anger: a love story

I love my friends and my family.  They are amazing, creative, funny, loving people.

And, like me, they are imperfect.  They make mistakes.  They have done things, sometimes, that were hurtful, or offensive, or inconsiderate . . .

and I have felt angry.  

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Now, I don’t mean the kind of anger that sustains us to work against deeply unjust situations–the anger that allows us, even in dangerous places, the courage to confront, the vision to imagine a world that is otherwise, and the space to heal.

I’m talking about anger as a drug.

Anger that says, first to me and then through me, that there is a price that must be paid for the pain that I feel.  And which insists that in the meantime, the rest of our relationship must wait.  In suspended animation.  Until you do what you’re supposed to do.

Holding that anger made me tired.  Waiting left me miserable.  Imagine my relief, then, at the discovery that I could simply choose a different way of being.

At first, several months ago, that choice felt revolutionary.  Now, though, it feels like freedom.  It feels like friendship.

It feels like love.  

Which sorta begs the question: why didn’t I try this before?

And friends, there are many reasons why I should have: because it’s morally right.  Because to hold a grudge is to take poison and wait for your enemy to die. Because to forgive is divine.  Because . . . Jesus.

And yet, in the heat of the moment, there seemed to be only one way that things could go: the angry way.

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Why is it so hard to change things?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in scripting.  This is one term for the social patterns that our brains and central nervous systems use to shorten our response time.  Scripting is necessary–without it, each encounter would be a blank slate, and we would be slow to react and vulnerable to misunderstanding or manipulation.  The device, however, is not without its pitfalls, and we often may not even realize we’re using it.

In some situations, in fact, the script may run counter to all of our conscious intentions.  In this type of interaction, I’m not at all happy with the way we’re talking, and neither are you, but even so, we can’t seem to find a way out.

This difficulty can happen anywhere our sense of identity is on the line. The reality, however, is that some relationships are particularly ripe for unquestioned scripting.  Consider, for example, the well-trod trails, heavily loaded with baggage, that connect mothers and daughters, or siblings, or spouses.

Sometimes the script is so old—we know our lines by rote—that we don’t even try to find another way to engage.  Maybe it’s the only way we’ve ever learned to talk with one another.  Maybe the interaction is feeding us even as it damages—meeting a need to feel important, to say our piece, to defend our boundaries.  Maybe the hook is simply the adrenaline high of conflict.

Those same things are true of the script inside my head about How I Shall Act When Angry.

I have been deeply hooked into a particular way of being: Feel aggrieved.  Demand response.  Wait in anger until response received.  Punish other party with dark thoughts and aloof behavior.

Has this worked well for me?

Not exactly.  In fact, it reminds me of the scene in the first Harry Potter book in which Hermione announces that she hasn’t been speaking to Harry and Ron, and they respond, laughing: “Don’t stop now—it’s been doing us so much good!”

And so, a question decades in the making: what happens if I simply stop acting as a willing hostage to my anger?

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Not because I’m restraining myself, or holding my tongue, or saving it for later—what if I do something else because on the whole, it feels better?  

What if I do something else because I recognize, even in anger, that we are both human, and this is part of what that means?  

What if I do something else simply because I can?

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I am calling this the Happiness Option, and in practice, it can be summed up with one simple phrase: “In the Meantime, Be Nice.”

Truly, it felt odd at first.  It’s like exercising an underused set of muscles.

It hasn’t, however, felt bad—not in the moment, and not later.  Actually, it feels good to connect with joy, delightful to indulge my helping impulse, and freeing to step outside of the “angry” script.

And this immediate gratification is just the beginning.  I’ve discovered that ditching the misery script also yields benefits for the long term:

  • I’m clearer about where I stand in my relationships.

  • I get to spend less time apologizing, less time feeling badly, and less time worrying about having caused further damage.  (In fact, lately I have had to spend zero time doing any of the above.  This is noteworthy.)

  • I am better situated to identify the problems that actually matter—which are a real slight to life and truth, and which—the vast majority—are merely a slight to my ego.

  • I have access to creativity and the sense of Spirit that comes in calm moments, and I can use both to choose when and how to respond to particularly thorny issues.

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Wow?

Indeed.  This, my people, is news I can use.  And so I keep flexing these muscles, and wondering if this practice—indignation back burner, niceness front—might just be pointing me to a deeper truth, and to a lastingly different way of being.

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This might have remained merely a series of small experiments; I’m in no hurry here, and I have so. many. opportunities to practice.  But, life being what it is, I recently got to take the Happiness Option for a test drive in a situation in which it mattered, bigtime.

Picture a sometimes challenging relationship, and not one I can simply break off.  Imagine, now, an emotionally weighted subject.  A sense of personal affront.  An explicit questioning of motives.  And the involvement, and invocation, of family ties.

Kindling on a pyre, my friends.

It was, in short, exactly the kind of conversation in which I hate to find myself.

In other words, perfect for this experiment.  And predictably, that initial exchange did not go well.

