On wrath

Here is another piece I’ve brought forward from a couple of years ago, thinking perhaps it might still be worth reading. Or perhaps not. Other items around it now strike me as too trite, or too timely; merrily I blitz them as I go along. Alas this deprives gentle reader of that pleasure. As Doctor Johnson said, “A man who writes a book, thinks himself wiser or wittier than the rest of mankind; he supposes that he can instruct or amuse them, and the publick to whom he appeals, must, after all, be the judges of his pretensions.” … Quite frankly, I love the way they placed commas in those days.


It is true that parents have an influence on their children; we cannot know how much. It is also true that children are “born that way.” Among the sane, nature and nurture are both acknowledged, each working upon the other, and Grace upon both. The list of “rules” to be followed in raising a child is both short and vague. This is because each child is a person, and not one of them a machine, and even the amount of attention he needs varies from one to another. Love being the Great Teacher, what is taught through love may have some good effect. But love is more than forbearance.

Look at these creatures. Humans are much different from cats (and other animals, such as painted turtles), and yet I found, from my own childhood, that a cat could demonstrate the nature of nature. I so-to-say “owned” more than one from a kitten, and noticed that each came endowed with a personality, an intelligence level, a unique constellation of feline dispositions. And while a cat cannot be a dog, nor a tomcat drop kittens, every cat will display some range. In these respects, cats are much like people.

I regret to say that through complex oversights, I was provided with only two children to experiment upon; both boys. For scientific purposes, I needed dozens more. But even in this limited field I immediately detected the kitten phenomenon. The same with other people’s children, known since very young: “They come that way,” and unless one is tutoring not lecturing one will miss their particular requirements.

Unfortunately, our modern idea of education is all lecturing. We put them in a class; one size fits all. As anyone can see from the products of this system, they do not learn from it. In particular, the notion that education centres on the development of character, from that which is uniquely endowed, is lost on our pedagogic authorities; and from what I can see around the Greater Parkdale Area, on parents as well. For given what human beings are, there are moral implications in every form of learning, and this does not cease when “why” is replaced across the board with “how to.”

Wrath is my subject of the moment. It is always topical, though in the moment more topical to me than in most. To call it a Deadly Sin is a beginning, but it helps to understand of what the sin might consist. It cannot be a judgement on mere temperament, or cats would be capable of sin.

My father and I were born with unholy tempers, my elder son and my paternal grandfather apparently without. Wrath is a sin to which some seem untempted, any more than gluttony can tempt the anorexic. They can be vexed; I should think anyone can be vexed. But the emotional response is not always apparent. I knew a man of seemingly saintly disposition, who did not rise to any goad; who reacted to escalating taunts by turning away and becoming reflective; who endured an unendurable woman without complaint for many years; who did not flinch from acute physical pain, nor yell when anyone would yell, but spoke of fate philosophically, and counselled others simply to endure. We were all surprised the day he killed himself.

The animals I have known (apart from the humans) have more or less of temper; they express it quite spontaneously. I have fed the most serene sparrows, and watched others rave for their morsel of crumb. With humans one can seldom be sure what one is dealing with. In certain traditional Asian cultures, anger is suppressed, and insult is greeted with smiles, and then with giggling. I have watched ignorant Westerners miss these cues, even when warned. We think they fail to take us seriously, and become angrier, pushing our luck. The giggling expresses nervous anxiety; the preceding smiles were meant to assuage. But the capacity for anger is certainly there, and when finally it is unleashed, you are a dead man.

William Blake wrote, “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” Granted, he presented this as a Proverb of Hell, but with arcane Swedenborgian approval. The man of power I most fear is the one who seems to possess no temper. He may prove a monster of self-will, and brooding malice. The anger will never be shouted in words, yet may be subtly broadcast in a gesture. It will be absorbed, and stored, in his silent battery. But in the moment he “gets even,” you will learn the truth. And he will never forgive you thereafter, now that you have come to know him. Never work for psychopaths; and stop electing them to high office.

My father, who was honest, could explode like a volcano; but had forgiven and forgotten within a few hours. Unfortunately the recipient of his blast might take longer. It is hard to be wise with anger.

It makes you blind, hence the expression, “blind anger.” My schooling in this was from people actually blind, long a topic of fascination. When a person who is blind becomes angry, he loses the capacity to sense his environment, and starts colliding with things he would normally have avoided. I recommend the autobiography of the French Resistance hero, Jacques Lusseyran (1924–71), blinded in a childhood accident: And Then There Was Light (the translation last re-issued in 1998). It gives a superb account of the material and spiritual universe of blindness; to which add his collection of essays, Against the Pollution of the I. For the blind have so much to teach the sighted.

Among those physically sighted, as I have found to my cost, anger likewise blinds one to fact. The enemy is demonized, his virtues are disregarded. Reckless assertions will be made, about his acts and motives. To bear false witness is among the most grievous crimes, yet in the state of wrath, one bears it lightly. Even when the assertions are true, they will be unbalanced. Great generals in the field have known since the time of Sun Tzu, or long before, that they may make their opponents blunder, from rage. And clever politicians have mastered the art of infuriating their rivals. Anger can make us do the enemy’s bidding; hence the bottomless wisdom in Christ’s “resist ye not evil.” Run clear of it, by foot or in mind.

The Catholics have a saying which at first seems Pollyanna: “Offer it up.” There is actually profound sense in this: to offer the laundry up, to be washed by the angels. A wise priest of my acquaintance recommends carrying the handwritten text of some appropriate prayer, to repeat in emergencies. You may need this script; anger could make you forget the words. And the sooner you turn to it, the less sanity you stand to lose.

In Proverbs (the proper Old Testament collection) we read: “A soft word turneth away anger.” It is remarkable how many impending explosions may be obviated by this simple device, available free in any quantity from our Maker. (It is what the Asiatic intended by his smile.) An apology could serve this purpose well — if you wait until the barbs have been extracted.

Yet if there were no anger there would be no justice, so anger must have a place. The desire for vengeance impinges upon a divine prerogative; but the withholding of punishment may actually be a sin against charity. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is a prescription for mildness and proportion, lost on us today. Our cult of cowardly “niceness” has largely undermined or supplanted the older societal view of crime and blackguardly behaviour: that it had to be dealt with, that it couldn’t be habitually ignored, without terrible consequences. It is like pacifism: one half of a moral instruction, and that the feebler. Weighing requires a scale, and thus the chastity of the balance, held away from the bodily passions. The trial begins with oneself: “To what degree is my anger just? To what degree my own projection?”

For anger illuminates a dark landscape. In a flash it can show us what is lurking there. Or perhaps what is not lurking.

“The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” I once inscribed this additional Blake proverb into the ceiling beam of an English cottage — neatly, with serifs, after pencilling it for word and letter-spacing. For it seems to me there is wisdom in the storm, if the yachtsman will set his sails for its genius. It may require reefing, or even bare poles. But up to the gale it will carry him forward; and were there no wind, there’d be no getting home.