REPRINTED FROM The Jewish Star Times, p. 16 [edited]

What do alcohol and drug abuse, bulimia [gorging on food and then vomiting], and anger have in common?

  • They all discharge tension, bringing short-term relief and long-term agony.
  • They’re all addictions.
  • And they are abuse.

And anger is the most common one of all. Who doesn’t get angry? But, like the others, when it comes to solving interpersonal relationships, it accomplishes absolutely nothing. Not for the angry person, not for the listener.

The Discharge Of Tension Is Calming

It dissipates tension in one mad, powerful burst of energy that

–leaves the anger bearer momentarily winded and calm,

–the recipient bleeding (either outside or inside; it doesn’t matter which–the pain is the same), alienated and frightened,

–and the relationship in tatters.

For the moment, the angry person is relieved of stress. For the moment, that person feels much better. That is the seductive pull of anger.

That Is Its Addictive Nature

That is the seductive pull of chemical addictions too. They all do the same thing. They discharge nervous energy and produce artificial calm. And that calm feeling is so wonderful, so delightful that the addict, the angry soul and the bulimic keep returning to it when stress builds. Returning and fighting, like caged tigers, to keep doing what doesn’t work.

Of course we all know that these are merely Siren songs. They don’t achieve calm, peace, and serenity. They don’t resolve the situations that caused the stress. They don’t communicate real feelings. They don’t deal with old wounds. And after the outburst, the anxiety is back. Obviously, because the blowup (or the binge or the drugs) never addressed the heart of the problem.

Neither Medication Nor In-Depth Therapy Are The Answer To Anger Problems

Addressing the source of the anger–and defusing it–is the trick. In the America that looks for the quick and easy solution, there isn’t any. People have found that medication doesn’t assuage the angry soul. Often, it gives temporary relief and loses its effectiveness over time. Therapies that mine the depths of experience looking for causes of the anger succeed in discovering them-only to leave the pain and anger intact.

Anger management classes voluntarily attract just two percent of batterers; how much fewer the number of “ordinary angry” that end up getting the benefit of these classes. Why don’t any of these methods curb what may be America’s biggest relational problem?

The answer is as simple as it is difficult to apply. Human beings were given free choice. We can choose to be angry or not. In a famous 12th Century letter to his son, the great scholar Nachmanides cautioned: “Accustom yourself to speak gently to all people at all times. This will protect you from anger.” Nachmanides further quotes Ecclesiastes, “Banish anger from your heart” clearly meaning that anger is a choice. On the one hand we can choose the exhilaration of letting it all rip; on the other, what we may perceive to be the cheerlessness of constraint. It’s easy to see why anger is the easier choice. The truth is, we have never been asked to do the impossible. After all, there are lots of people who don’t get angry, lots of folks who are calm and considerate even when misunderstood and mistreated. Angry outbursts only seem like the easy way out when one is unaware of alternative modes of coping with those horrible feelings that precede them.

Tools To Stop Anger

I would like to suggest two powerful tools that can dissipate anger in a flash like a cool breeze. The first is based on the injunction to “Judge others for the best.” That means if you know that Sarah is vegetarian but you see her walking into McDonald’s, your first thought must be, “She’s probably using the facilities.” Giving the benefit of the doubt is difficult because sometimes it takes quite a lot of creative thinking to come up with an explanation that is not damaging to the other person.

Ironically, getting into the habit of looking for the kindest explanation of the other’s behavior can avoid not only his, but your, pain. For example, your wife is home unexpectedly late without a call. It is very easy to fall into the victim trap of thinking she didn’t care, she put her other activities first, or worse. So do this exercise: Think of five positive explanations for her behavior, explanations that would cause you not a whit of anger if they were true. Then believe them. The bonus is that you not only won’t hurt her feelings with unjust accusations, but you won’t feel the bitter sense of having been wronged; you won’t feel like a victim. This is very empowering. Try it.

Is There A Cosmic Message?

Here’s another tip; I think of it as the cosmic answer. Let’s suppose your child was using drugs or behaving offensively; suppose you really have plenty of reason to be angry. Stop and ask yourself: Why did God put me in this situation? Is there some message here for me? How can I learn and grow from it? After all, we are here on Earth for some purpose. We may get lost in thinking about our immediate needs and desires and lose sight of the big picture. We hold onto grudges and fancied hurts; sometimes being a victim is a very familiar and comfortable role. The question is: Can we look at our situation differently? Can we learn from it? And most scary of all, can we begin to change?

This isn’t easy, of course. If anger is your problem–and who doesn’t have that problem?–think of this time of year as a gift. Use this season to view your troubles as motivators to see others positively. Let this period of time inspire you to learn from the things that used to make you angry. Make this the time that you meditate on the role anger plays in your life–and change it.

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