Anger is the door by which all other vices get a hold of us. Here’s how to temper that.
When I’m upset, I feel it in my teeth. I bite down, my heartbeat goes into overdrive, and my blood pressure shoots up. I haven’t had a doctor insult me while simultaneously checking my vital signs, but I’m fairly sure this is what’s happening physically when I’m in a tense discussion. I feel it in the tightness of my jaw. I even think the skin around my eyes gets weird because of the set of my facial muscles. People who are observant can probably read my emotions like an open book because my discomfort is writ large on my wrinkled brow.
Studies show that when we’re in the midst of an argument, there are many physical side-effects. Anger spreads through our bodies and the emotional stress attacks every physical system we have. It’s typical for our heart rate to elevate and our blood pressures to increase, but other effects include fast, shallow breathing due to tightness in the chest. The brain itself doesn’t function well because, when we feel threatened, it releases a hormone called cortisol that induces even more stress, preparing us for an intense fight and not for rational discussion over a cup of tea.
These physical factors create a feedback loop. The argument causes anger which causes a physical reaction which then in turn makes us uncomfortable, less rational, and unable to resolve the argument. I think this is why we often dig in during an argument only to later wonder what in the world we were thinking. Looking back, I wonder why a certain point of contention was so important to me when, in fact, I don’t particularly care and would be happy to compromise. The trouble is, we can’t see that during an argument because we are unable to manage our emotional and physical reactions.
This week, we’re celebrating the feast day of St. Jerome, a famously curmudgeonly saint. He was a man who had his fair share of out-of-control arguments and wasn’t exactly known as the paradigm of inner peace. Knowing how much anger was affecting him, in the year 375 he decided to live by himself in the desert for two years and regain some semblance of calm. The experience was not altogether successful and it was a problem he struggled with his whole life. Once he returned to active life, his preaching remained very pointed. He would publicly go after priests, monks, and other theologians in the pulpit and didn’t mince words. Vicious arguments resulted and Jerome became the object of verbal attacks. He was criticized for his opinions, hypocrisy, and even the way he smiled. Eventually, he made so many enemies that he had to leave town for good.
Jerome was probably not a nicer person than you or me, but he never made peace with his argumentative nature – he was said to even beat himself with a rock to try to calm down – and he thought a lot about the nature of anger. He understood the spiritual damage that his vice created. What Jerome understood is that there’s a spiritual effect to angry argumentation. Anger, he says, is the door by which all other vices get a hold of us. When we’re angry, we act in ways we never would when we’re calm. We begin to gossip, trade insults, and lie. We lose our patience and kindness. Empathy is out the window. Pride and selfishness take over.
Nevertheless, disagreements are going to happen. So what lessons can the life of St. Jerome teach us about how to remain calm during an argument?
1. TAKE A BREAK
Winning an argument at all costs isn’t worth the collateral emotional damage, and the lingering anger that results never does anyone any good. Jerome may have struggled with his ability to remain calm during arguments, but he did have a good plan to try and overcome it. When he was in the midst of an untenable argument and knew he had lost his calm, he would take a break — even for as long as two years in the desert. A conversation can always be resumed at a later date after cooler heads prevail.
2. LISTEN AND FOCUS
Arguments spiral out of control when we aren’t actually engaging each other. When we’re simply trying to prove the other person wrong and force a surrender, they quickly sense that and return the favor. Words get heated and insincere insults are traded (that nevertheless sting). One of Jerome’s great virtues during an argument was that he would engage and think through what the other person was trying to say in detail. He would interact at great length with his adversaries. Insofar as he was doing this he was on the right path.
Jerome recognized that he was the problem. Even when his opinion was correct, he understood that his method of communicating wasn’t effective when he lost his cool. He considered that this was a great flaw in himself, which is why he would administer self-penance by hitting himself with a rock. I don’t recommend following his example of self-harm, but he was on the right track when he decided to examine himself first.
Even though Jerome never quite got his anger under control and would continue to lose his calm, he battled his flaw his whole life. We can admire his tenacity and insight while, hopefully, avoiding his weakness. Legend has it that he once drew a thorn from the paw of a lion. Perhaps this is the sort of courage needed so that, instead of giving into stress and anger during an argument, we will remain calm, take a deep breath, and smile.