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.

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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

 

the thing we love . . . that leaves us (part I)

Last week, we watched what has become a winter tradition for us: The Snowman, Dianne Jackson’s beautifully rendered adaptation of the Raymond Briggs picture book.  I remember the movie from my own childhood–I first saw it in school, and I loved it immediately.  I am among the least musical people I know, but the score remained in my head so completely that in hearing it again as an adult I felt, for a moment, what it was like to be seven, watching a filmstrip with my chin on my desk and a gum eraser in my hand.  There is nothing flashy about the animation or the story, but it’s captivating anyway (as demonstrated by the complete, and completely uncharacteristic, stillness of my sons as they watched).

The next part of this story contains some spoilers, so if those will detract from your Snowman experience, watch this first.  Then, in 26 minutes, continue reading.  We’ll wait.

Ready?

This hopefully isn’t a great shock, but The Snowman is a movie about an ephemeral relationship.  The friendship between the boy and the snowman is deeply special; indeed, we sense that it has been profoundly transformative for both.  (Certainly this is so for the boy, but could the snowman have existed without a boy who believed enough to create him?)  But the relationship is also very short; it consists of a single, magical night, after which the snowman melts as the boy is sleeping.  In the final scene the boy, looking grief-stricken, falls to his knees where the snowman last stood, and reaches to place his own scarf on the ground by the snowman’s.  Cue credits.

I think I had forgotten the ending of the movie, and clearly my children didn’t remember it either.  My two-year-old’s face contorted with rage; as is his custom, he then looked for objects to throw.  My five year old, on the other hand, began to cry, and then to sob uncontrollably.  When he could speak, it was to shout, “He’s gone!  The boy loved him, and he’s GONE FOREVER!”  This was followed by, “Why couldn’t he save himself?  He could fly–why wasn’t he smart enough to fly to Antarctica?”

We talked about this a bit, and I wondered aloud if the snowman chose not to leave because he was exactly where he was supposed to be–in the yard where the boy had made him, keeping watch until the morning.  Perhaps he stayed because he belonged to the boy, and nowhere else?  Ren responded angrily, “Then he shouldn’t have made him!  This shouldn’t have happened!”  Valid points, both.  And that is where we left the conversation.  But it is not where I left my thoughts, as I dried my own eyes (disclaimer: I have been known to become teary, in my adult life, during Disney movies, commercials for Johnson & Johnson products and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and while reading Because of Winn-Dixie aloud to my third-graders)  and continued with the day.

The movie, and the resulting discussion, were particularly poignant for me last week–and still are, actually.  Ren’s questions touch on some things I have been wondering about, and even wrestling with, myself.  As much as I’d like to think I’m doing this in a mature, adult way, there is wisdom in the honest questions of a five-year-old.  Further, as I try to come to terms with truths I’d prefer not to acknowledge,  it is true that I sometimes talk to God like a kindergartner having a tantrum.    What, I demand, is the value of having something special in our lives, only to lose it?  How should we be in the face of impending loss?  (And really, don’t all of our relationships occur in that context?  How easily we forget it, though–and so the stakes feel different when we are truly aware that grief is looming.)

This is something I’m thinking about in the context of two examples–one personal, one congregational/denominational.  I will talk about the personal one today, and save the congregational discussion for its own post.  [In advance, a small warning: like The Snowman, this first story involves an ending, this time of a life, that is not what any of us would have preferred.]

Today would have been the 37th birthday of a friend I knew for a very short time.  I met Jamie in September, 2010, as she artfully balanced parenting a lively and adorable four-year-old, doing articulate and enthusiastic outreach through a blog that touched hundreds and possibly thousands of followers, and completing intensive treatments for metastatic breast cancer.  Jamie died on March 29, 2011.  She died as she lived–surrounded by a close network of family and friends, connecting with the people and things that were important to her.  She had a smile that could light up a stadium paired with a personality that made you feel like you were the only one in the room. Though at times her frustration and weariness were clear, Jamie embraced the calling that she felt to tell her story and used it to connect with and better the lives of others.  (to read more about this, in Jamie’s own words, go to her website, LovingPink.com, and scroll down for the link to her blog.)

There has never been a moment–truly–from my fear and worry when Jamie first shared her story with me (I got to know her at a time when I had a suspicious lump of my own, and had been referred for biopsy) to my increased fear and worry as her medical journey took a turn for the worse, to the take-your-breath-away sadness I felt at learning of her death, that I have not been glad to have known her.  The example Jamie set of making each day count and connecting with the important things while letting the others go has influenced my thinking and my parenting.  The example her close friends and family set in dealing with her advancing illness has changed my thoughts about how we handle death.

There is another truth, though: from the time that I met her, I kept Jamie at arm’s length.  I was grateful to know her–and terrified of the day when I wouldn’t.  From the beginning, and with as much foreknowledge as any of us can have, this was a time-limited relationship–one destined to be much, much shorter than I would have liked.   And I dealt with the terrible weight of this knowledge by keeping my heart away, to the extent that I could.

I interacted with Jamie virtually rather than actually.  When I did see her in person, I kept it short.  I am embarrassed and saddened to say that there were times when I’m not sure I even looked her in the eye.  We had children of a similar age at the same school, and in the fear and sadness and guilt that I felt at the reality of what was happening to Jamie and her family, it was easier to look at the wall, or the ground, or the fish tank.  I turned my eyes away rather than suffer the pain of truly seeing her beautiful face, rather than taking the risk of truly connecting.

I know that Jamie saw this.  Amazingly–mercifully–I also know that she forgave it.  Once, as I stammered through introductions at the school picnic shortly after learning that my own lump was a benign cyst, she put her hand on my arm, and said, simply, “It’s ok . . . it’s ok.”  In the expansiveness of her generosity of spirit, she allowed me a modicum of dignity even as I failed to grant the same to her.

This relationship changed me for the better even as I failed to be fully human within it.  I regret that failing.  I regret it for Jamie . . . and I regret it for myself.  I guarded my heart, and I missed out on some of the treasures of the present moment . . . for what?  To avoid pain?

If we are to truly live, pain is inevitable.  Suffering was always going to be part of this situation; I could have done nothing to change this truth.  And I know–I knew it profoundly from the moment that I met her–that I would never choose not to have known Jamie.  So the question is, what is left . . . now . . . after . . .  (and isn’t the problem with the ending of a relationship that there is so very much “after” to be dealt with)?  

As best I can work out, my task now is to continue to learn from Jamie’s example, and to wish that I had been willing to know her more fully, whatever that might have brought.  May I honor her memory by doing the hard work–the work of truly connecting–to turn that wish into reality each day.

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Jamie Barkes Pursley

Which brings us back to the Snowman, and to the part of this that connects to congregational life.  Stay tuned.

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