Anger: A Two-Sided Coin

As I continue to explore Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, there are some rings of hell I find particularly intriguing. This is so of the fifth ring, housing unrepentant sinners guilty of anger. The ring consists of a putrid, muddy swamp; the loathsome Styx. As Dante and his guide, Virgil, make their way towards it, they see that the swamp is full of naked, peevish people caked in mud, battering each other with fists, head butts, ‘kicks and charging chests’. So consumed are they with anger, that they also tear shreds off each other with their teeth. Enduring such brutality is the punishment of these sinners, the wrathful.

Things get more interesting when Dante realises there is another group of people inhabiting this zone, evident by a strange humming sound and bubbling of the Styx’s surface. Totally submerged in the swamp are people whose sighs aerate the muddy film, and they hum the following:

‘Mournful we were. Sunlight rejoices the balmy air.

We, though, within ourselves nursed sullen fumes,

And come to misery in this black ooze.’

This is the song of the sullen, the second type of angry sinner condemned to the fifth ring. I find this is an interesting take on anger: that it can be expressed through sullenness rather than wrath. A parallel in psychological circles is that sometimes, rather than express our anger towards someone, we turn it within, taking the burden upon ourselves. We become deflated, mournful, sullen. But, why is this so? What divides the wrathful from the sullen, calling the former to express their anger at the target of their frustration, and the later to turn it inward? The work of Scottish psychoanalyst William Ronald Fairbairn offers some answers.

The Moral Defence

Working at a psychological clinic in the 1930s, Fairbairn treated children from homes where they suffered physical, verbal, sexual abuse, or general neglect. What he found surprising was that many of these children didn’t have a harsh word to say about their parents. They did, however, have a lot of negative things to say about themselves. If they were treated poorly, it was because they were bad, not because a parent was indifferent, cold, or neglectful. The child bore the weight of their unfair treatment on their own shoulders, rather than express anger towards their parents.

Fairbairn reasoned that children do this because they are dependent on their parents for survival. Children need to feel that their primary caregivers are able to look after them, and that they are sufficiently attached or connected to their parents. Otherwise, a child can’t manage their fear of abandonment; of being alone in a hostile world. A child can reason that at least if abuse has something to do with themselves (after all, they do sometimes have positive experiences with their parents), they have no reason to reject their parents, and so they can maintain their attachment. So, the child develops what Fairbairn called ‘The moral defence against bad objects’: the bad object (parent/person) isn’t bad, or inconsistent, it’s the child that is the problem. Or so the child assumes.

The child’s use of the moral defence reminds me of how adults often respond to other people’s misfortune, using a kind of reasoning researchers call the ‘Just World Hypothesis’. This hypothesis explains a widespread tendency to believe that victims of misfortune deserve what happens to them — that they somehow contributed to, or even caused, their suffering. Statements such as, ‘If only they hadn’t done this or that, they could have avoided what happened’, reflect a need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve. In a way, the child of abuse does the same thing with their moral defence.

Another, seemingly paradoxical, characteristic of abused children with this defence, is that the greater the deprivation, the greater the fixation on their parents. Indeed, deprivation causes a fixation on the parents because the attachment feels so precarious. The child becomes hypervigilant of the parents’ moods and behaviour, constantly monitoring for any sign that might act as a ‘status update’ regarding attachment. The large amounts of energy consumed by this focus means that less is available for exploring the wider world.

Not all abused children respond in this way to the failings of parents. Where the sullen child takes the responsibility for their ill-treatment upon themselves, others see things the other way around, responding with righteous anger. The wrathful child sees the parents’ inconsistencies, the hypocrisy, the cruelty, and decides to act out against it. Rather than feeling that their security depends on maintaining an attachment to the parent, they decide that they are better off relying on themselves. They will go their own way, forge their own path, do it all on their own, and ‘You can’t stop me!’ becomes their familiar cry. In contrast, the sullen is obsessed with the unspoken question, ‘Are you and I good?’

The Big Picture

Reading through psychological insights such as the above can feel a bit heavy, even if they are relevant and helpful for our own growth. This is where I find principles from A Course in Miracles really come into their own. By placing our personal experiences within the context of the Course’s metaphysics and myth of creation, we can see the universal themes behind the multitude of forms our experiences take. The darkness of your past, my past, and everyone’s past, has one and the same origin, regardless of its size and shape: the Course’s miracle sees no degrees of difficulty amongst them in terms of healing.

A fundamental premise of the Course is that we ‘are at Home in God, dreaming of exile’, and that this dream is the source of all our distress. In the Course’s myth, we were a part of an undifferentiated Oneness, but had a ‘tiny, mad desire to be separate, different and special.’ On the power of this wish alone, we thought we had actually accomplished our autonomy from God — an all-loving parent — and our guilt and fear over this caused us to imagine Him as angry:

‘You who believe that God is fear made but one substitution. It has taken many forms, because it was the substitution of illusion for truth; of fragmentation for wholeness. It has become so splintered and subdivided and divided again, over and over, that it is now almost impossible to perceive it once was one, and still is what it was. That one error, which brought truth to illusion, infinity to time, and life to death, was all you ever made. Your whole world rests upon it. Everything you see reflects it, and every special relationship that you have ever made is part of it’ (T-18.I.4:1-6).

