Book Review: Overcoming Sinful Anger

Anger

I have struggled with anger for my entire life. 

It is what some people might call an “Irish temper” – quick to flare up, burning brightly, but just as quickly extinguished. More often than not, these outbursts leave a trail of hurt (and on my part, guilt) in their wake. In my personal life, my temper has undeniably caused damage – in my family growing up, in my marriage, and with my children. Nobody wants to be around a guy who explodes over the littlest provocation.

When I first saw the title of Father T. Morrow’s book, Overcoming Sinful Anger (Sophia Institute Press), I knew I should buy a copy. I did so, but because I rarely make time to read full books (I stare at online articles all day), it sat on my Kindle for at least a year before I gave it a serious look through. This week, I finally opened it up. It’s Lent, after all, and making some spiritual progress is long overdue.

It’s a short book, at 113 pages, and I got through most of it in one sitting. I expected something revelatory — it is, after all, the #1 best-seller in Catholic theology on Amazon, with 4.5 stars.

I’m sorry to say, however, that it left me wanting.

Mostly, it told me things I already knew: that anger is wrong; that left unchecked, anger can damage all of our relationships and keep us from growing in virtue; that we learn anger from our parents or nurture it through an inability to forgive even legitimate injustices. I found that the text devolved frequently into pop-psychology more than spiritual discipline, deploying anecdotes that at times felt contrived, or offering anodyne advice more platitudinous than penetrating. I couldn’t help wondering if the author — a Catholic priest whose examples from his own life seemed quite tame — really understood what it means to be a deeply angry person, and what a rough beast that inner demon can be to manage.

If the book feels a bit padded with fluff, there are a few good nuggets. It shines when it moves away from a sort of light therapy and into an overtly Catholic motif, offering quotes on anger from St. Francis de Sales, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Paul of the Cross, St. Vincent de Paul. I had known vaguely that St. Francis de Sales struggled and then finally mastered his temper, and considered it of utmost importance never to lose that grip. I found this scene from his life particularly memorable:

St. Francis de Sales had quite a temper when he was young. When older, as bishop of Geneva, he was known for his mildness and patience. Even though he was very busy, no one ever felt rushed in his presence. When St. Jane Frances de Chantal encouraged him to be a bit angrier over the opposition they were facing in starting their religious order, he replied, “Would you have me lose in a quarter hour what has taken me twenty years’ hard work to acquire?”

I almost laughed out loud when reading what Pope Sixtus V quipped about the always surly St. Jerome:

St. Jerome is said to have had an irascible personality. He made so many enemies in Rome by his nasty criticisms that his enemies tried to bring him down. He had to flee Rome to get away from their treachery and eventually ended up in Bethlehem, where he began to live a life of penance. Even there, however, he got into heated exchanges of ideas with his (former) friend Rufinus and with the Pelagians. Although he often alienated people by his harsh wit, Jerome was known for being always ready to seek pardon for his temper. Pope Sixtus V once remarked, regarding a picture of Jerome beating his breast with a stone, “You do well to carry that stone, for without it the Church would never have canonized you.”

This, at least, is a saint I can identify with!

Chapter 8, entitled, “Learn to Overcome Your Habit of Anger”, was where I found the most practical advice. Strategies for anticipating the causes of blowups before they happen are essential to the person who reacts quicker than he thinks. Similarly, considering the long-term consequences of anger by imagining concrete scenarios helps to put anger in perspective:

Consider your future. One key way to change your behavior is to work out in your mind just what your life will be like if you don’t change your angry behavior. Suppose you blow up two or three times a week. What might your life be like twenty or thirty years from now if you don’t change? There’s a good chance you’ll be divorced, your children will dislike — if not hate — you, and they will probably grow up with an anger problem to share with their family.

[…]

If you struggle with an anger problem, write on an index card all the negatives of continuing your anger, and read that list several times a day. It might look something like this:

Reasons to Overcome Anger

1. If I don’t change I will harm my marriage and perhaps end up divorced.

2. If I can’t calm my anger, my children may grow up to fear and hate me.

3. If they see me angry often, my children may develop the same anger problem in their marriages.

4. With continued anger and unforgiveness, I will increase my chances of heart disease and cancer [as we saw earlier].

5. Anger could harm my ability to keep a job.

6. Anger hurts my relationship with God.

On the back of the card you might add this little quote from St. Catherine of Siena: It is because anger and impatience are the very pith and sap of pride that they please the devil so much. Impatience [a close cousin of anger]  loses the fruit of its labor, deprives the soul of God; it begins by knowing a foretaste of hell, and later it brings men to eternal damnation: for in hell the evil perverted will burns with anger, hate and impatience. . . . There is no sin or wrong that gives a man such a foretaste of hell in this life as anger and impatience.

Also helpful, to those unfamiliar, was the section on how things like food allergies can affect behavior, particularly in children. My whole life, I have struggled with moodiness and depression, but I never guessed until I tried the Paleo diet, eliminating all grains and sugars to lose weight, that I had a serious reaction to gluten. After months with no wheat or barley products and feeling better than I had in my entire life, I went out for a couple of beers with my wife, only to find myself confronting soul-crushing depression an hour later. Over the past few years I’ve tested this theory enough to realize that certain foods I ate my whole life not only make me sick, they affect the way I think, and how I perceive things. I’m now beginning to also identify increased tantrums in my children within a day or two of “cheating” — eating something that we, as a family, have generally eliminated from our diets since making these discoveries. If I break down and allow a slice of pizza, a hamburger bun, an ice cream cone, within 24-48 hours, almost without exception, I see profound behavioral changes in those of my children who have proven most susceptible. I often wonder how much less difficult I would have been as a child if I had known this, and whether I would have developed certain long-term habits (including some of my angry ones) in reaction to a mood problem that has all but completely gone away since changing the way I eat. I applaud Fr. Morrow for adding this section to the book; it is an area of understanding that (in my opinion) not enough people take seriously.

While I did take away a few notes from the book that I’ll be using to modify my daily routine, on the whole, I felt that it only scratched the surface of the issues that people who struggle with real, deep-seated anger need to address. If you’re just beginning to grapple with this deadly sin, or are dealing with someone who needs to, it might serve as a good introductory text.

For my part, I’ll be looking for something far more substantive as I continue to do battle with my inner tyrant.

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