Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Forgiveness and Anger

On Saturday I attended another Spokane Faith and Values Coffee Talk, this one at Chairs Coffee on Indiana Avenue in Spokane.  The topic up for discussion was forgiveness.

Not ambitious at all...

The conversation was wide-ranging, from discussing the definition of forgiveness, to talking about "big things" like the Holocaust, to asking if anger is ever appropriate, to exploring how forgiveness and justice intersect.  A whole lot of food for thought.  And, of course, fodder for blog posts. :)

The interplay between anger and forgiveness has been on my mind lately.  I recently read a blog post that rejected anger as a source of any good at all and I found myself very uncomfortable with the author's wholesale denunciation of the emotion.

I once heard it said (I so wish I could remember where) that when we feel anger, it's a signal that someone has crossed our boundaries and we don't feel safe.  It's a warning sign telling us to take action to protect ourselves and change the situation.  If we ignore it, or repress it, we will be less able to sense those dangerous situations, and we will be less able to protect ourselves and others.

Anger is also one of the stages of grief.  Whether we are grieving a lost loved one, or dealing with a life change we hadn't expected, or in the middle of a traumatic shifting of our worldview, anger is a natural part of that process.  For example, the aforementioned blog post was at least partially directed at "angry feminists".  Well, many feminists, yours truly included, go through a grieving process during their feminist awakening and the anger helps to deal with the pain of the change.  Most of us don't stay in the anger phase any more than most people who lose a loved one stay angry forever.  Of course, grieving isn't an exact science and doesn't always progress in a linear fashion; it's normal to cycle through the stages or alternate between a few several times, and anger will continue to show up every now and again.  The point is, it's a natural and normal part of a process that everyone experiences at some point in their lives.

Now, that's not to say that we don't have a choice in what we do with our emotions in general and our anger specifically.  It may come unbidden as an instantaneous reaction, but we absolutely can decide whether we want to stew in the anger until it congeals into bitterness, or use it as a motivation to take positive action.  One choice is destructive to ourselves and our spirits, the other can be productive and uplifting to us and others.

A panelist at the Coffee Talk, Amy Rice, talked about how forgiveness is a discipline that requires practice.  As with almost anything, forgiveness gets a little bit easier when we decide to make it a priority and we get a little bit better at forgiving the more we forgive. I don't know that instantaneous forgiveness is possible, or even desirable, in most cases.  But I do believe we can, over time, and with concerted work and effort, becomes less likely to react with anger and less likely to hold on to that anger when it does show up.  I also believe that it's not our place to judge others' reactions, angry or otherwise.  We simply don't know their history, the baggage they may be carrying that has prompted that self-protective feeling.

A large part of my concern with disparaging anger is that women in particular too often get the message - both from society at large and from the culture of the Church - that in order to be "good", we need to be "nice" and "sweet" and "kind" and never rock the boat or cause any ripples or, heaven forbid, show a negative emotion. So instead of expressing normal, healthy emotions, we push them aside, and they get repressed and eventually manifest in unhealthy ways.  But pushing anger aside isn't really forgiveness; brushing legitimate feelings under the rug is just as spiritually and emotionally self-destructive as nursing the anger.  And forgiveness is about becoming whole again.  It's not just an absence of anger; forgiveness fills the void with love and understanding of each individual's identity as a child of God and requires that we are honest with ourselves about our own mistakes and inadequacies and our own need for forgiveness..

While anger can be destructive if allowed to fester or if not acknowledged and dealt with appropriately, there is no shame in feeling angry when someone doesn't respect your boundaries.  (I wish we had a different word for those two distinct phenomena: the initial, unbidden emotional response, and the long-lasting, seething choice to cultivate and foster the anger.  Darn ambiguous English language.)  There are legitimate and appropriate uses for anger, but we need to constantly check ourselves to evaluate how we're using our anger and determine when our anger has passed its useful life and become detrimental to our spiritual growth.

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