Praying With Anger

Praying With Anger
Daphne Stevens, Ph.D.
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“What’s wrong with me?” a woman asked recently. “I’m so angry all the time. I used to have the patience of Job, but since I hit my mid-forties, I get irritated at the least little thing.”

“Did you always have the patience of Job?” I asked. I’m personally not sure that having that much patience is much of a virtue—but I was curious as to what she would say. “No,” she said thoughtfully. “Come to think of it, I was always pretty irritable when I got premenstrual. Now that I’m menopausal, I seem to have a chronic case of PMS.”

This woman is doing what most women do when we get cantankerous or testy. We blame ourselves, pathologizing away one of the best measures of the state of our inner lives.

Anger is like the gas gauge in your car. When your gauge reads “Empty,” you don’t smash it or judge it. You figure, “Oh, it’s time for more fuel,” and you stop at the nearest service station.

When our inner fuel tank—our reserve of energy and our capacity to give—runs low, we often get irritated. But instead of stopping for fuel in the form of good nutrition, support from friends, uplifting reading, or a good night’s sleep, we blame ourselves for being on empty. It makes about as much sense as smashing that gauge in your car.

What do you do with your anger? Do you let it tell you that you’re somehow a bad person? Do you listen to it as a signal that you’re getting tired or hungry, or that it’s been too long since your last vacation? Do you honor it as a sign that you may be letting yourself be taken advantage of by other people? We can do lots of creative things with anger. One of my favorite options is to pray with it.

Yes, I said pray with it. Dr. Christiane Northrup, the guru of women’s health, suggests that in menopause we undergo changes in the hypothalamus, the brain region that is crucial in the ability to experience anger. Changing levels of hormones actually make it possible for us to recall old memories, often accompanied by strong emotions, facilitating our ability to clear up old unfinished business. “Anger in women gets a bad rap unless that anger arises in the service of others,” she says in The Wisdom of Menopause. In other words, we’re justified in getting furious if we are defending our children or harnessing energy on behalf of social justice—but just to get pissed off because we feel used or violated is not in the script that has been pre-written for us.

Menopause is a time when we either let go of pre-written scripts or we resign ourselves to walking around half alive in someone else’s skin, simmering with soul-numbing resentment. Anger is a way of saying, “Get on with it, Woman. This is nonsense.” It is an impetus to own our power—not for the purpose of revenge against others, but for figuring out who we really are underneath the roles that have been assigned to us.

So what do I mean by praying with anger? When I talk to women who take their spiritual selves seriously, they often want to disregard their anger as something destructive or negative. I ask them some questions: Has someone let you down or failed to meet a commitment to you? Have you lost power, status, or respect? Do you feel insulted, undermined or diminished in any relationship? Have you felt threatened with physical or emotional pain? Have you had an important or pleasurable event postponed or canceled to accommodate someone else? Do you feel cheated out of something that should legitimately be yours? Almost always a light bulb goes off. “Well, yes, I’m always putting my own needs on hold to baby-sit my grandchildren/listen to a friend with a problem/work late for my boss/entertain my husband’s colleagues.” And almost always a qualifier is added: “But isn’t that what a mother/wife/friend is supposed to do?”

Absolutely not. If you are accommodating other people enough to feel irritated or angry, you’re running on empty—and that’s a dangerous condition, right up there with hypertension and high cholesterol and obesity. And if your doctor were to advise you to change your lifestyle habits to correct one of those conditions, you probably wouldn’t be saying, “But isn’t a woman supposed to have high blood pressure?”

So this is what I mean by praying with anger. First, it’s important to honor anger in the same way that we honor that gas gauge in our car—as a signal that something else is needed. It’s a God-given warning sign, like pain when we’re injured. After we identify what is needed, it’s important to act. But in praying with our anger, we commit ourselves to action that is measured and fully considered. We sit with the uncomfortable feelings of it. We acknowledge the hurt that lies just beneath the surface. We may even move into a “loving-kindness” meditation in which we breathe in the anger and breathe out good will—but we don’t try to spiritualize it away. We embrace the anger just as we would receive an unexpected guest, asking it what it wants to say to us. And when the time is right, we move into right action.

Right action in dealing with anger is a prayerful move. It differs from reaction in that we don’t give away our power to anyone else with a, “Look what you made me do!” attitude. We stay centered within ourselves, and we determine if a conversation is possible with the person who has offended us. Do we want to invest our energy in an encounter with that person? Is it a wise use of our energy? Or do we need to acknowledge that the offending party is only being himself or herself—living out a pattern that is hurtful and destructive—and is not worthy right now of too much honesty? Religious tradition calls this the gift of discernment, but I am amazed sometimes at the number of people who seem to feel that their religious calling is to set themselves up to be doormats.

I personally need a lot of support in determining what right action will be in a particularly charged situation. You might draw on the wisdom of a good friend or a therapist or a support group or a mentor to help you to map out a plan. The plan should be consistent with your most deeply held values and your most realistic expectations. And then you move into action.

Right action in response to anger is one of the most important tasks that midlife women undertake. Through right action, we sort out ourselves from other people. We say, “This is where you end and I begin.” We affirm our own right to exist on the planet, to need what we need and to want what we want. We dare to say, “There’s enough to go around. I don’t have to deny myself in order for others to get what they need.” Through right action, we don’t rehearse for more anger. We clear the air in a way that we can see ourselves and others in a more loving way—not the feel-good kind of love that says “Aren’t I a nice person?” but the full-bodied love that sees all the way down to the bones of our shared human foibles.

Through praying our anger, we step into our authority as elders of the human tribe. We relinquish the role of caretaking ingénue. We prepare ourselves for the mature feminine work of tending the soul of the world.

 Questions for Reflection:

1. Think of someone with whom you are angry or irritated. Can you pinpoint the reason you are offended? Have you been let down or disappointed by something they’ve done? Have you felt put down or diminished by them? Have they harmed you either physically or emotionally? Allow yourself to articulate the nature of the offense, perhaps in your journal, or with a trusted friend.

2. Ask yourself, “What action is called for here?” (Remember that anger always calls for some response.) Perhaps you need to confront the person. Perhaps you need to look at your own role in the scenario that causes you pain. Perhaps you need to write a letter—you can decide to mail it or not later, but just get it off your chest for now. Perhaps you need to work through your feelings within the safety of a trusted container— with a priest or a therapist or a circle of friends. (You’ll know you’re working through the feelings and not just gossiping if you feel yourself freer and freer to release the anger).

3. Allow yourself to sit in silence or to take a walk or to plant a flower in honor of that other person and his or her role in your own evolution as a person. And if you can, practice a loving-kindness meditation, sending energy to that person.

4. Give thanks for your role in tending the soul of the world in a significant way through your responses to a difficult situation.

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