Can we talk—without anger? Advice for a calm, constructive election season from the author of Thoughts Matter

Healthy Dialogue? Zack W., left, listens to Maurice Hardwick at a protest while Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivered an economic policy speech to the Detroit Economic Club in Detroit, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of making two extended visits to Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Ind. Both trips involved my work on the board of the American Benedictine Academy, a group of vowed monastics and Benedictine oblates that strives to preserve and promote the monastic tradition and its values.

In the course of those visits, I spoke several times with Sister Mary Margaret “Meg” Funk, a delightful woman who is the author of several books explaining the foundations of monastic spirituality including, Thoughts Matter, Tools Matter and Humility Matters.

A couple of quick anecdotes reveal reams about Sister Meg. When I asked if we could meet for a chat, she agreed immediately and told me to look for her that evening in the monastery’s reception area. This internationally respected scholar and former prioress of her community was on night duty answering phones and responding to the doorbell!

“All a part of community life,” the author told me with a wide smile.

When the community ran out of prayer books for guests at vespers one evening, Sister Meg was the first to offer to share her book with me. When author Kathleen Norris and I began our joint presentation for the A.B.A. conference, Sister Meg noticed there was no water at the podium and quickly, unobtrusively arrived a few minutes later with a filled pitcher and glasses for us.

Her book, Thoughts Matter, had a profound effect on me. It showed how we can redirect thoughts of anger, greed, jealousy, boredom, self-pity and a host of other potentially destructive emotions. These tools, developed by the earliest monastics, have helped me greatly as someone who has long suffered from a hot Sicilian temper—the source of most of my regrets in life.

Anyone who has read Sister Meg’s memoir, Out of the Depths, knows she, too, struggled to come to terms with her own anger and depression. In the early 1980s, she survived a tragic auto accident in which four of her friends drowned on a mission trip in Bolivia. Before being rescued, Sister Meg spent several agonizing hours in the rushing waters of the Rio Roche, alone at night, in the 9,000 feet altitude of the Andes.

As a reporter covering the angry mood of many in the country—and knowing my own penchant for anger—I asked Sister Meg to share some of her thoughts on the subject.

In Thoughts Matter, you write of anger as one of the afflictions known today as part of the seven Capital Sins. Covering political events, I’ve witness a great deal of rage in the electorate. Is public rage reaching a danger point?
Yes. I watched coverage of both political party conventions, the G.O.P. in Cleveland and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. There seems to be a new normal. While the outdoor demonstrations appeared to be civilly expressed, the shouting and ugly chanting between speakers inside the convention halls was a new low for Americans on network TV. I found the speeches uneven. One moment I was inspired and elated, then with the next speech I was deflated and depressed. I’m concerned about the rage I continue to see at public rallies.

Anger is no longer episodic, erupting from time to time, but now it’s rising to the level of needing police intervention. The affliction of anger prevents wise decisions. I feel we are at a crisis point in our country. Anger can eat away virtue and diminish firm resolve. We need the best leadership possible for these troubled times. As a people we can either sink or rise to new heights of virtue.

How is anger a danger?
First, let me summarize some of the theory from the early monastic tradition. Anger, unchecked, can lead to destructive emotions that cause the thinking mind to distort reality. This affliction rushes to conclusions based on selective facts. Literally, anger makes us blind. We can’t see “the other.” We see only our fierce point of view. This intensity burdens the nervous system. That’s why anger is known to cause illness. It can literally make you “mad,” as in creating an alternate, self-made universe. Anger lashes out, contributing to chaos not creativity. Probably the biggest downside of the effect of anger is that it destroys relationships. Instead of loving one another we become hateful. Anger, unchecked leads to harm.

Anger also fuels violence. It is sourced in a righteousness that prompts the self-centered ego to fight with others rather than prevent fighting. Combat is not a skillful means to resolve differences. It is often the experience of our own precariousness and fragility that triggers our defensiveness. This causes us to vault toward offensiveness with bruising force. Then in reaction, others retaliate and harm us. This justifies the original perception that the “other” is our enemy. The violence cycles through ever-denser orbits. Violence begets violence.

What’s an alternative?
Anger can be unlearned. We can reduce our anger and redirect our actions with compassion and wise, discerned actions.