Misunderstanding occurred.  Tensions increased.  Voices were raised.  Reciprocal shaming was communicated.

The conversation ended without a clear resolution, and in a way that left neither of us feeling great.  Afterward, my own combination of sadness, frustration, anxiety, and—yes—a healthy portion of righteous anger—begged to be vented.  And yet, the Happiness Option suggested, at least for now, that I not.

Hard?  Yes.  It was.

But even so, I didn’t.  I did not channel my anger into an e-mail missive.  I didn’t plan a long communications strike.  And, smaller but perhaps most noteworthy, I didn’t ignore the overture that my friend made the next day.

That gesture wasn’t an apology, an overt acknowledgment, or a plan to move forward.  It did not, in many ways, Meet My Standards.  But it was a hand extended toward remaining in conversation, even on this particular, very difficult issue—and after a moment to remind my muscles how to move, I reached out and I took it.

We are going to move forward, my friend and I.  We will figure this out together, or individually, or we’ll ignore it and it will be an area where we do not share an understanding.  I am now free, however, as the two of us move toward what the future holds.

In that freedom lies creativity, humility, and love.  And happiness.  Let us not forget happiness.

I took Hebrew Bible this spring at Meadville, and we looked at variations on the biblical canon.  The Catholic canon is more expansive; the Evangelical canon a bit less.  There are a few denominations, however, that hold that canon is still open.  We Unitarian Universalists are among them, and I’m making a conscious choice to live like I believe it.

I’m not writing a love story to anger anymore.  I’m writing one to you.  To us.  And to the sheer, luminous possibility, born of our own generosity, that this day yet contains.

-j

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Thank you, Theresa Soto, for this gorgeous meditation, shared here with permission:

In the Administrative Department of my heart, which is down the hall from Feelings, Major, I wrote down the time you offended me. The clerk, my own silent witness filled out the forms in triplicate. We wrote your name. We added your number. We added the hurt to the Memory Banks, photocopied, indexed (it can also be found in the Time Department, under Times You Forgot that I am able to be cut by paper and burned by wind). We shook our heads at the bitter sharpness of the hurt.

We made the Record of the Hurt. We announced it over the loudspeaker, so no cell, no heartbeat, and no breath would ever overlook the danger you present or the pain that you can bring. And then we were proud of our work. We stood quiet in the halls of Everything, hands in our pockets, and waited.

But Human still we both remain. And while we were Recording, in the most accurate, photorealistic way possible, you grew some more, and changed some more, and so did I, and believing the best yet to come, I was surprised to see that no recording of a single moment could reflect accurately on who you are right now. In this moment, different from the last. Some people say that Forgiveness, destruction of the Record, is for my own benefit.

Perhaps. But perhaps I don’t need you to apply to the Department of Sorry, (third floor, two doors down from Master List of Everything Unreasonably Kind) because mistakes are a human condition. There are too many forms and fines and details in the Administrative Apology. I want everything good for you. And for me. And this includes the way we just, as necessary for beings of our kind, begin again. Expungements and refreshments at noon in the Atrium.

Theresa Soto

 

yes, mothers, somebody needs you: to be YOU.

This past week I’ve seen this post again and again.  It seems to strike a needed nerve with some of my facebook friends, and so they share, often with a personal testimonial.

The sharers are some of the weariest among us, the dead-on-their feet mamas of newborns, the waiters-out of nighttime tantrums, the second (or third) shift of a job that never ends.  And what they say is that these words really resonate.

-I was in tears this morning, I felt like I couldn’t do it for one more hour, and then I read this.  

-This is so beautiful.

-This is so true.

As it happens, this post struck a nerve with me, too.  And I can see the beauty in it—I can—but my response came from a different place.  A nuanced place.  A frustrated place.

And so, I shared it with a friend, trying to find words for why those words make the bile rise in my throat every time I see them.  My friend is a mother, and a minister, and someone committed to living life as her full self rather than as the caricature that so often appears as we try to romanticize a “biblical womanhood” for the modern era.

And her response was:  Do you notice that Daddy is nowhere in this reflection?  And also, that fathers never write this?  Why is that, do you suppose?

And why, indeed?  Why is crawling on our knees across the guilt-laden minefields of early parenthood a uniquely feminine pursuit?

I can hear a whisper between the lines of this post: this is what Jesus would do.  And perhaps it is, but I would like to point out to you that Jesus is a man.  Framing self-sacrifice as a uniquely feminine calling thus isn’t inherently Christian—it’s inherently patriarchal.  It demands that women, and women alone, deny not just our bodily needs, but any deep spiritual gift that transcends our parental role.

That demand, my friends, is not beauty.  It’s also not love.  I deeply believe in, and have experienced the love of, a God who sees, holds and accepts me as me—as my beautiful, whole, female self.  A self which is not only or even first or foremost a parent, but also a noticer, a writer, a thinker, a doubter, and a lover.

