The Personalist Project

These remarks in a comment thread below by Dr. Ronda Chervin deserve an entry all their own:

I am a disciple of Dietrich Von Hildebrand,a professor of philosophy at Holy Apostles Seminary and author of many books including one on anger entitled Taming the Lion Within: Five Steps from Anger to Peace.
I would like to share a few key points about anger that might be helpful:

First we need to distinguish hot anger, expressed in screaming, throwing things,etc,and cold anger characterized by inner resentment, withdrawal, etc.
Then there is just and unjust anger. Just anger is directed to real injustices directed against us or others. Unjust anger comes when we are furious without cause, for example when rightly upbraided for bad behavior (the pouting child in the corner for example).
Self-righteous anger can be just or unjust. In any case, according to Thomas Aquinas, even if anger is just, it should never be disproportionate, out of control, unforgiving, or vengeful!
Dietrich Von Hildebrand analyzes Pharisaic anger as involving enjoying sitting on the throne of truth hurling denunciations at others. Even if we are justly angry we should be deeply grieved by the sins of others vs. enjoying sitting on the throne of truth hurling denunciations.

I have been involved in a great self-help group called Recovery, International (not 12 step). The founder, a psychiatrist Abraham Low, coined an expression that is greatly helpful to me.

It is symbolic victory. We like to feel strong. In many things in life we are weak or inferior to others in talents or virtues or just in ability to overcome adversaries. To compensate for our feelings of weakness we indulge in hot or cold anger because anger makes us feel, to use Biblical imagery, like lions instead of weak lambs.

Examples I give to illustrate this: a driver is speeding dangerously. We are weak. Even if we called 911 it could be too late for avoid an accident killing us or our loved ones. Some compensate for this unbearable feeling of weakness by screaming at the driver through his or her CLOSED window. This is a symbolic victory. The curses don’t actually hurt the dangerous driver who can’t even hear them, but they give the lawful driver a feeling of being a raging lion instead of a lamb ready for the slaughter.

Take any example of anger if your own life or in controversies you read about such as handing of pedophilia by the Bishops and check to see - even if my wrath is justified, is it disproportionate, unjustifiably sarcastic, unforgiving, vengeful in the sense of indulging in symbolic victory in my head as I wish the bishops disaster and maybe gloat over the millions that are being paid out in law suits.

How should I deal with it instead? It is right to be angry at cover-ups. I should pray much more for the victims, the pedophiles and the bishops than I do. I don’t think that I am okay if I say a one line prayer for each of these groups after 2 hours of vitriolic sarcastic hurling of denundiations from the throne of truth.

Comments (2)

Scott Johnston

#1, Aug 8, 2009 4:19pm

Thank you, Dr. Chervin, for your thoughts. That idea of symbolic victory is a great insight.

I wonder if righteous anger, if disproportionate, might at times bleed over in an unjustifiable way to begin targeting the innocent. For instance, on occasion faithful priests can be regarded with suspicion by people who are especially heated over the past abuses committed by other priests. And the faithful priests suffer because of this.

I would think there is a difference between wrath handled appropriately (appropriate place, time, and target, for example), and wrath that begins appropriately, but then is not moderated in a healthy way so it grows and comes to dominate a person’s inner life in a very unhealthy and unreasonable way. I wonder if there is a name for a particular virtue that does this—enables one to appropriately control and channel righteous anger without it blowing up destructively in oneself? It seems to me it is a particular virtue. (and prudence, I don’t think, would be it.) Perhaps a subset of temperance.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Aug 10, 2009 4:17pm

I think I see what you’re saying, Scott.  I liked very much some distinctions Dr. Healy made in a lecture of his I heard recently (I don’t think it was the one he gave for us in June) about the emotions.  He was a student of Dr. Chervin’s at Loyola Marymout, so he may have gotten it from her.  In any case, he said there are negative responses, like lust, that are wrong in themselves.  Then there are in-themselves neutral responses, such as anger or sexual attraction that may be justified and due, but can easily go wrong because they have a tendency to “de-throne” the will.  Then there sublime response that carry no such danger, or far less such danger, such as gratitude or grief or compassion.

I wonder, though, whether consciousness of the “downside” of anger hasn’t contributed to the wimpification factor you mentioned elsewhere?  I mean, are we not now so cautious about “misdirecting” our anger or sinning in our anger that we imagine we do better not to be angry at all?

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