Honest Anger, Honest Grief

At the beginning of March, a very dear friend gave me the book Against an Infinite Horizon by Ronald Rolheiser. The gift came out of the blue as a very pleasant surprise. I had intended to start this book after I finished reading another book at the time. Well, I was sort of reading another book at the time. I was just beginning the upswing out of depression, and reading, which is normally very pleasurable, was usually one of the last things I wanted to do. For some reason, I picked this book up the next day and started reading it. It immediately spoke to me. It has helped me immensely to understand and verbalize some of what I was and still am going through. I am in deep gratitude to my friend for this gift, and for their friendship and love. They, and the book, have helped “more than you’ll ever know.”

In light of a recent event that was out of my control, I have found myself harboring much grief. Not so much anger, although there is a tinge of it with much potential to be engulfed by it, but much more grief and pain. Either way, it has taken much prayer to accept this event, to seek forgiveness for others and for myself, and to look at life with faith, hope, and love. And oddly enough, I am also trying to hold an attitude of gratitude for whatever this experience will teach me because I hope this grief will be transformative through the power and love of Christ.

My first thought, and maybe yours too, is that anger and grief are two completely separate emotions. To me, anger seems to be directed more outward while grief is more directed inward. But as Ronald Rolheiser points out, “…anger and grief are not that different. On the surface, they appear antithetical, oil and vinegar, but examined more closely, most of the time they are expressions of the same thing, love that has been wounded and yearns for reconciliation.” (emphasis mine)

There are different forms of anger and grief, and not all forms of are good. There is honest anger; and there is dishonest anger. Likewise, there is honest grief and dishonest grief. According to Rolheiser, honest anger and honest grief obey three rules.

First, honest anger and grief do not distort the past and the present. “Good anger does not let hurt blind one to what was good in the past so as to allow a revisionist distortion of the truth. Honest anger is real anger, it feels and points out what is wrong, but it does not, on that account lie about what is and what was good. It lets the good remain good.” Honest anger and grief honors and cherishes the good from the past and does not try to warp it into something it was not in order to make oneself feel better about their present choices in attempting to cope with the anger, grief, and pain.

Second, honest anger is not rage. “Despite its rather coarse surface and its painful disturbing of the peace, honest anger, in the end, seeks to build up, to bring to a new wholeness, to reconcile something that is felt as fractured or broken. [Honest anger] is a disruptive means toward a good goal. Rage, by contrast, wants only to bring down, to break apart, to utterly destroy. Its wound is so deep that there is no desire for unity and reconciliation. The clearest expression of [rage] is murder/suicide, the case where the wounded lover kills [figuratively or literally] his lost love and then kills himself.”

Analogously, honest grief is not despair. It hopes for a resolution, a reconciliation. Despair is a complete loss of hope. It sees the fractured love as hopeless, no salvation, no mending. All hope for reconciliation is lost.

In other words, honest anger and grief both want reconciliation, a rebuilding of the relationship with probably renegotiated terms. Rage wants to burn the bridge and tear apart any hope for the future of the relationship while despair concedes the loss of all hope.

And third, honest anger and grief have a time limit. It does not last forever, but cries and “wails for ‘forty days’”, or whatever amount of time it needs to process through it. And then it moves on. “Honest anger [and grief] never sees itself as an end, a substitute for lost love.” It hopes for the lost love as its ultimate aim.

Rolheiser concludes:

[Honest anger and grief] do not make an ideology of itself (“I am unhappy and I have a right to be!”) Like the Israelites in the desert, like a pining lover, its energy seeks for the road beyond, the way out, reconciliation, an embrace that heals the fracture.

Honest anger and honest grief seek “an embrace that heals the fracture.” Pain, ache, and frustration are all symptoms of this fracture. How we deal with these symptoms, these honest and real emotions, determines our attitude and choices we will make. Are we drawn to choices that try to bring reconciliation and forgiveness, or to choices that dissolve connections and relationships? Are we drawn toward choices that lead us toward God, or away into ourselves? Be honest with yourself…

When one door of happiness closes, another opens, but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us. — Helen Keller