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A Lenten Discipline

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From The Word Magazine, March 1987, Page 9-10

A Lenten Discipline

Overcoming Anger: Love, Action, and Likeness of Christ

by The Rev. George Morelli, Ph.D.

Mankind is created in the image of God and as Christians we are called by God to be like Him. The essence of this likeness of Christ is to love. Our Lord tells us, “And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another”, (John 13, 34-35). What greater love could the Father have for us that even though He is God, nevertheless, sent His Son to take on our nature so we — all mankind, in fact, the entire universe, be lifted up to Him? Listen to some of the things Our Lord has told us about Love: “If you forgive the faults of others your Heavenly Father will forgive yours. If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you”, (Matthew 6, 14-15). “My Son your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). “If you want to avoid judgment, stop passing judgment” (Matthew 7:1).

How do we achieve this love shown to us by the Father and his Son, Our Lord,Jesus Christ. So Paul tells us what to do. “Get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind. In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:31). Our calling as part of God’s creation, as a member of Christ’s Body, the Church, is to grow and actualize ourselves; to find those imperfections in us that are barriers preventing us from being “like God”; that prevent us from loving and forgiving. In keeping with St. Paul’s words, our emotions, such as anger, is just such an imperfection or barrier. By making ourselves less angry, we can grow in the love of God and our neighbor.

Some current findings from behavioral science research can help us to understand how anger comes about and what we can do to overcome and prevent anger. The Cognitive — Behavioral Model of Emotional Dysfunction (Beck, Rush, Shaw and Emery, 1979; Ellis 1962) has been shown to be effective in dealing with anger. According to this model, emotions such as anger, are produced by distorted or irrational beliefs, attitudes and cognitions. Situations (something that someone has said or done or events that have happened) do not produce or cause our upset. We upset ourselves over people and events, thereby make ourselvesangry, anxious or depressed. If our thinking is clear, rational and nondistorted we have normal feelings like annoyance, concern and disappointment.

There are seven cognitive distortions. Selective Abstraction is focusing on one event while excluding others. A mother, for example, pays attention to the “D” on her son’s report card while ignoring the “A’s” and “B’s”. Arbitrary Inference is drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation. For example, a parishioner says “Hello” to the Pastor in the Church Hall; the Pastor doesn’t reply; the person concludes that the Pastor doesn’t like him or her. Personalization, an event occurs that you conclude is directed to you personally. A patron in a busy restaurant feels the waiter is purposely not waiting on his or her table. Polarization is the tendency to see things in all-or-nothing terms. Cynthia, a college student, feels that if she passes an examination she would be brilliant but if she fails she would be stupid. Generalization is the tendency to see things in always or never categories. A husband feels his wife will always be inconsiderate and never change. Demanding Expectations, the belief that there are laws or rules that must or have to be obeyed. A mother believes her son should nor talk back because she is his mother (Note: God gave us free will, he asks us to obey his commandments. Like Christ, parents can prefer and constructively work toward obedience from their children. A program of rewards for appropriate behavior and punishment, without anger, for inappropriate behavior would be constructive.). Catastrophizing, the perception that something is more than 100% bad, terrible or awful. In the example above, the mother feels that it is terrible, the end of the world, that her son answered back.

After recognizing and labeling our cognitive distortions, we can restructure them. There are three questions that lead to restructuring: 1.) Where is the evidence? 2.) Is there any other way of looking at it?

3.) Is it as bad as it seems? Using these questions, some rational responses to the examples above might be: “True, my son got a D, but he also received some A’s and B’s” (Selective Abstraction); “Father didn’t say Hello, he may not like me, but maybe he has some thing on his mind and he didn’t hear me” (Arbitrary Inference): “The waiter is so busy with the other tables, maybe he doesn’t even see me” (Personalization); “If I fail the examination it doesn’t mean I am stupid, all it means is that I did not do quite as well as I would have liked to” (Polarization); “My wife has been inconsiderate up to now, but possibly if we go to counseling we can learn how to deal with the problem” (Generalization);” I prefer that my son not talk back to me, let me praise him when he talks correctly and fine him a nickel whenever he talks back” (Demanding Expectations). In addition to the above restructuring questions, the “Mental-Ruler Technique” (Burns, 1980) is particularly helpful in dealing with catastrophizing. The situation is evaluated on a 0 to 100 scale, with 0 being the most pleasant thing you could picture happening to you. People infrequently have trouble imaging a very pleasant event (0). Sitting on a sun drenched tropical beach is typical. People frequently need help imaging a “graphic” worst event (100). Use of an example, such as the particularly horrifying death of a medical missionary in Southeast Asia several years ago can be a help. After starvation failed to kill this individual, his captors placed chopsticks in his ears and hammered them in, a little each day, until the chopsticks penetrated his brain and the missionary died. Using the “Mental-Ruler Technique” and the restructuring questions, it can be seen that the mother whose son answered back is surely not the same as chopsticks in the ears, in fact, it is probably no more than a 10 or 20 (Catastrophizing).

These techniques have to be applied rigorously and consistently. They should be used whenever we find ourselves starting to become angry. One helpful way is to excuse yourself and leave the room for a few minutes to collect your thoughts (Petition Our Lord’s help and restructure). This “time-out” can be accomplished by something as simple as going to the restroom. Restructuring should also take place during evening prayer. This active approach toward our becoming like Christ is our vocation as Christians. St. James tells us, “So you see, then, it is his actions that a person is put right with God, not by his faith alone” (James 2:24). All the wishing or prayer we do, if it does not lead us to actively make ourselves like Christ, is empty.

“Since you are God’s dear children, you must try to be like him. Your life must be controlled by love. . .” (Ephesians 5:1-2). Work, vivified by prayer and the sacraments, is the way to advance in our likeness of Christ. Only then will we be able to say with Christ: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23;34).

References:

Beck, D., Rush, A., Shaw, B., and Emery, G. (1979) Cognitive Therapy of Depression.

New York: Guilford Press.

Burns, D. (1980) Feeling Good. New York:

New American Library.

Ellis, A. (1962) Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. New York: Lyle- Stuart.

Father Morelli is assistant pastor at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Brooklyn, New York. He is a Professor of Psychology at Kean College of the State of New Jersey, Chief of Behavior Therapy at Memorid Hospital in Union, New Jersey and has a private practice. Father George was converted through contact with Father Alexander Schmemann and while his doctorate is in Psychology, he is a careful student of Orthodox Theology.