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Irritating Situations or Anger-Provoking Interpretations: It Matters Whom We Blame

July 19, 2013

As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts concerning anger, there is a certain concordance between cognitive therapeutic and patristic approaches to this problem.  This harmony is particularly evident in the observations by ascetic fathers and cognitive theorists about one’s perceptions of an anger-provoking event.  The Anger Management Manual authors employ Albert Ellis’s straightforward A-B-C-D model in order to explain not only the relationship between events, interpretations, and consequences, but also the importance of countering one’s interpretation in order to modify the cycle of anger. In brief, the alphabetical acronym A-B-C-D stands for Activating Event-Beliefs-Consequences-Disputation. According to Ellis, when we encounter what we believe to be an aggravating situation (A), our beliefs (B) frame and interpret that situation in a way that has the emotion of anger as a consequence (C), but if we dispute (D) the irrational nature of our belief, we can cut the link between belief and consequential anger and hence through what is known as cognitive restructuring avoid an angry reaction on our part. In this sequence, the important steps where change can take place is not the activating event (A) nor even the consequential anger (C) that are to varying degrees beyond our control, but the beliefs (B) called upon and thoughts thus produced in the context of the event as well as the generation of disputative (D), alternative interpretations of the situation that will not evoke anger.
The manual authors note that, “Ellis claims that it is not the events themselves that produce feelings such as anger, but our interpretations of and beliefs about the events… According to Ellis and other cognitive behavioral theorists, as people become angry, they engage in an internal dialog, called ‘self-talk.’  For example, suppose you were waiting for a bus to arrive. As it approaches, several people push in front of you to board.  In this situation, you may start to get angry.  You may be thinking,  ‘How can people be so inconsiderate!  They just push me aside to get on the bus. They obviously don’t care about me or other people.’ Examples of the irrational self-talk that can produce anger escalation are reflected in statements such as  ‘People should be more considerate of my feelings,’  ‘How dare they be so inconsiderate and disrespectful,’ and ‘They obviously don’t care about anyone but themselves.’ Ellis says that people do not have to get angry when they encounter such an event. The event itself does not get them upset and angry; rather, it is people’s interpretations of and beliefs concerning the event that cause the anger.”

Ellis’ thesis is a secular echo of the patristic teaching that the root cause of anger lies within the self and not in some external person or event.  In Ancient Christian Wisdom I pointed out that “Saint John Cassian notes, ‘The roots and causes of our offenses lie not in others, but in ourselves.’ For the saint, an etiology of maladaptive thought and behavior primarily requires introspection, rather than an investigation of situational factors.”  Elsewhere in The Institutes, Saint John Cassian further remarks, “The chief part then of our improvement and peace of mind must not be made to depend on another’s will, which cannot possibly be subject to our authority, but it lies rather in our own control. And so the fact that we are not angry ought not to result from another’s perfection, but from our own virtue, which is acquired, not by somebody else’s patience, but by our own long-suffering” (Book 8 chapter 18). Choosing one’s interpretation, choosing one’s focus, and choosing virtue are powerful acts of human freedom that can already compensate for the feelings of wrong or unfairness that stir up anger. The person who chooses how to see the world from a wider spiritual vantage point already lives in a universe more expansive than the person fettered by knee-jerk reactions that make the unreflective mad.

Both cognitive therapists and the fathers understand discriminating introspection as the foundational hermeneutic in dealing with an issue such as anger.  This intervention assumes that we have some freedom over how we interpret people, places, and events in our lives.  What we don’t have control over is the actions or behavior of others.  Were this not the case, anger or any other emotional disorder could not be cognitively managed, much less spiritually overcome, for we would be brute slaves of our instinctual, impulsive responses to external stimuli.

The fathers deepen the A-B-C-D model especially in the area of beliefs and disputation by moving beyond adaptive rationality to God-pleasing spirituality, beyond the wiser reflections of the philosophical mind to the divine revelation of the truth in Christ Jesus. I explain this development in chapter three of Ancient Christian Wisdom when I write, “The monastic fathers make a noteworthy addition to the Stoic idea that reactions depend on interpretations.  Whereas cognitive therapists strive to make their patients’ interpretations veridical and objective, the fathers believe that it is more important to spontaneously fulfill Christ’s commandments ‘to love one’s neighbor’ and ‘to judge not’ than to accurately perceive a situation.  Meaning assignment, like all else, should be ‘subjected unto Christ.’  Given that cognitive psychologists admit that initial interpretations are often inaccurate and egocentrically biased, the patristic advice about non-condemnatory and loving initial reactions to events is not as naïve and unrealistic as it may first seem.  In other words, the patristic stance can also correct initial innate biases and lead to more accurate assessments.”

And so, while both agree that a self-diminishing interpretation imposed upon an event can lead to anger, the fathers are not so concerned with the correct, rational understanding of an event as they are with interpreting all things with the mind of Christ.  The Lord’s own words from his suffering and crucifixion come to mind, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” In the midst of the savage cruelty, the selfish pettiness, the abusive insults, and the harrowing suffering of our Lord’s passion, humble forgiveness and longsuffering love provide an interpretation that heals, consoles, and ultimately saves. There is no interpretation more powerful than this one and in it there is no room for anger, just the mercy of the Lord that endures forever. May we adopt such an interpretation as our own.

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