One of the worst things I ever did in my life was pull my sister Shannon’s hair. Well, it wasn’t just the hair pulling; hitting her repeatedly just before pulling her hair was pretty bad too. I was in my early teens and had been left to babysit my younger siblings, including Shannon who is 8 years younger than me. I have no idea what started it exactly, but I do remember that she was refusing to do something or another that I had told her to do. So, I hit her. And she laughed. Which enraged me. So I hit my very slight little sister again harder. And she laughed harder. Completely besides myself with frustration and anger, I hit her again and again and she laughed at me again and again. Finally, I yanked hard on her hair and she suddenly started sobbing. Which shot right through my anger to the part of me that can’t help but feel empathy towards someone in pain.
Saying that it was one of the worst things I ever did is a bit of hyperbole. More accurate would be to say that out of all the things I have ever done, this was one that I felt worst about. I had lashed out at someone smaller and weaker than myself in anger. I love her and had been entrusted with her care, but because I had not been able to control myself, she had wound up being hurt – emotionally if nothing else. As an adult, I went and apologized to her for this incident and learned (not too surprisingly) that she has no memory of it. Honestly, I’m quite certain it wasn’t the first time I had hit one of my siblings in an attempt to get them to do what I wanted or needed them to do. But her hurt this time was so raw it made a huge impression on me. I was married before I ever let myself get that angry again.
I tend not to have a lot of respect for people with quick tempers. Yelling is a great way to make sure I tune out whatever you have to say. But we all get angry. Even love is “slow to anger”, but slow is not the same thing as never. God himself is well known for getting angry. Like God, I may be slow to anger, but eventually, I’ve had enough. And today, I am angry as well. Really, really angry. I am angry at life and the qxh (quasi-ex-husband) and God and myself. But I hate being angry.
I really don’t understand how so many people can walk around angry all of the time. Whoever first said that anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die was absolutely correct, imo. The feeling of being angry makes me want to crawl out of my own skin to escape it. But, of course my skin doesn’t have an escape hatch, so lacking that option I want to lash out physically as if I could rid myself of this ugly feeling by flinging it out into the world around me. (The doors and drawers in my house have my sincere apologies.) I guess some people find these feelings empowering and energizing, but no matter how righteous and justified my anger is, I can hardly wait to get rid of it.
In his indispensable book The Secret Language of Feelings, Carl Banyan identifies anger as our psyche’s way of telling us that we’re being treated unfairly. Yep. Unfair seems like a pretty accurate description of my life. The problem, of course, is that sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about it. Even worse, our attempts to address being treated unfairly can end up simply leading us into further pain. God has the power needed to vent his wrath and satisfy his anger. Me? My attempts to confront the qxh over his complete refusal to stay with the kids for more than a couple of hours at a time so I can get a real break elicit nothing more than a vicious burst of verbal abuse. It’s useful for reminding me why I am glad he no longer lives with us. But then what?
And this is why I believe we do need to be slow to anger. Because once anger is there, it’s harder for most of us to get rid of than any other emotion – save perhaps fear. If for no other reason than the reality of the unfair situation remains unfixed and unfair. Every time we let it go, that reality can simply has to poke its head up in order to trigger the cycle again. Not until acceptance sets in can we hope to escape it. Not necessarily acceptance of the circumstances, but acceptance that the circumstances are beyond our control to fix, change or influence – at least for now. So I breathe deeply, meditate, talk to a friend, take a 20 mile walk. Whatever it takes not to let it swallow me whole. Because as I learned long ago with my little sister, once anger swallows you whole, its not just you who will be hurt, but those you love best.
Do you have strategies for dealing with anger? I’d love to hear them! I could use some new ones!