To unlearn anger? This sounds a bit too ideal for the real world.
The affliction of anger can be the starting point to notice how thoughts, feelings and passions have the power to take away one’s peace of mind. Usually anger is provoked, as in a trigger thought, image or sensibility. We can step back and see that our thoughts come and go. They change all the time. Anger is just one more thought or feeling that passes. There’s a pattern to any affliction of the mind. In the monastic tradition, the mind is trained to notice the thought of anger rising and to step back and redirect that same thought toward compassion.

Notice there’s no repression or suppression, but transpression, as in moving on the other side of the destructive emotion. Anger is learned and can be unlearned with skillful practice of meditation or other contemplative tools. We simply disengage from the unconscious thinking part of the brain and enter into the work of conscious sorting our thoughts, as in discernment. This is inner work. We literally retrain our mind to pause and make deliberate choices, rather than fly off into habitual patterns of reactions and retaliation.

What specific, concrete methods a person can use to redirect anger?
These are my favorite practices I use when I’m confronted by anger or any of the afflictive thoughts:

First, I keep watch over my thoughts. I observe. I notice what, when and how anger gets triggered.

Second, I take measures to prevent occasions, people and places that put me at risk of being overcome by anger.

Third, I fill my mind with compassionate thoughts and prayer and become willing to do self-less service. This active replacing of angry thoughts with prayer and being attentive to the needs of others has a quick purifying effect.

Can you give a specific example of how you overcame your anger in a certain situation?
This is a fair question for me because if these teachings can’t be applied to ordinary life, they are only remote aspirations. So let me be a bit more specific. I stay vigilant. For instance, when I listened to some of the convention speeches, I observed my feelings of anger rise.

I noticed that their words gave energy to my own anger. I stopped the inner commentary that would have responded in anger to the anger they exported. I refrained from the temptation to blame the blamers. I observed my anger was joining their anger. I stepped back in my mind and paused, observed and refrained from adding my angry thoughts to the provocation. Since I am not my thoughts, I can just watch them rise. And if I don’t feed them with some additional thoughts, they tend to dissipate.

I left the situation: I discerned when to pause and get out of the digital range of fire. During some of the long speeches, I pressed my mute button. I could no longer be a victim of shouting with denigrating and fierce rhetoric. Sometimes I literally left the room and came back later. I could not listen to Donald Trump’s 74-minute acceptance speech. It was too toxic both in substance and in style. I guarded my heart. I knew myself. I was not capable of encoding his message without taking a hit to my psyche and soul. Humility matters. I’m no match. I stepped back and found my center. I had to get away from the stimulation.

I prayed to discern if I had enough spiritual grit to watch these events without personal contamination. I asked Our Lord if I should just refrain from this culture of harshness. I was open to the Holy Spirit to back away from watching these programs, listening to the commentary. I listened for the deeper invitations of grace.

I wondered if my participation in political endeavors should consist of just praying more, doing more selfless service and in being silent. I waited upon the Word of the Lord and lifted up my concerns about our fragile world. What I heard, as if it was Our Lord’s directive, is that my anger need not be engaged, that I could watch the news selectively. I discerned to make sure that the anger radiating from these programs was not doing damage to my soul. I took the middle way of selective participation with prayerful mindfulness.

Is it possible anger is becoming more accepted in today’s public discourse because it’s seen as an indicator of strength? Is it in some circles seen as giving energy to confidence and action, and to our identity as a fierce, competitive and thriving nation?
The new normal is to be angry, to express rage. It’s really a sign of weakness, not strength. Anger is a reaction to provoked stimuli. While it offers the illusion of power and domination, it contributes to delusional behaviors. It is a default defense mechanism, but seldom effective. I thought Michelle Obama’s dictum of when someone goes low, we need to go high to be a proper response.

What would be going “high” look like?
Going high would be to shift from personal insults to consulting with those concerned with the life of the soul…poets, artists, musicians. We need to enter into symbolic meaning to get a grip on our emotions. Going high also means taking our faith life into self-examination and starting with changing myself first before blaming another.

Is it too late to “go high” during this election cycle?
No, not at all. We can all use our concern over this anger quotient, step back and get back on message.

What would that look like?
“On message” would be to return to a respectful tone of voice and call for national conversations. Topics like the planet earth’s right to life, immigration reform, college funding sources and military weapons deserve thorough research and patient dialogue. America has a rule of law that provides checks and balances to hold the powerful accountable for the common good.