In this illusion of a world, parents (and primary carers) are our main symbols of God. His stand ins. Our ideas about them reflect our ideas about Him, and the Old-Testament gives us insight into those ideas. The biblical God is anything but consistent. His love is conditional, His behaviour unpredictable, and of course, His wrath is legendary. But He also performs some miraculous feats in the world for those He wishes to help. He is, quite simply, an interventionist God.

If this is our idea of God (regardless of our conscious position, the biblical story reflects an unconscious belief), what happens when things don’t go right for us and we feel victimised? If we believe Someone, or Something, isn’t looking out for us, perhaps even punishing us, what do we do with our frustration and anger? If we feel sullen, we’ve decided to see things as our just deserts. Why would God bless us with an easier ride if we’re bad and unworthy? With this interpretation, there’s no call for us to reject God. We can keep our attachment, and we want to do this because we believe that, being a magical kind of God, He might bless us with gifts somewhere down the line. We live in hope.

If we feel wrathful, we’ve decided that God is wrong and bad. He is unfair. And so, we act out against Him. Here I’m reminded of Australian author John Charalambousa’s memoir Two Greeks, where he recalls his father throwing lemons at the sky when his lawnmower wouldn’t start, cursing God as he launched each yellow missile. The wrathful decide they don’t need this incompetent arbitrator of justice. And they’re not backward in coming forward to tell Him what they think.

Healing: Setting the Goal

Our issues with God are projected onto our issues with our parents, and so to heal one relationship is to heal the other. Since we can’t face our fear of God directly, our forgiveness lessons with parents (and the row of people standing behind them) become a valuable means of healing our unconscious beliefs about God. Likewise, with an understanding of the ultimate origin of our distress — the belief in separation — we are better equipped to heal our worldly relationships.

Take, for example, the idea of an original state of Oneness, for which we yearn. In this world, a reflection of Oneness would be to remember our shared interests with everyone, including the people we hate. We all have the same need to remember our wholeness and Home. Healing the belief in separation therefore involves joining with others in our mind by appreciating our common need. We are willing to see our particular forgiveness issue as an opportunity for everyone to experience healing. Vengeance, then plays no part in the process. There is no desire to make ourselves right and someone else wrong. What is true, in the Course’s terms, becomes whatever aides the healing process, and what is false is anything that hinders it. Again, our motivation in any interaction is the key:

‘The value of deciding in advance what you want to happen is simply that you will perceive the situation as a means to make it happen. You will therefore make every effort to overlook what interferes with the accomplishment of your objective, and concentrate on everything that helps you meet it’ (T-17.VI.4:1-2).

A way out of a wrathful or melancholy position, is to make forgiveness and healing our goal, opening our mind to the help of the Holy Spirit which will provide us with the patience and fortitude needed to do what we need to, and to do it with kindness. As always, the real power lies in establishing what we want. If our goal is clear, the particular way in which we’ll learn to forgive and let go of anger will come to us in a form we can recognise:

‘The mind which means that all it wants is peace must join with other minds, for that is how peace is obtained. And when the wish for peace is genuine, the means for finding it is given, in a form each mind that seeks for it in honesty can understand. Whatever form the lesson takes is planned for him in such a way that he can not mistake it, if his asking is sincere. But if he asks without sincerity, there is no form in which the lesson will meet with acceptance and be truly learned’ (W-185.6: 1-4).

The Course’s process of forgiveness also helps us navigate our grievances in a way that doesn’t lead to adopting an opposite extreme. The answer to the sullen, moral defence, isn’t to think of someone else as all bad. Nor is the answer to the wrathful, independent defence to take all the guilt upon ourselves. Instead, the result of remembering our common need will be a gentle movement toward the middle, and we’ll feel inspired.

For example, if self-depreciation has been our moral defence, then healing will involve no longer being blind to someone else’s failings. At the same time, we’ll feel more self-respect from no longer attacking ourselves. We’ll stand taller. Stronger. It might feel like courage, but it’s really trust in our own goodness. For the person growing up with a wrathful defence, healing might involve a bit of give and take in the other direction: a willingness to see themselves as wrong on occasions, and to trust in the capabilities of others — to perhaps let themselves rely on the skill/knowledge/authority of someone else when it might be helpful.

Letting go of our habitual defences requires us to develop a relationship with our Inner Teacher. Where in the past our defences led the way, we now choose to tune into that part of us associated with a quiet strength, as the Course reflects in the final section of the text, ‘Choose Once Again’:

‘How do you make the choice? How easily is this explained! You always choose between your weakness and the strength of Christ in you. And what you choose is what you think is real. Simply by never using weakness to direct your actions, you have given it no power. And the light of Christ in you is given charge of everything you do. For you have brought your weakness unto Him, and He has given you His strength instead’ (T-31.VIII.1:1-7).

Books by Stephanie Panayi

The Farthest Reaches of Inner Space

Alchemists of Suburbia

Above the Battleground: The Courageous Path to Emotional Autonomy and Inner Peace

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume One

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Two

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Three

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volumes One to Three

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