Holey Heart

Powerless Over Anger

Of all the emotions with which we humans have been blessed, the most troubling for me is anger, whether it’s my own or someone else’s. My long-time strategy for dealing with my own anger was two-fold: if I was angry because I felt like a powerless victim (for example, when I see gas prices continue to skyrocket), I would rage and justify. If my anger was accompanied by fear (fear of punishment, fear of hurting someone, or that oh-so-subtle fear of being wrong) I’d stuff, deny and avoid whatever triggered the anger. I suppose this strategy must have actually worked at some point in my childhood, because I continued (and still do when it comes to gas prices) to act it out in adulthood, despite the continuous evidence that it doesn’t work for me anymore.

Dealing with other people’s anger has always been trickier. None of us like it when someone is angry at us, but when I was growing up no one ever told me that someone’s anger is their problem, not mine. No one assured me that I don’t have to “fix” it. I thought that was my job.

The birth of my first child brought into clear focus how I act in “fixing” mode, and how it depletes my peace of mind. I’m not sure what “normal” mothers hear when their infants cry, but this mother, unknowingly suffering from postpartum depression, experienced my newborn son’s cries as anger. I can’t put into words the anxiety this provoked in me. I could spend several journal pages chronicling how I attempted to prevent my newborn baby’s “rage” as I experienced it.

We had a rigid routine. We never, ever skipped his naps, even if it meant driving him around in the car for an hour when I was far too exhausted to be behind the wheel. I learned very quickly that if I didn’t nurse him to sleep by the time I saw the third yawn, I was in big trouble. In fact, I learned how to anticipate his every need so as to avoid even the first whimper. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” seemed to be my motto. Never mind that I was robbing my son of the experience of learning how to express himself, his displeasure, his anger. I insisted on household silence whenever he was asleep, and if someone human or animal disturbed the peace, I unleashed a wrath even I couldn’t control with my long-held stuffing strategies.

Thank God the PPD passed; I mellowed, and gave birth to two other children who gave me the opportunity to actually enjoy the newborn stage instead of living in a constant state of fight-or-flight fear. But the PPD did show me in exaggerated form how I respond to others’ anger – I do everything I can to avoid it, prevent it, manage it, assuage it, and hide from it when it flares up. And not just with infants, toddlers and preschoolers. With my spouse and other past romantic partners. With employers and teachers. With my friends and colleagues. With my parents. And yes, even with God.

When I feel powerless, I feel angry. And nothing makes me feel more powerless than someone else’s anger, especially when it’s directed at me. The truth is, I really am powerless over someone’s anger. The lie I tell myself is that my anger or attempts to control my anger will “fix” their anger.

When I first read today’s scripture selections about the Ten Commandments, Jesus cleansing the temple, and a cryptic passage from Paul’s letter to Corinth, I had a hard time seeing a common thread. But I immediately gravitated to the Gospel because it shows me a picture of an angry Jesus. As He cleansed the temple area of all the superfluous trappings of religiosity demanded by Jewish tradition, the Jews in earthly power demanded justification from this humble itinerant, backwoods preacher/miracle worker. St. John’s version of Jesus responds to them in code, refusing to reveal that it is He who has true power, while they are the ones who are powerless despite their high stature, their titles, their possessions. As St. Paul reminds us in today’s epistle, “We proclaim Christ crucified . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Reflecting back on today’s passage from Exodus, I am reminded of the true meaning of the Ten Commandments – God is God, and I am not.

It is okay to feel powerless in the face of someone’s anger, because I actually am powerless. Nor do I have to stuff, avoid or deny my own feelings of anger, or act them out in a rage. I can turn them over to Jesus, Who alone has the power to control and direct this very human emotion towards justice and righteousness, rather than relying on my own lame attempts at justification and being right.

When you feel angry, I can have faith that my powerful God, and not me, will fix whatever needs fixing and ultimately make all things right. And when I feel angry, I can have faith that my powerful God, and not me, will fix whatever needs fixing and ultimately make all things right. This is what it means to proclaim Christ crucified.

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1 thought on “Powerless Over Anger”

  1. Great post! Anger is a tough emotion whether we’re dealing with our own or someone else’s. I agree dealing with anger directed at me is most difficult. It’s scary because I also think I have to fix it; i.e., make it disappear–placate, soothe, etc. Most times letting the other ‘spill it’ and not rush to fix it is most helpful (unless you feel you are in danger–then hopefully you can make an exit…quickly). But…that’s hard because it’s scary when someone is so unhappy. Thanks for the words…the insight helped me look at anger in a healthier way. More light for journey,..eh. 🙂

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