And these physical parental sufferings, these sleepless nights and tired footsteps that we would hold up as the unique burden of motherhood: It’s not that men don’t experience them.  My husband, God bless him, has been the night ranger at our house for the past two years.  I personally know other men, including at least one of my seminary classmates, who do the same.

And it’s not that men don’t struggle with it.  Parenting, if you’re paying a whit of attention, is really, really hard.  And early parenting, in particular, is also physically exhausting—a marathon run one tiptoed trip down the hallway at a time.

No, friends: it’s that men don’t romanticize the physical exhaustion.  It’s that they don’t define their entire identities based on it, and then pressure one another to do likewise.  And they don’t, so far as I can tell, expect—no, demand—to go it alone, without help, without rest, without question, stopping only after the night ends to pen a ladylike missive about the honor and grace inherent in the soul-crushing demands of early motherhood.

The difference between the male and female approach to parenthood is real–and it matters, particularly for those of us fighting hard to have our words heard, our talents recognized, our lives valued as something meaningful unto themselves.

More women are actively working while parenting.  More fathers are actively parenting while working.  And yet, in 2014, we remain content to leave the emotional side of parenting, and particularly the ravages thereof, as a woman’s burden to bear.  Joy?  Dads will take that.  Guilt?  That’s all you, moms.  And survey says: men are content with this arrangement–and why shouldn’t they be?

What we’re sparing the men isn’t merely responsibility—it’s shame.  It’s the constant self-doubt, analysis, questioning of the long-term outcomes of the smallest possible choices.  It’s the crippling doubt of never-doing-it-well-enough.

What do we get in return?  Why would any of us women voluntarily take this deal?  The answers to this question are complicated and varied, but I think there may be a piece of insight in this story:

I used to work with parents of infants and toddlers as an early childhood educator. I made home visits; my caseload was particularly focused on new babies and working-but-involved fathers.  And one day one of the mothers I worked with told me a very simple story–one I came to hear repeated, in one way or another, several times in the next few years–that both surprised me and chilled my blood.

I went to the grocery store, said Amy, alone for the very first time since Tessa was born.  Jeremy stayed with her, and I knew they’d be ok, but Tessa cried the entire time I was gone!

This story isn’t unusual.  The situation isn’t extraordinary.  What is remarkable, however, is what this mom said next.

-I was glad.  

Seriously.  I smiled gently, used my “go on, please” eyebrows, and Amy added, with touching honesty:

I love it that she needs me.  

My friends, it is so beautifully human to need one another.

But what is it to need to be needed?

And what could help us feel secure enough in our own innate value that we could drop the need-to-be-needed where it exists to the exclusion of another willing and capable parent?

Remember how hard it was to get into a rhythm with breastfeeding?  Or perhaps you were one of the many, many mothers for whom it wasn’t overwhelming love at first sight when you were handed your tiny baby.

If that was you, the odds are you worked together, you and that baby, because that’s what was expected.  You had faith, and the faith of your family and community, of the hospital staff, of your friends, of your parent educator—it surrounded you.  You had all the time in the world, and you bonded.

How much of that time and patience and faith do we lavish upon a new father?  How much tolerance for what initially looks—and feels, to him—like failure?

How much do we want his success if we’re going to define this as “our” arena?

And how is this related to the story we tell ourselves about the sleepless nights of early parenthood?  How does this frame the conversation three years from now when someone needs to choose a preschool?  When someone needs to flex time to make drop off and pick up work?  When someone is pulled to leave a job that s/he loves as the reality of a two-career household begins to cause nerves, and relationships, to fray?

Without a look at what we women expect to own, exclusively, in that beloved title of Mommy, we don’t get to freely discuss any of those things, not really.  In fact, it may not occur to us to even ask for what we need.  For more than we’re getting.  For anything that might make us feel like we’re letting the side down.

The deeper story here isn’t Mommy, Someone Needs You.  

It’s Women, Suck It Up.

That’s an old story, friends, and a tired one.  Personally, I think we can collectively access a bit more creativity here.  In fact, I think we need to.

Without it, whether you’re the parent of a newborn or the writer trying to make sense of the exhaustion–or just struggling to make sense– or a mid-career executive mama whose heart is with a child she’d like to be making cupcakes with, or me: trying to follow a spark of true love through seminary, with the full knowledge that my precious baby nearly died last week while I was down the hall reading, the only answers we hear are echoes of this:

Stay home.  Keep the hall light on.  Keep pacing that floor.

But truly, unfortunately, heartbreakingly, even this small box of an answer won’t protect them.

It feels, though, like it might protect you—if the unthinkable happens, at least we’ll all know it wasn’t your fault.  You were where you were supposed to be.

Alone.  In the nursery.  On your knees.  

I’ve been on my knees, too, for too much of this past week . . . and I am getting back up now.

Yes, somebody needs me. Lots of people, every day.

They need the adult me.  The responsible me.  The vulnerable me.  The honest me.

I have worked too hard, for too long–and standing on the shoulders of my mother and my grandmothers and of their mothers–to deny all that I am.

I contain multitudes.  You do, too.

And don’t you dare call me Mommy.

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