Loss inevitably brings anger. Loss of a loved one, loss of a home, loss of a relationship, loss of a job can all seem life-threatening. But smaller losses, loss of an election or even loss of a football game, for instance, can also bring anger. Sometimes it is immediate and sometimes it takes a while to present itself but, as the stages of grieving remind us, anger is there at some point after loss. Usually we are stunned with loss and operate in some denial for a while, then we begin to feel the feelings and anger is among those feelings.
I had a pretty bad temper as a teenager and a lot of that got expressed on the tennis court. Logic didn’t have much to do with it. That down-the-line backhand hitting the top of the net and falling back into my court wasn’t just a lost point. It was my whole life failing miserably. Sometimes that anger motivated me to play better. Sometimes it ruined any chance at all I had of winning. Eventually it began to feel so bad that I had to come to terms with some difficult things inside me. The anger took the fun out of the game as it all came to be about winning or losing. And, as bad as losing felt, somehow winning never felt quite as good as I thought it would.
The 20th chapter of Matthew recounts the story of a landowner hiring laborers early in the morning to work for a daily wage. They go out and work all day with the promise of being paid. But the story goes on to say that the landowner kept finding workers during the day and sending them out to work as well, some even very late in the afternoon. When the workday was finally over, those who worked only an hour or two received a full day’s pay. Those who worked the whole day saw that and thought they would be paid more and got furious when they only received the regular daily wage. Somehow, as they watched things play out, they came to expect something more for themselves and, when those hopes were lost, they got angry. It wasn’t really that they lost anything at all specifically. They got the payment they had been promised. But they had come to hope for much more and they didn’t get it. They resented the others and the landowner.
The setting for the story is that Jesus is hanging out with sinners, forgiving them, and promising them eternal life. The religious elite, those who had been working a lot longer than these Johnny-come-lately sinners, got angry because they hoped they would be given more than others. They resented the sinners getting the same payment they were working for.
If we do some hard work of reflection following loss, we discover that the root of the anger we are feeling is based in fear. We’re afraid that we can’t go on without that person in our life. We’re afraid we’ll never get to realize our hopes. We’re afraid our approach to life isn’t valued by others. We’re afraid we have lost all control over outcomes. We’re afraid someone else is getting what we wanted so badly. We’re afraid the whole damn world is spinning senselessly. Loss makes us afraid that we don’t matter. We’re afraid that we, and all that matters to us, will be lost.
So we get angry. We get angry at the winners. We get angry at those whom we have lost. We get angry at the system that has taken something away from us or not given us what we needed. Sometimes there is no specific target for our anger, but the anger is there nonetheless.
There’s a difference between feeling angry and being angry. The religious elite that got so angry at Jesus had become angry. Anger defined them. They were angry at those who didn’t live like them. They were angry at God for not doing something about that. They were angry that their means of control was taken away from them (as if it was ever there in the first place). Anger and resentment defined them and, rather than being open to the grace Jesus offered them, they just kept pushing harder against their perceived enemies. The Pharisees and scribes had turned into bitter old men who were missing out on what could have been available to them.
Life presents us with loss. Fear and anger are natural responses. But we are offered the opportunity of dealing with that in a holy, prayerful way. What does the loss represent to us? What frightens us? Where does this loss of control leave us? Anger can motivate us to do good and prayerful work. It can lead us to acknowledge our fears and our need for God’s grace in our lives. Anger can lead us to see what is beyond our control, what is within our control, and even lead to the wisdom to know the difference between the two.
We can become angry and bitter and miss out on a lot of grace. Or we can allow loss to prepare us for the kingdom of God. Loss reminds us that all will eventually be taken away from us, all save the very being of God himself. And that is all we ever really need. That is what we’re searching for so hard. Loss is a holy place if we trust that God awaits.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.