Note: This is the 8th in our What Is Love?: A New Testament reply series based in Paul’s description of love and relational science.
Synopsis: The great importance of this teaching for love relationships; powerful and weak interpretations; a fuller understanding of wrathful anger; the high and often overlooked significance of “not provoked”; the power of emotional equanimity for achieving this way of love; some help from a bit of Hindu/Buddhist/Christian integrated teaching – all potently come together in this discussion informed by relational science.
Most Important?Speaking from a relational specialist and therapist’s point of view, this might be one of the very most and important things on Paul’s list of what is and is not love! To me, therefore, it deserves your considerable attention. But then again I’m biased about this.
Please first note that this proclamation of Paul’s has two foci. One is what we might call provokability and the other is, in this translation, wrathful anger.
Why Is This So Important?No one knows how much human misery and destruction wrathful anger has caused. Some think that more than one half of the harm humans do each other would not happen if we did not allow ourselves to be provoked into intense anger, rage, hate and other forms of wrathful anger. How many love relationships are harmed or destroyed by episodes of anger acted out?
We know from research that most spousal murders, cases of battered children, incidents of familial physical abuse, elder abuse, acrimonious divorces and friend related physical fights resulting in hospitalization involve fits of unrestrained anger. The vast majority of all this harm involves people who said they loved one another. Additionally, there are all the couples and families who, via frequent angry fights, limit and block the amount of happy, healthy love they could otherwise have. On top of that, are all the seriously stressed and often traumatized, bystander children who witness those angry parent and family member fights (see “Anger and Love”).
Paul’s assertion proffers that with real love all of that agony and destructiveness can be made preventable. As a therapist, I have had a lot of first hand experience seeing couples, families, parents and others with severe anger problems prove Paul to be right. In my work with the families of murdered children, hardest was where the victim and an almost murderer were within the same family. But even there, the ways of anger could, with family therapy, be replaced with far better behavior.
I came to this work because I grew up in an alcohol influenced, fighting, Irish family destroyed by endless rage attacks and counter attacks. As could be expected, after that I had my own anger issues to overcome. The good news is, with a lot of hard work, I and countless others like me worked and grew out of a life of angry self-sabotage and relationship sabotage. Now, it has been a long time since I have allowed myself to be provoked to wrathful anger.
To get to the how-to’s, we first have to cover a few basics.
What Did Paul Really Mean?Paul wrote his teachings and inspirations in ancient Greek and for this one he used “ou paroxunetai” which has been translated into English a diverse number of ways. From a psychological point of view, some of these translations seem a bit questionable. They include “love does not become angry”, “does not easily become angry”, “is not touchy and vindictive”, “does not blaze out in passionate fury”, “does not fly off the handle”, “does not get upset with others” and “is very slow to take offense”.
Another group of interpretations renders this, in what seems to be a softening and somewhat understating way, making Paul’s pronouncement seem milder than was perhaps meant. They include versions like “love isn’t irritable”, “isn’t easily irritated”, “doesn’t aggravate easily”, and “is not prone to being quickly upset”.
Lastly, another group of scholars translates telling us “love is not provoked to anger”, “is not easily provoked”, “is not quickly provoked”, “is not provoked to wrath”, “is not stirred to wrath”, and “is not easily or quickly provoked to wrathful anger”. These scholars include a focus on the provoked concept while others seem to avoid or miss that point. This, in a psychological sense, appears to be crucial to having an in depth understanding of and the dynamics of anger, along with the workings of anger therapy and ways of conquering wrathful anger.
I have been told the Greek, root form Paul relies on is “paroxuno” to which our word “provoke” is thought to be historically connected. Couple that with the Greek “ou” which is considered to imply something like “take what follows in the strongest way” and, consequently, we see no reason to make this teaching seem mild or less than powerful. Thus, we discern “love is not provoked to wrathful anger” and/or “love is not easily provoked to wrathful anger” to be the most powerful and useful of all the English translations we are aware of.
What Is Wrathful Anger?To get an understanding and sense of “wrathful anger”, look at these somewhat synonymous words and terms: fury, rage, malice, vengeance, ferocity, savagery, vehemence, furor, outrage, hate, spite, unforgiving bitterness, acerbic criticism, intense and pervasive ill will, asperity and violent anger. Basically, this is the kind of anger that does not just cathartically release frustration or empower the expression of an opinion but rather it is the kind of anger that causes real harm and destruction.
What Does “Not Provoked” Really Mean?To provoke means to stimulate, give rise to, evoke, arouse or trigger a strong, usually negative emotional reaction. It also can mean to incite, goad, spur, prod, badger, urge, encourage or agitate anger, unhappiness, violence, hate or any other destructive, hurtful or harmful reactive behavior.
Provocation, connotes something a bit different than saying you, him, her, they or it made me feel bad. That connotation implies a provoked person had something within them that could be provoked or triggered in the first place. Therefore, it hints at the psychological truth that the provoked person owns at least part of the responsibility for their own reaction. This is because the something that was provoked is inside the provoked person and in their personal domain. That is wonderful because what is inside you, you can usually do something about.
If I think you have all the power to make me feel bad, then it follows I think I am powerless, weak and an emotionally vulnerable and helpless victim. Thinking that way can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the same time, it is a way of escaping all responsibility for one’s own feelings. I don’t make me feel bad, you do and, therefore, my bad feelings are all your fault and I am blameless.
