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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Anger: "A Dubious Luxury"

"Anger is a toxic poison," goes a Chinese saying, "that eats away the vessel that holds it from the inside out." Yet, how easily we (alcoholic addict and non-addict alike) become "intoxicated" with our petty angers and resentments. With no more than a thought arising within us, we can be carried away beyond all reason with anger, and the memory of a supposed "wrong" can send us reeling with resentment. It is no mere coincidence, then, that the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous points out that "we cut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit" when we harbor such feelings.
"If we are to live," we read, "we had to be free of anger. The grouch and the brainstorm were not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison."
[Alcoholics Anonymous, page 66.]
Of course, anger doesn't work out so well for so-called "normal men" either, but the insights they have gained into their anger can, perhaps, help us to gain insight into our own. Thus, in "The Genesee Diary," author Henri J.M. Neuwen discusses the insights he gained when debilitating anger grabbed hold of him during his nine month stay at a Trappist monastery in upstate New York.
"The longer I am here," he writes, "the more I sense how anger bars my way to God. Today I realized how, especially during work which I do not like much, my minds starts feeding upon hostile feelings. I experience negative feelings toward the one who gives the order, imagine that the people around me don't pay attention to my needs, and think that the work I am doing is not really necessary work but only there to give me something to do. The more my mind broods, the father away from God and neighbor I move."

"Being in a monastery like this," Neuwen continues, "helps me to see how the anger is really mine. In other situations there are often enough "good reasons" for being angry, for thinking that others are insensitive, egocentric, or harsh, and in those circumstances my mind easily finds anchor points for its hostility. But here! People couldn't be nicer more gentle, more considerate. They really are very kind, compassionate people. That leaves little room for projection. In fact, none. It is not he or they, but it is simply me. I am the source of my own anger and no one else. I am here because I want to be here, and no one forces me to do anything I do not want to do. If I am angry and morose, I now have a perfect chance to look at its source, its deepest roots."

"I always knew it: "Wherever you go you always take yourself with you," but now," he concludes, "I have nothing and no one to blame for my being me except myself. Maybe allowing this realization to exist is one little step on the way to purity of heart."
[Neuwen, "The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery," p. 46-47.]
Doctor Bob
(1879 -1950)

In the "Co-Founders of A.A." pamphlet, Dr. Bob notes that the Book of James (in the New Testament) was one of the readings that he and Bill found "absolutely essential." In it, we read: "A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways."(James 1:8).

This, it seems to me, is an implicit recognition that over and above our true being there exists the small "self" or ego; and, when in the throes of ego, anger (or any other of our character defects) can take us over, propelling us to do or say just about anything. In A.A. terms, when we are once again wrapped up in "the bondage of self," we are capable of doing or saying just about anything.

One answer to this near-universal human conundrum may found at James 4:8, which says: "Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. Wash clean your hands ye sinners. Purify your hearts ye double-minded." The first part of this brief snippet seems to represent Steps One through Three. The second part (very Biblical in its terms, and which therefore turned me off for the longest time) represents Steps Four through Nine; while the third part - dealing with one's "purity of heart" as a solution ot "double-mindedness" - represents Steps 10 through 12.

It is thus, in the process of "purifying the heart" that we move from ego and self-consciousness, to our true being and God-consciousness. And it is in this higher state of consciousness that we shed the anger and instability of the ego. Of course, this is a life's work, as Neuwen's writing attests.

"The positive value of righteous indignation is theoretical - especially for alcoholics," Bill notes in a 1954 letter. "It leaves everyone of us open to the rationalization that we may be as angry as we like provided we can claim to be righteous about it." But, of course, for us even self-righteous anger (and, perhaps most particularly, self-righeous anger) is deadly. It has the power to make us drink, and for us (as Bill notes) "to drink is to die."

"When we harbored grudges and planned revenge for defeats," Bill writes (at page 47 in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions), "we were really beating ourselves with the club of anger we had intended to use on others. We learned that if we were seriously disturbed, our very first need was to quiet the disturbance, regardless of who or what we thought caused it."

"If you go out looking for revenge," another Chinese proverb says, "you had better dig two graves." That is how dangerous anger can be - particularly to the alcoholic addict, who is on a short leash, at best of times.

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