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A Time-out from Anger, a Time-in for God

July 15, 2013

In the last blog post on anger, I wrote about seeking out its causes or roots.  In the next several posts I would like to explore the various therapeutic interventions concerning anger from the perspective of the fathers and cognitive therapy. In their Anger Management Manual, the cognitive therapists note, “Theoretically, the more techniques and interventions an individual has on his or her anger control plan, the better equipped he or she will be to manage anger in response to anger-provoking events.” The same could be said from the perspective of the fathers, although they would not seek to manage anger, but to completely transform it into zeal for the love of God. After all, Saint John Cassian writes, “we should reckon nothing more damaging than anger and irritation, and nothing more advantageous than love” (Conferences, 2,16, 7).

The first and most basic therapeutic intervention regarding anger is the well-established behavioral practice of the “time-out,” which cognitive therapists describe in these terms: “The time-out can be used formally or informally. For now, we will only describe the informal use of a time-out. This use involves leaving a situation if you feel your anger is escalating out of control. For example, you may be a passenger on a crowded bus and become angry because you perceive that people are deliberately bumping into you. In this situation, you can simply get off the bus and wait for a less crowded bus. The informal use of a time-out may also involve stopping yourself from engaging in a discussion or argument if you feel that you are becoming too angry. In these situations, it may be helpful to actually call a time-out or to give the timeout sign with your hands. This lets the other person know that you wish to immediately stop talking about the topic and are becoming frustrated, upset, or angry.”

Screen Shot 2013-07-15 at 12.22.17 PMOf course, the time-out technique requires discipline and self-knowledge as well as an awareness of the cues and trigger points that lead to anger.  My response to a thoughtful comment from a reader on a previous post concerning Suffering and Alcohol Addiction  might illustrate the importance of these prerequisites in dealing with anger and the implementation of a time-out, “I think the notion of powerlessness can be tied into Christ’s words, ‘without Me, you can do nothing.’ In seeking victory over the passions, we are in need of deep humility and reliance on God. There are some areas of our spiritual life that we may not allow Christ to enter. There are some areas that we may feel that we can handle it on our own. And although we might not confess such a stance, in the heat of the moment that is the stance we often live by. Of course, such a stance is both proud and selfish, stemming from a trust in self that is not warranted by experience. Although we cannot be tempted beyond what we are able to resist as long as the eyes of our souls are riveted on Christ, the moment we take them off Christ to look at the passion or the waves the passion causes, we will also undoubtedly sink like Saint Peter who could walk on water with his gaze fixed on Christ, but could only sink when his gaze was fixed elsewhere…” Our use of the time-out in the case of anger can be a humble admission of powerlessness over the surging waves of anger and a need to look away from what is getting us angry and fix our gaze once more upon Christ. The good news of the fathers, over and above what secular psychology can offer, is that we don’t have to fight anger alone. We can call upon Christ.

The therapeutic technique of the time-out is consistent with a number of patristic teachings. For example, Saint John Cassian in The Institutes notes that time is of the essence in overcoming the passion of anger. The longer anger rests in the heart the more havoc it wreaks causing the soul to descend into a spiritual blindness in which “we can neither acquire right judgment and discretion, nor gain the insight that arises from an honest gaze, nor ripeness of counsel, nor can we be partakers of life, nor bearers of righteousness, nor even have the capacity for spiritual and true light” (book 8, chapter 1). To avoid these pernicious fruits, we need to take a time out from anger. The time-out technique also resonates with Saint John Climacus’ admonition in chapter 8 of The Ladder of Divine Ascent  when the saintly abbot of Sinai advises those who are tempted by the passion of anger to curb their tongues and keep silent.  “The beginning of freedom from anger is silence of the lips when the heart is agitated; the middle is silence of the thoughts when there is a mere disturbance of soul; and the end is an imperturbable calm under the breath of unclean winds.” It is important to note that Saint John goes one step farther than the time-out technique by counseling silence over one’s thoughts as well as one’s words.  For the fathers, mastery over the passion of anger requires more than a physical disengagement.  The heart must also disengage if the passion of anger is not to take root there as well.

As I mentioned in my comment to the post on Alcoholism, mastery over any passion cannot be successful if God is removed from the therapeutic equation.  We may be able to hold the beast at bay for a while, but the conquering of that beast requires more than human effort. It requires the grace of God. For this reason and for many others, the fathers advise us to maintain the remembrance of God through the continual, heartfelt, repentant cry, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me, a sinner.” For the fathers, a time-in for God is ultimately more therapeutic than a time-out for anger.

One Comment
  1. Mileta permalink

    ” If we can maintain the conscious awareness of His presence, our thoughts will have no power over us ”

    “Do not resent, do not react, keep inner stillness”

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