It’s been a hell of month, this August.
I never imagined I was capable of such strong feelings. I’ve watched others flame out and burn the world around them and I’ve vowed, at various times in my life, to never do the same. But raging and burning through a fragile forest of relationships is not something I’ve been able to avoid entirely. I have lost my temper and lost a few friends in the process.
I have sat alone this month, so filled with storm that I had to leave the company of family for fear of saying horrible things. Unforgivable things. Unfair, insensitive, selfish, passionately felt things.
I’ve always been an emotional person. Some would say strong-willed, intense. I prefer the term ‘expressive.’ Even as a baby, I displayed a generous capacity for emotion – banned from the church nursery for my robust protests at the absence of my mother, nicknamed the “Little Red Fire Engine.” Tears of loss and longing, joy and surprise are never far from my arsenal of expression. I am generally resigned and sometimes even appreciative of my deep river of emotions and I am at ease with the fact that I’m a heart-on-sleeve kind of gal.
But anger found me unprepared this month to deal with its rushing waters and I was almost swept away. Almost. I offer this post as a meditation, a declaration of hard-fought victory, in a sense, and hopefully, encouragement to anyone reading who is likewise struggling.
I am relieved and humbled to say that somehow, I have managed to climb up onto the banks of this raging river, and not get carried away.
My former strategy to deal with anger was simple. Run away. In the early days of my marriage, as sharp words threatened on the horizon, I’d lock myself in the bathroom or leave the apartment entirely to avoid the rush. I’d shut out the conflict, hoping and praying for some divine pause or exit.
When I was unable to run, I’d stay and fight by putting on the sweetest of sweet faces, or become deadly calm. Especially in the customer service industry, one can’t just walk away. I’d tell myself that how I felt wasn’t important, and focus on being that nice, logical person I was supposed to be. And then, on my way home from work, or in my spare moments, the calm would break, and passion would come pouring out, or be triggered by an innocent bystander.
I once walked away from a frustrating customer and grabbed the nearest cardboard box, tore it to pieces with my bare hands, and then walked back out to the counter, and quietly finished serving them. What did that box ever do to me? Nothing. Collateral damage is never far from expressions of anger.
I have been that box, too. I watched an old man brawl his way through the lineup, every word a foul and hurtful dart. And I know why: it was his 76th birthday, and he was celebrating it with an 85 cent bowl of soup and a friend who seemed more like an enemy.
Anger has many parents: dissapointment, frustration, injustice, rejection, neglect. The very love and acceptance I need, in my worst moments, is pushed further out of reach by my angry expressions, and a vicious cycle of self-loathing, alienation, rage and regret can ensue.
I’ll spare you the details, but I was trapped by my anger this month, trapped in a way I had seemingly no escape from. I was stripped of my usual coping mechanisms, and there wasn’t a single cardboard box within reach.
And in that moment of extreme pressure, I didn’t find any answers. Instead, two beautiful questions were tossed into the foaming, surly sea, and I grabbed hold of them for dear life.
The first is the hardest, I think. The one that many of us are afraid to ask, because we don’t want to go down such dark paths into the past. It requires a look back, a sense of responsibility for one’s own emotions.
I ran straight back to my anger and asked, “Where did you come from?”
And suddenly, I was on the other side of a glass window, looking at a lineup of the usual suspects. The dirty dishes, rude customers, careless drivers, visiting inlaws, and clueless spouses were nowhere to be seen. Instead, lined up in front of me were resentments, hurts, unmet needs, judgements and indignations that had been sitting around, locked up.
I was afforded, by this simple, straightforward question, the opportunity to study and examine my feelings from an adjacent room of semi-reason.
These causes of my anger, then, lost their potency to direct my actions, and led me gently to that second, instructive question: “Where do you want this to go?”
I knew immediately the places I didn’t want to go. Harsh words, emotional uproar, broken bridges, loss of a still-new relationship, hardening of battle lines, destruction of property.
I also knew that I couldn’t go back. Having asked the questions, and found myself looking at my anger honestly, I had to move forward, and look into the eyes of those I was angry with. And I found redemption there, both in the asking and the telling of what went wrong, and how we could fix it together. How incredible, to run back into my anger, and find that I was not alone, that someone was still willing to wait for me on the other side.
The space between those questions, of coming and going, is not for the faint of heart, and it can’t be rushed. You must stand still in the storm, and be battered, drenched, awash in feelings that you may have carefully avoided feeling for long time.
When I was overwhelmed, swimming in the sea of my anger, I almost drowned. The pain of looking at the causes of my fury was almost unbearable, and I struggled to breathe, to keep treading water. I know why people turn to addiction to distract themselves from themselves. I was sorely tempted to enlist my old ally, alchohol, in the fight.
In place of a hangover, however, I feel a deep sense of survival pride, and peace, armed with a new way to understand old issues.
I am also deeply grateful for the love and forgiveness that has been freely offered to me, and am almost breathless at the delicate, supple grace that has appeared in relationships that are miraculously moving forward.
It’s going to be a heavenly season, this Autumn.