We learn to think that way in infancy and childhood when we are indeed powerless, weak, emotionally vulnerable and helpless creatures made to do and feel a great many things not of our own choosing or desire. We start life largely outer and other controlled. Maturation, to a fair extent, is a matter of becoming increasingly inner and self controlled. Emotionally, on the maturation road, many people never make it very far. They remain highly provokable and, as a result, are prone to malfunction in love relationships (see “Changing Your Emotions Via Love and Love Smarts”).
Paul’s “not provoked” speaks to the often unrecognized truth that most people can become very largely unprovokable. Therefore, you probably can learn to live not much affected by things like criticism, putdowns, angry blaming personal attacks, condemnations, etc.. By doing so, you can be and live unprovoked to wrathful anger and its extremely relationally destructive and health sabotage filled ways.
One step in accomplishing this is buying into and owning the fact that you can, with work and love, have a lot more good feelings and a lot fewer bad feelings. In doing so, you also can have better and better love relationships with others as well as with yourself.
Lots of this is accomplished with new and better self talk. Instead of thinking somebody made you feel bad, try the more accurate statement “you and I together made me feel bad and I can change my part in that and not let your part affect me.” Then add “I absolutely will not give my power away to you to upset me, make me angry, etc. and I will believe and own that I am just fine enough for right now and I can stay that way no matter what words you throw at me. After all they are only words with tones and facial expressions having only the power I give them. Your actions tell me you are upset and about that I can care – and perhaps come to show you some of that care” (see “Healthy Self-Love and Not Giving Your Power Away”).
Paul’s “not provoked” has an additional inference. That is with love’s help, Christians especially but really everybody would do well to learn and develop the love skill of being not provoked and then teach it broadly.
A Big How-To for Becoming Not ProvokedYou and your loveD ones together, or all by yourself, can become more and more not provoked. It might take a long time to accomplish this but as you do it slowly will make life easier and happier as you go. You can let go of your habit of letting others upset you, make you angry, etc., etc. and learn to replace that with something far better. This is the best of a number of ways that I know of for not letting wrathful anger, or any other destructive habit reaction, negatively affect your relational life.
The essence of it is this, you learn and work to replace your proneness to be provoked with emotional equanimity and the behaviors that display it. Remember, it always works better to replace a habit or tendency with a better one rather than just trying to stop that habit or tendency.
What Is Emotional Equanimity?Ordinary equanimity means when you can mentally, non-prejudicially and dispassionately be able to see both sides of an issue including yours and theirs. It means being able to see through another’s eyes, take into account another’s differences, viewpoints, understanding, experiences and feelings and, thus, give due consideration to diverse and opposing concepts to your own. Technically, it means seeing things equally.
Emotional equanimity means to do the above with empathy and love for both your adversaries and yourself. Both mental and emotional equanimity usually include a mental and emotional calmness when facing provocative attempts to disrupt, derail or emotionally destroy you and what you are all about at the time. Any person trying to get you angry, confused or feeling bad about yourself in any way or to feel like you are losing and they are winning is included here.
Like learning to easily catch a fast thrown hardball without hurting your hands, you coolly catch and handle whatever negative attributions or accusations are thrown at you without letting your emotions get hurt. You do not ignore what is thrown but you more dispassionately evaluate it to see if anything is useful in it. Mentally you also may remind yourself that whatever is coming at you probably tells you more about the sender than it tells anything accurate about you yourself. Emotionally, you own your own okayness and do not give it away. You do that by internal, self affirming self-talk if you need to. At the same time, you emotionally care about the person or persons sending you the negatives while pondering what this tells you about them and what emotional state they might be in. Then behaviorally you see if you can find a way to show them some of your care while continuing to be care-giving to yourself. Hence, you love others as you love yourself.
Emotional equanimity is very similar to what the Hindu and Buddhist teachers call the fourth mind or primary way of love. In Sanskrit, it is expressed as “Upeksha” which includes a loving heart while being nondiscriminatory, unbiased, open, egalitarian and impartial as you sincerely and lovingly consider viewpoints, positions, values, emotions and ways of behaving other than your own (see “Listening with Love”).
Upeksha has been said to offer the love-filled wisdom of seeing things equally. One of its more recently acclaimed understandings includes it being self lovingly self protective. Simply put, it does this by being a way of not letting things get to you. This is not a way of being emotionally detached or indifferent because love is very much involved here along with kindness and compassion. It is an excellent way of working toward “I win, you win to, no one loses” outcomes and a fine way of integrating and synthesizing the best of people’s differences. For more on this, you might want to read two books. Teachings On Love and Living Buddha Living Christ both by the world renowned monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
In my opinion, developing your emotional equanimity, or your Upeksha mindset of love is not the easiest or quickest way to not be provoked to wrathful anger but it is, I think, the best way offering the most useful gains and positive advantages for love relating. It is also is my suspicion that had the ancient Greek language had words for and concepts of emotional equanimity and/or upeksha, Paul might have used them along with “not provoked”. In any case, arguably to me at least, those concepts seem implied in what he tried to teach us about not allowing ourselves to be provoked into wrathful anger.
One More Thing You especially might want to talk all this over with a religionist, cleric, person of the cloth, etc. and see what they have to say. If you do, please mention this site and say that we welcome their input also. Thank you.
As always – Go and Grow with Love
Dr. J. Richard Cookerly
Quotable Question: Do you think there Is wisdom you can use in the Samurai teaching “first to anger, first to die”?