As we suggested in a recent article on dealing with anger, it's an important first guideline to realize that there are times when a person legitimately and justifiably needs to express anger that the person may be feeling strongly from within. But a second guideline is this: If we do not ever attempt to resolve the anger that we are unjustifiably and illegitimately feeling at a particular time regarding a particular subject, it may well eventually take a big bite out of our personality and character. This may cause others to say about us at that time, "He/she is just not himself/herself today."
Sometime ago, I heard about two unmarried sisters who had jointly inherited the old family homestead when their parents died. They lived together amicably in a comfortable and compatible arrangement for several years, but one day, they had a major disagreement that led to a heated, and ongoing, dispute, one so sharp that they ended up not even speaking to each other for a long time.
But even this barrier of silence did not satisfy them. With the help of a third party, they decided to build a dividing wall right through the middle of their house. Each sister already had her own separate bedroom, but the living room, dining room and kitchen became divided in half by that wall, which created something of a problem in the kitchen because a pump was on one side of the wall and the stove was on the other.
But even this predicament didn't soften them up any. The sister with the stove thought nothing of walking several hundred feet to a neighbor's house for water, while the sister with the pump cooked her meals on a little charcoal burner. Then, one day, tragedy struck their home. One of the sisters had a stroke that left her paralyzed and speechless. She had no way of summoning help from her sister who, though she was technically only a few feet away, was on the other side of the wall. And so it happened that within a few hours, the stricken sister died. The living sister, realizing that her stubbornness had contributed to her sister's death, was so conscience-stricken that within a few weeks, she also died from excessively high blood pressure.
Tragedy so often results from unresolved anger and lingering resentment!
Which brings me to this final guideline: Unresolved anger is basically a spiritual issue. Anger not only affects our health and our relationship with others, it is also important with regard to our relationship with God. In The Lord's Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Yes, that is really in there, even though we pass over it so quickly without thinking about what we're actually saying. One youngster started saying it a little differently in church according to what he thought he heard other people all saying (and I guess it made sense enough to him): "Forgive us our trash passes as we forgive those who pass trash against us."
We are told that when Leonardo da Vinci was painting his great masterpiece of "The Lord's Supper" (which my wife and I had the great privilege of seeing up close in real life on the refectory wall of a little cathedral in Milan, Italy, in 1982), he became quite angry with a certain person. He lashed him with hot and bitter words and threatened him with vengeance (no, it wasn't me)! But when the great painter returned to his canvas and began to paint the face of Jesus, he found himself so perturbed and agitated and frustrated and upset that he could not compose himself to finish the delicate work before him. Not until he had sought out the person and asked forgiveness from him did he find himself in possession of that inner sense of calm that then enabled him to give to the master's face the tender and delicate expression of loving forgiveness of his betrayer/disciple, Judas, that da Vinci so well knew it must have.
And so it is with us. There are times when the most consecrated and devoted saint must express his or her anger. But we must not allow our anger to lie dormant and to grow, lest we find ourselves appearing in the headlines after performing some heinous act against another person or persons, so much of which competes for our unwanted attention today in our world. Instead, we must somehow learn how to forgive (through experiences in our church or synagogue or mosque, or through interaction with our local religious leaders, all of whom want to love us and support us). And we must learn how to forgive — as God forgives us — to release our anger in a way that helps us to forget the past. It's really OK to forget the past and embrace the future, in certain situations — it really is perfectly all right to do so. In fact, it is critically essential to do so, essential to our physical, emotional and spiritual health, and especially vital with regard to our relationships with others and to our relationship with God.
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The Rev. Richard G. Parker is a retired American Baptist and United Methodist minister who lives in Newburyport with his spouse, Karen. He is also the coordinator of this column.