mourning our losses is that the person becomes bitter, that is, harbors a resentful, grudge-bearing form of anger. And our anger in that case isn’t directed only at the people and circumstances around us. It is also directed at God. Christopher FitzSimmons Allison writes:
“But why should we not be angry with God? Is it not his world and is it not imperfect and are we not each cruelly pinched in its imperfections?” Guilt, Anger, and God, p. 81
Allison suggests that those who suffer loss of dignity are particularly prone to bitterness, hatred, and resentment. That seems particularly pertinent to older adults. Aren’t many of the conditions of old age undignified? And aren’t modern societies–in contrast to traditional societies–prone to deprive their oldest members of dignity? DeYoung doesn’t speak directly of anger as related to dignity, but she does note that anger has to do with the claims we make on the world, claims that “may be overinflated by our fragile or arrogant egos.” The fragile ego is probably using resentment as a means to restore dignity.
For Allison, it is God through Christ who restores our dignity by regarding us as whole and precious. As dignity is thus restored, a root cause of resentment is removed. We fear that the accusations directed at us from without and within may be true, and we fight back to re-establish our dignity and convince ourselves that we are of worth. But God, who is greater than any accusations brought against us, made us with worth and re-affirmed that worth when he reconciled us to himself. Dwelling on this reality can weaken both the diminished and inflated false selves that feed our excessive anger. So, to those among you who are prone to wrongful anger, do know that you are worthwhile and that you can be at peace with yourselves and the world.