25th June, 2017


Mark Twain once said, “If you are feeling angry, count to 4. If you are very angry, swear.” Twain was well ahead of his time. There are many scientific studies that demonstrate the positive effects of swearing. It has been shown that people who swear are typically calmer and more intelligent, than those who don’t. Swearing reduces stress and tends to be used by those with a more creative bent to their personality. I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds this information quietly reassuring.

Of course there are limits. Swearing in a moment of frustration is not the same as using profane language to abuse another person. In such instances the personal relief one might feel for having sworn is short lived, as causing harm to another person induces stress of another kind. Most of us will feel remorseful for speaking harshly to another person, even if we felt justified in doing so at the time.

The key reason that swearing is typically frowned upon by society is that it can be used in a very negative way. For some of us, the only time we ever swear is in a moment of anger. Anger is typically an unpleasant emotion. Sometimes anger seems to come from nowhere and suddenly we find our rational selves pushed out of the driver’s seat forced to look on while the rage takes it course. Anger can in a sense overwhelm us and find us speaking and acting in ways that surprise even us.

There are three ways we typically respond to anger. The first is the most common. We repress it. Repression is the attempt to push the feeling back down inside ourselves in the hope that it disappears. This makes sense, because as I already said, feeling angry can be very unpleasant. So when anger erupts, sometimes we simply try to force it back down where it came from. Just like swearing, expressing anger in public is a no no in polite society.

So, rather than run the risk of letting others know we are angry, we hide it. Of course there is a cost to this strategy. Repressing our anger requires a great deal of effort and energy, and sadly it doesn’t work, or at least it doesn’t work in the long term. Unless we deal with the cause of our anger, the anger will remain with us, even when we are doing our best to pretend it has gone away. Repressed anger is linked with a range of mental illness, including depression.

So if holding on to our anger can cause us harm, what if we embrace the opposite strategy and let it out. What if we just express our anger. As I already suggested, while letting our anger out might help us to feel better, it can be very costly to those around us. I know that often when I am angry I try to get rid of it by going for a walk. Doing something energetic can help, but it can also intensify the emotion, because anger tends to put our bodies into an energised state. Further to that, studies have shown that attempts to express anger, can often lead to a more aggressive personality. What that means is that letting your rage out in some way can be addictive, meaning that episodes of anger can become more frequent. So what is the alternative? If it is bad for us to hold it in, and bad for ourselves and others to let it out, what do we do? The answer is to find ways to process our anger. There are a number of ways of doing this. Firstly, there are techniques such as acknowledge, link and let go, ALL for short. This three step process begins by acknowledging that you are angry. Hello anger. The next step is to link you anger to what is currently happening. It makes perfect sense that you are here anger, given what is happening right now and all that I’ve been through. The idea is that once you observe your anger and actually welcome it into your life, it actually begins to disappear, which is the final step, letting it go. Anger typically grows when it is ignored, so this technique is about allowing it to exist. It takes a bit of practice but it actually works.

But there is another way of getting rid of our anger. This approach is about getting creative with it. I have recently been reading an autobiography by a man called John Lydon. John Lydon is better known by his stage name of Johnny Rotten. Johnny Rotten was the charismatic front man of a ground-breaking punk rock band called the sex pistols. He has always been something of an anarchist, by which I mean he is actually a deep thinker who determinedly marches to the beat of his own drum. My reason for bringing him up is because the title of this particular autobiography is, Anger is an energy.

Lydon uses this title because it comes from one of his songs written in the early 1980’s. The lyric, anger is an energy, comes from a song titled rise. Lydon wrote this song having watched a news report on torture victims in apartheid south Africa. Lydon was incensed by this story and decided to use his anger as inspiration for a song. The title rise, comes from the Irish blessing, may the road rise up to meet you. By combining his anger with the words of an Irish blessing, Lydon created a song that aimed to encourage those who also felt anger at the injustice of apartheid to use the energy of that anger to bring about change.

In his own words Lydon says, “(the song is) saying, ‘There’s always hope’, and that you don’t have to resort to violence to resolve an issue. Anger doesn’t necessarily equate directly to violence. Violence very rarely solves anything. In South Africa, they eventually found a relatively peaceful way out. Using that supposedly negative energy called anger, it can take just one positive move to change things for the better.” (John Lydon, Anger is an Energy, pg.2)

How many of us are prepared to call anger a gift from God? It’s easy to be thankful for laughter and joy, but anger, anger is something we avoid, ignore and repress. It’s not an emotion we often embrace and experience in a positive way.

If today’s ready from the book of Jeremiah tells us anything, it is that God understands that there are times and situations in which anger is the appropriate response. In fact in this passage Jeremiah is angry at God. In the opening lines Jeremiah is accusing God of enticing him into the life of a prophet. Some interpreters of the Hebrew in this text go as far as to suggest that the language used implies violation. Jeremiah is using extremely strong language in telling God that he has been taken advantage of. Jeremiah then points out that by following God’s call he has become alienated. Even his friends are waiting for him to stumble. Jeremiah is also extremely angry with these people.

This is a moment in which Jeremiah finds himself in a no-win position. Either he abandons God’s call, in which case he becomes a laughing stock, or he continues to proclaim God’s warning to the people which at this time was an incredibly unpopular thing to do. This passage is helpful in that it’s inclusion in the story of Jeremiah is an acknowledgement of struggle, torment and anger which is part of all of our lives. It is also helpful in that the place given to anger in this passage, is in the very presence of God. Jeremiah’s anger is allowed to be voiced, and God listens. There is no judgement here, or belittling of Jeremiah’s experience. God simply gives Jeremiah the space he needs to work through his emotions.

How we respond to our anger will be different depending on the situation in which the anger occurs. Sometimes we will repress it, sometimes we will express it. Sometimes we will process it, and once in a while we may even get creative with it. The key thing is to learn from it. Anger can be an opportunity to engage with God as Jeremiah did. Anger can be an opportunity to grow or to change, and if all else fails, take Mark Twain’s advice and swear.

– Reverend Richard Bonifant