Do Saints Get Angry?
Family Screamers, Icy Silence, Sarcasm versus Saintly Calm
I grew up in a family of screamers, duckers, fighters, and scramblers. If that didn’t work, my family withdrew into icy silence.
If that didn’t work, we could always go to plan B: smart-ass sarcasm.
At the same time I was watching the pro-active survival skills of my siblings, I was being taught in Catholic elementary school that saints suffered quietly
They accepted their lots in life with passive surrender. And many quietly walked the gauntlet of martyrdom with angelic resignation, assured of a first-class room in the heavenly kingdom.
In my little elementary school mind, Christ was the icon of emotional stability. He may have thrown the gambling rabble out of the synagogue in a fit of rage, but his life seemed more about waiting his turn in the queue of acceptance and surrender. He was the gentle fisherman, the quiet shepherd. Not the raging truck driver or the sweaty faced hockey player, fists thrashing the air.
In my childhood, adolescence, and throughout my adulthood, I constantly pursued the “key” to sanctity. At one time, I thought all I had to do was go to mass, receive holy communion, confess my sins, and read spiritual books. The world, over time, I thought, would adapt to all the higher spiritual goals I had set out for myself. Or, on my journey to sainthood, I would be above it all.
The Search for Transcendence to Avoid Emotional Turmoil
Transcendence, of course, is never messy. It exists in the rarefied world of otherness. It is stainless. And it is unhurried. It is a cosmos I thought would take me away from all my cares. It would make me whole. It would make me superior. I would be above the masses. I would not have to struggle. I would just exist in this permanent state of perfection.
Needless to say I tried all kinds of methods for transcending. I would read esoteric writers—Teilhard de Chardin, Gurdjieff, Lao Tsu, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
I would try to practice Zen, which appealed to me because it required deep silence and stillness. I could go “down” into the depths of nothingness and annihilate my presence in the real world. And I would sign up for Yoga classes because I believed that yoga exercises would take me to some realm of inner peace, away from the madding crowd.
All of these pursuits, of course, were my attempts to avoid emotional turmoil. Having been an eye-witness to so much rage in my family, I thought that all I had to do was “take in” spiritual ideas, absorb them, and I would be cured by osmosis.
If I could “practice” some form of meditation or yoga exercise, I could avoid, even temper the messier emotions of life like rage, lust, jealousy, greed,fear—all the dysfunctional emotions I thought were inferior to my higher calling in life.
A Family’s Flight from Normal Emotions
It took me a long time in therapy to realize that emotions are normal. What was a no-brainer to most people came as a culture shock for me. My therapist kept asking me, “John, what are you feeling right now?” I thought the question a trivial intrusion into my higher pursuits, a banal attempt to make me a commoner. After all, I was worth more than that.
I learned, over time, that most of my family had been shell-shocked into conflict-avoidance. They withdrew, they drank, they acquired things, they constructed emotional moats, they hid in their families.
My oldest brother pursued financial success with a vengeance. He would become the rags-to-riches Ben Franklin prototype of the family. Unfortunately, he never came to see that his quest for success was his way of avoiding the emotional turbulence that he suffered most of his life. He could frantically hide in his work believing that, somehow, his career would soften the blow of his repressed chronic rage, a rage that, until the end of his life, never seemed to have dissipated.
Another brother withdrew into a street-smart cynic believing that the entire world would rip him off (the banks, his employers, salesmen) if he didn’t stay ahead of the game. Although he tempered his cynicism and cantankerousness towards the end of his life, his life-long psychological MO was to view the world as a chronic con game.
My other brother, the one most abused by my mother, saw the world as the enemy. He distrusted most people. He became easily enraged. He just assumed that the entire world needed fixing and that it was always the “other guy’s fault.”
My sister, my childhood protector, the one who fought all my battles, learned, early in her life, to live inside the closed circle of her own family. It became, for her, a world she could trust. Her childhood and adolescent worlds gave her very little hope that security could be found in those childhood and teen-age circles. And, to her beautiful credit, she remains solid in her family loyalties, continuing to teach me what true faith is.
Each of us had our own ways of reacting to rage. I pursued the world of the otherworldy; one brother hid inside his work; another used his hard-shelled cynicism to protect himself from the legion of con-artists he thought he was surrounded by; another built a moat around himself by pushing everybody away with his own chronic rage and by attempting to conquer the world with that rage; and my sister withdrew into the security of her own family.
Needless to say, I too have used other methods of avoiding rage. I pursued an intellectual career as a college professor. That, of course, gave me some kind of status and something that deflected my fear of acting out my anger. It is a profession that requires a certain kind of detachment and analysis, my two favorite venues for avoiding any emotional reaction, including rage.
Legitimate Anger Without Implosion
As a recovering alcoholic in the AA program, I have profound difficulty with the literature that tells us to avoid anger, even legitimate anger. Having never given myself permission to pursue most normal emotions, I am glad to know, thanks to therapy and hanging out with honest people in the program, that I am capable of anger. And that, in some situations, my anger can be okay, that, in fact, my anger can be justified and quite legitimate.
If my anger becomes chronic; if I carry it around without talking about it; if I withdraw from it; if I try to avoid it; if I find myself exploding into rage, I find that I am in deep trouble. I also find that, in those situations, if I am paying close attention to my rage, I am more apt to be willing to more transparent about it.
And I now know that I am not on any road to sanctity, that my life does not require chronic perfection, that I can allow myself to experience real human emotions without the world imploding.
In the end, when I talk about my anger to people I can trust, if I acknowledge it as real, I find I don’t have to repress an emotion that I have avoided most of my life.
And anyway, who wouldn’t want throw a bunch of gamblers out of a church? Unless, of course, I just won at bingo.