Giving in to anger is less shameful than giving in to appetites, Aristotle suggests, in part because “anger seems to listen to argument” but “to mishear it, as do hasty servants who run out before they have heard the whole of what one says, and then muddle the order.” Anger, it turns out, can be the most nearly rational of the passions, because we ought to have a spirited response in the face of injustice, wrongdoing, or unfair insult. Reason “informs us that we have been insulted or slighted” and it is often good and right to resist or object, but anger, “reasoning as it were,” “boils up” by “reason of the warmth and hastiness of its nature,” and so mishears what reason proposes. Anger is closer to reason than are the appetites but misapprehends what reason and virtue command. 

As we know all too well, the mood and tone of our society is angry, unreasonably angry, boiling over in anger. 

Whatever the reasons, our condition is well described by the following set of terms: anxiety, anger, sadness, spite, rage, and contempt, among others, all of which seem true of vast segments of American society without respect for political views or demographics. The kids aren’t well—they’re really not doing well—but neither are many of the adults, who also are really not doing well. Blame it on lockdowns, blame it on the media, on the smartphone, social media, loneliness, family breakdown, student loans—blame it on all of the above and more. People seem brittle, humorless, on a hair-trigger, and ready to blame, deride, criticize, and condemn. (I tend to place much of this on a loss of hope and its replacement with politics.) Like many, I’ve come to dread the new norm of social gatherings and idle party conversation, namely, reciting a litany of complaints against political opponents, religious leaders, and media figures, to name just a few. Our “manners,” such as they are, wink and approvingly nod at stridency, anger, and contempt. 

I share the sense that much is wrong, that no one is in charge, that things are falling apart, that the adults are not in charge, that the elites are incompetent and self-serving, that religion is not functioning well, and more. The temptation to frustration, despair, exasperation, and an anger I’d like to describe as “righteous” is not unknown to me. 

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Still, during the season when Christians celebrate Easter, it’s worth reflecting on what anger, contempt, and sadness do to us, and finding another, better way, a way that recognizes reality in all its grim aspects, eschewing pollyannish unseriousness while refusing to lose itself in rage. Sorrow is a better way. 

Contempt is a vile thing, suggesting that others have not only acted badly but are worthless in themselves, outside the community of value, not deserving of respect, no longer bearers of the image of God. Contempt views the other as contemptible, of course, but it does so only at cost to ourselves, rendering us contemptuous. We judge the other against the standard of ourselves, what we would do, who we are, the high opinion we have of ourselves, and find the other person wanting, beneath us, unequal. It is, I think, impossible to find the other contemptible without being guilty of too high a view of our own dignity, wisdom, and worth. There too, but for the grace of God, go I—isn’t that the old saying?—and a wise saying at that.  

Despair has abandoned hope, rejecting not only the possibility of human action and intelligence but also the reality and possibility of grace, conversion, and divine action. In despair we judge providence as inferior and incompetent, and we set ourselves and our judgments as lord and master. 

Spite reveals not only dislike and disgust but ill will, hostility, a malignant desire to wound and injure. Spite cannot coexist with charity, civility, or decency. It wishes harm, and it is wrong always and everywhere to intend harm to another. 

Sadness means more than a temporary emotion but a disposition or state of character, thus a vice. In its most virulent form, sadness was understood as a capital sin, an unwillingness to accept and rejoice in divine things because one was sad at the cost of loss of self, or the weight of conversion, or the offering of divine friendship. Sadness estranges us from God and from others; it’s not worth the effort, and it would be far better to simply be satisfied with ourselves and our lot, as when the rich young ruler departs sadly at the teachings of Jesus (Mt. 10:22) or when Cain is “downcast” when his offering is found wanting (Gen. 4:5). In a more subtle form, sadness gives in to frustration, refuses to rejoice in the many favors and good things we enjoy, and dwells instead on what is absent, missing, muddled, or imperfect. Sadness gives up its hope in God, its anticipation that providence can bring good out of evil, and renders us joyless, morose, and hard of heart. Our sadness cannot but infect others, robbing them of their own sense of willingness and the necessity of trying yet again; it thus results in vice in both ourselves and our neighbors.  

Sorrow, properly understood, prompts us to self-examination, to patience with others, and to good action.


Sorrow, properly understood, prompts us to self-examination, to patience with others, and to good action. No accident that mourning is a beatitude and not a vice (Lk. 6:21). Some authors describe the sorrow of love in a helpful way. When I offend a stranger on the interstate my contrition is shallow, brief, and not a motive force to change myself; if, however, I were to offend those I most love my contrition is intense, long-lasting, and prompts examination, new effort, and moral conversion. I must do better; I must be better. The more I love the other, the greater the sorrow I have at wronging them, and the more I am moved to action. In an analogous way, when it is not I but the one I love who does wrong—a beloved friend, a child, a spouse—my sorrow is greater but my condemnation is less. I do not ignore or overlook the wrong, but it grieves me for them since I know they too suffer and are wounded by their act. This is, I think, following Alice von Hildebrand, not really them, or not them as they could be if they became what they could and should be. My honest recognition of the wrong done is heightened, not diminished, as, too, my patience, empathy, and willingness to join with them as they repent and develop. The stranger who wrongs me on the interstate? I merely hope they recede in my mirror. But my sorrow at the wrongs done by my friend prompts me to pray, to call, to intervene, to join them in their efforts. 

Easter is not a time of sorrow but of joy. Good Friday, however, is a day of sorrow. Whether you keep Good Friday or not, whether this religious observance is your own or not, I suggest the practice of sorrow is redemptive. In sorrow we become more attuned to the incompetence, stupidity, injustice, and evil in our world—honestly, forthrightly, unsparingly—but we do not lose ourselves in malice, anger, rage, or gossip. In sorrow we become more attuned to the humanity of the person who is incompetent, stupid, unjust, or evil, and to their own fragility, dependence, and status as free and responsible. Perhaps they need correction, or instruction, or punishment, but they remain always a person, and we correct, instruct, or punish because they are persons, not despite or in spite of their status. In sorrow we are prompted to recognize our own shortcomings, ignorance, stupidity, and sin, and to repent, convert, repay, make amends, change our lives. In sorrow we are moved to grieve the acts of others and to make reparations on their behalf, to assist those they have harmed, to join in the suffering of those who have been wronged and those who have wronged—but to act rather than to chatter, complain, or self-indulgently rage from our position of vanity and self-satisfied anger.  

It’s a good day for sorrow, a habit sustaining our decency, humanity, patience, and courage for all the other days yet to come. All days bring their challenges, and there is much in our day to bemoan and condemn. Fair enough, but to have the courage and steadfastness needed to continue on, day in and day out, our sorrow serves us well.  

Far better, at least, than the alternatives, which are ruinous.  

Image by JavierArtPhotography licensed via Adobe Stock.