It should be unacceptable for us as a nation that one third of the world’s population doesn’t have enough food and water, or that there are 65,000,000 refugees and/or asylum seekers. Human trafficking, which is a form of slavery, deserves our urgent attention. Here in the United States, we have huge pockets of poverty that causes disparity between the haves and have-nots.

So, we need to return to issues rather than personal denunciations of character and chatter about personality?
“On message” need not be a depressing list of woes. We need to lift up common desires and aspirations that inspire creative innovations and cooperative ventures that improve quality of life and deeper sensitivity toward one another. It seems to me that the message is to bring to the fore lateral support, as in neighbor to neighbor, rather than place impossible demands on government and other authority mechanisms. Living in my religious community has taught me that mutual obedience of listening to one another sustains the whole better than a vertical command system, whether it be liberal or conservative.

I think what you are saying is that the country is better served if anger could be prevented and diverted into dialogue rather than wrath.
Yes, dialogue is win/win, an exchange that gets to the heart and is spoken by the heart.

Where would you start? What is our way forward?
Again, let’s return to a national conversation. Perhaps we should do a collective discernment about our political process. Why can’t we limit the election cycle to 60 or 90 days? We need to examine and reflect on the design of political gatherings. Maybe we reserve the shouting for sports or entertainment events but rule out charged yelling from our political process.

Can our politicians be evocative, rather than provocative? Can our speakers let the sound system carry their voice, as in ambient surround-sound rather than in a barking yelp that sets the stage for protest and polarization? Do we need to reach a consensus about usage of social media that promotes respect and sincerity? Can we put boundaries on spending and negative attack advertisements? Can we assess the needs of the common good and shift toward higher standards of political-speak? Can we refrain from squandering our precious social resources and sit down together at the table of dialogue?

It’s not enough to simply refrain from anger. We need to come to the table of dialogue with our best skills.

To return to an earlier comment, can any good come out of our current national mood?
It’s too early to tell. But it can be a springboard for exploring some very important questions. Is it “I” or “we” that’s important? Do Americans isolate, or do we embrace the idea that local is now global? Do we shout, or do we listen first, and then do whatever it takes to foster and implement a culture of dialogue? Do we govern with no compromise or have a big tent where all are welcome and served? Do we carpet bomb or collaborate and build coalitions that plan for after-care? Do we entertain competition, or do we strive together for innovation and comprehensive solutions to complex social disparities? These are narratives being born.

So, you see some wisdom possibly emerging from this period of such seeming division?
Yes, we are beginning to discover our vision. We need to start someplace and move forward one step at a time. There’s an elemental beauty in envisioning who we want to be. I wrote the Matter books for this reason and have taught them many times. These early teachings from the desert tradition are sturdy and doable. If we can get on the other side of these emotional afflictions, like anger, we can arrive at a heart content. These afflictions are simply an invitation to bow and go under that low, low door of humility. I need help. We all need help.

The training in these practices are all forms of seeking God’s mercy and enjoying the journey. And I’ll add that I believe by confronting our anger in this way, much good can come out of the current crisis in our public discourse.

I can see that the early monastic tradition has much to offer us today. I’m going to re-read Thoughts Matter in the light of this conversation. Thanks to you and your community for doing this important work.

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William Rydberg
4 years 3 months ago
There is actually an authoritative Catholic understanding of anger that classifys and breaks out what "anger" actually is understood to be in the Catholic mind. Sadly, in my opinion America Magazine, like a lot of contemporary diocesan papers tends to ignore, or (more sadly IMHO, simply don't know it) remain ignorant of the intellectual Tradition. What's sad in my opinion, is the fact that the Society of Jesus actually has the scholars who can explain. But they are never tapped by the "active contemplatives" who run the magazine day to day. Hard intellectual explanations seem to unsettle the stomach's of the America Editorial Board in my opinion. Prefering a "no judgement" post-modern Editorial policy which seems to value "consensus" . And a "People" magazine approach... But that's just my opinion, in Christ,
Elizabeth Stevens
4 years 2 months ago
I am interested in the "authoritative Catholic understanding of anger" and would like to learn more. Can you direct me to a resource for this?
Elizabeth Stevens
4 years 2 months ago
I am interested in the "authoritative Catholic understanding of anger" and would like to learn more. Can you direct me to a resource for this?

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