THE BOTTOM LINE – Anger can either be constructive or destructive. It's important for me to understand the triggers that launch my anger and to stick to a plan to help control how I respond.
If you’ve ever been in the military, you probably know that anger is one of the only acceptable emotions for a service member to display while on duty. Anger is considered a good thing, something you may need to tap into in order to accomplish a challenging mission.
At times, anger may play a part in saving your buddies or helping you stay alive. It’s not only encouraged, it’s even part of every service member’s training. This same concept is found among first responders too, especially among law enforcement officers. But even firefighters and EMTs need to access anger when circumstances gets particularly dicey. In certain situations, anger is almost a requirement – a necessary tool. When a house needs to be breached, whether it’s in Afghanistan or in a seedy part of an American city, the concept of “violence of action” must be employed. Since the breachers aren’t sure who or what is inside, the plan is to intimidate and overwhelm the bad guys quickly by being loud, shocking, and forceful, coming at them from multiple sides. The hope is that the occupants will become disoriented, see themselves as outnumbered, and decide to give up without a fight. Nothing contributes to this “violence of action” tactic like tapping into your anger.
So much of who and what first responders deal with on a daily basis consists of a mix of anger, opposition, and aggression. Your physiology responds in like manner and ramps up to match it. You’re used to it. In fact, for many first responders, the “violence of action” tactic becomes a predisposition, a default setting whenever you sense conflict or threat. But how do you turn it off? What happens later when you go home and have a disagreement with your spouse? Or when your kids are acting crazy even though you’ve asked them multiple times to calm down? Suddenly, your loved ones become the opposition and the object of your anger. Your “go-to emotion” takes over, and you become the biggest, loudest animal in the room, hoping to get them to back down so you can win the argument. After it’s over, you probably see the harm caused by the fog of your anger, but at that point, it’s too late. The damage has been done. The anger you displayed probably wasn’t logical, but it’s your default setting. It’s what you have nurtured and trained to become your most commonly felt emotion. And if nothing is done to change that default setting, you’ll probably find yourself responding with anger to anyone who annoys or disagrees with you.
ANGER IS NOT A SIN
Anger is human nature. And God built it into us for good reason. Without feelings of anger, we wouldn’t rise up against unfairness or injustice. We wouldn’t dig down deep and fight to protect the things and people that matter most to us. Anger is an internal alarm bell that tells us that something is not right and that some kind of action urgently needs to be taken in order to resolve the conflict that we have encountered. Even Jesus, the Prince of Peace, became angry on a few occasions. In Mark 3, He was looking at a man with a withered hand, preparing to heal him. But it was the Sabbath, and He knew that Jewish law prohibited doing any work on the Sabbath. So He asked the religious leaders around Him, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?” But they kept silent. Then the Scripture tells us, “After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.”
What made Jesus angry? It was the hypocrisy and lack of compassion of the religious leaders there. They were supposed to represent the kind, loving, compassionate Creator and Healer, but they considered their ceremonial laws a higher priority than this man’s affliction. That made Jesus sad at first, and then mad. Now, He could have called down lightning bolts from heaven and zapped those religious leaders where they stood. But He didn’t. Instead, He channeled His anger constructively. He turned from the offenders and instead turned to the one who was in need.
Through this, He did something positive, something that actually addressed the central problem in front of Him. Jesus used his anger as fuel to bring about positive change and impact rather than destruction. So, anger in and of itself isn’t bad, and it isn’t a sin. But what follows anger – and what we do with our anger – can be. “Violence of action” may be appropriate in the line of duty while dealing with bad guys, but it’s absolutely counterproductive in our relationships outside of that. This is made very clear in Ephesians 4:26 which reads, “Be angry, and yet do not sin.” Anger is going to come about when you encounter injustice, bullies, threats, or insults. That’s normal and appropriate. But when you let anger take over, and you try to fight that fire with more fire, that’s when you’ve crossed the line. That’s when you lose, and your enemies win. Don’t be surprised or ashamed of your anger – but don’t use it as an excuse to unleash your wrath in ungodly, destructive ways.
THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT
In Galatians 5, we find two contrasting lists of human behaviors and traits. The first list, known as the “Deeds of the Flesh,” describes our damaging, self-centered actions and reactions toward others. One item on the list is “outbursts of anger.” You’ll notice that it’s not just anger, but the outbursts that are the problem. The second list, called the “Fruit of the Spirit,” highlights behaviors that are generated when our roots are sunk down into the Spirit of God – behaviors like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Especially take note of the last item on the list, “self-control.” One of the primary causes of anger is when we sense we have lost control over something we think we should be in control of. Anger promises to restore our feelings of power and control, but more often, when we get angry, we feel even less in control, which makes us feel even angrier. And then come the outbursts. If we want to limit those outbursts, we could ask a friend to strap us into a straight jacket or lock us in a cell. Or, we could change where our roots are located. This allows the Holy Spirit to produce not only the fruit of self-control but also the rest of the fruit from the list as well.
In all likelihood, if you have experienced some kind of traumatic incident that your mind hasn’t been able to process yet, you experience triggers from time to time. These triggers can also generate anger. But the source of this anger is primarily physiological, not psychological, emotional, or spiritual. It’s important to know the difference. When you experience trauma, you’re hit with an avalanche of sensory impressions – sights and sounds and smells happening all around you. But God has given you the ability to focus on the important ones and disregard those that are inconsequential at that moment. Your analytical “left brain” becomes less active, so it won’t slow you down, while your reactive, creative “right brain” takes over so that you can survive the threat. During the incident, the less important, peripheral impressions don’t get labeled and filed, like they normally would.
Simply put, a trigger is one of these fragmented pieces of sensory information that was stored improperly or incompletely. And when your brain encounters a similar piece of sensory information later, it relates it to that confusing, poorly-filed stimulus and freaks out, alerting you to the possibility – or according to your brain, the probability – of danger, telling you that you need to get ready to fight, fly, or freeze.
For instance, let’s say you are called to a bad two-car accident. One of the cars is starting to burn, and there is an unconscious two-year-old boy strapped in the back seat. The door won’t open. You’re already amped up, but you experience an even stronger hormone dump. There’s one and only one thing that you want to do – get that child out of that car. With no time for the Jaws of Life, you grab your punch and shatter the window. The car radio is still on, belting out “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The boy has a firm grip on his blue Care Bear. There’s an upended bucket of KFC fried chicken strewn about the inside of the car. But none of this registers in your mind. You are focused on the rescue. You’re working frantically to cut the safety belt, and the heat of the fire is spiking. With one final surge of adrenalin, you cut the belt and pull the child to safety, while others smother the flames that had begun to kindle on the boy’s clothes and hair.
However, after all of your efforts, the boy doesn’t survive the night. Understandably, you and all your partners grieve deeply over this. Every time you think of that evening, you feel a flood of emotions, one of which is probably anger. You did your absolute best to control the situation, but it was an impossible task. Weeks or months have passed, and though you no longer obsess over the accident, you find that you get physically ill whenever you smell Kentucky Fried Chicken.
When you hear “Proud Mary” or see a kid carrying a blue Care Bear, you get agitated, angry, aggressive, or perhaps you just want to get out of there, and you don’t know why. These sensory impressions are triggers. It is not a simple thing for a first responder to determine the source of your triggers or to get the sensory memories properly identified and filed in your mind. It certainly won’t be done in this one Firstline session.
In fact, it may require that you undergo some counseling or therapy. But simply understanding what triggers are and why they occur can go a long way in blunting the effect they have on you. Most of us have no problem getting angry. Our challenge lies in how we can let off the pressure that caused the anger and then respond in a constructive way, like Jesus did. During this week’s session, we’re going to look at some practical, constructive ways to do just that.
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