Finding our way through anger

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  

Genesis 4:6-7 NRSV

Cain didn’t listen to this wise, loving counsel. He couldn’t contain his anger, and in his anger he couldn’t listen to reason or appeal. He felt offended and couldn’t forgive the offense. He went out and let his anger overwhelm him, killing his brother instead.

What can that have to do with us? More than I once thought. It struck home in a conference when I heard the nun who was teaching say that when we hold onto anger we no longer engage with that person as a whole person; we’ve made him or her into an enemy.  The more we turn away from others in anger (she said), not talking, not even really seeing them, the more we’ve effectively removed them from our world. She called it “spiritual murder.”

Her words were shocking, but there’s a certain truth in them. “Spiritual murder” was the sin that lurked at my door waiting to pounce when I was angry. I tended to withdraw from my offender and avoid him until, without consciously wishing it, it was as if he was dead to me. It’s still a struggle not to withdraw when hurt or offended and anger swamps me. But in the end I know it’s ourselves we kill, bit by bit, when we can’t let anger go or reach through it to forgive.

Though it’s the only way to heal the destructive force of anger, it isn’t easy to forgive. Even in the midst of anger’s powerful feelings I know I need to forgive, not only because the Holy One who loves me requires it, but also because my own anger tears me apart. But the emotional freedom necessary to forgive doesn’t come with the speed of the quick-rising tide of anger. So the struggle is often long and painful, even when the one I’m angry with is someone whose friendship I don’t want to lose.

What makes forgiving so hard for me, though, isn’t letting the other off the hook of blame that I’ve hung them on.  It’s wrestling with myself, bearing the pain of the battle to uncover the root of anger. When I’m able to get my heart quiet enough to hear past my own ranting, in the company of one who is safe (whose judgment I don’t fear), I can hear the painful, critical questions: “Why am I angry? Why do I endlessly repeat the offense in my mind, feeding on its poison, hugging it to myself like a shield? What is it shielding me from?”

Only as I begin to seek the answers to these questions does the truth emerge for me, a slowly brightening light. Finally I find that the battle ends, forgiveness washes anger away, and peace settles in my heart.

[This is adapted from a blog I posted to the Spiritual Directors International newsletter, September 25, 2014]

Odds & Ends

I thought I’d share from time to time some of the provocative words of wisdom that I’ve run across. Like this ancient Chinese proverb:

“If we do not change our direction,
we are likely to end up where we are headed.”

Where is it, exactly, that we are headed unthinkingly in our life through our choices and decisions?  Is it a place we really want to get to, or are we wandering aimlessly on a path that will lead us somewhere we’d rather not be?

Playing Hide and Seek

woman s face behind the leaf close up photo
Photo by Luis Aquino on

When I was a child one of our favorite games to play was “Hide and Seek.”  I remember the rush of looking for a hiding place, the thrill of having people trying to find me while I hunkered down somewhere, wanting to be so cleverly hidden that I would “win” the game when they failed to find me. But I also wanted to be found in the end. The game would become bad if the seekers gave up, stopped calling and left me there, forgotten and lonely in my hiddenness.

I think it’s not uncommon for many of us to play this “game” unconsciously in adulthood. We get caught up in the tension between, on the one hand, wanting to be found, to be known, to be discovered and drawn out of our isolation, and on the other hand fearing to be too well known, exposed and vulnerable. So we draw boundaries around ourselves and remain hidden behind them. We want people to know us and our unique human story, but we don’t want them to know too much. We’d rather hide the parts of ourselves that we don’t like and can’t accept, the parts of our story that make us feel ashamed or vulnerable.

I know that this is one of my inner conflicts. I’ve played hide and seek my whole life. I’ve lived behind a wall, wanting someone to want to know me, yet feeling fiercely protective of my privacy. The thing I hate most is when people come crashing through my personal boundaries demanding to know more than I want to give. That alone can kill a relationship for me. Yet I have sometimes wanted someone to “crash the gates.” It’s a tug of war I’ve never been able to resolve. At least not fully, not yet.

Being a preacher, and now a writer, has brought this inner tug of war to the table because whatever I write (whether a blog, fiction, sermons, or even a prayer), I inevitably expose myself at some level. In my sermons I always felt like the words I ended up speaking were preaching to me as much as to the congregation. In my blog posts things that have rolled around inside me get clarified in a way I can’t miss.  Even in the stories I write some of my own experiences and feelings color what ends up on the page.

That’s why writing has sometimes been a challenge. It isn’t that I can’t find the words. Words just pour out of me. But they also reveal so much. The only words worth writing are those that express something true, truly believed, and truly felt. Anything less is inauthentic and produces a sense of disquiet in me; I can’t let them stand uncorrected. But once spoken or published, my truth is out there for others to react to, and that’s all a bit scary. Nevertheless, here I am, gradually giving myself away through my words.

So how does one overcome such ingrained, passionate attachment to self-protection? I believe it’s when we finally are able (i.e., free enough) to reach out beyond our fears to claim a full, honest life over a crippled one. I’m still working on it.

A Lesson from a Lobster

red animals sweden seafood
Photo by Pixabay on

I was talking here the other week about change, how we hate it or tolerate it.  About how hard it is to undergo (and it IS hard!).  But the hardest changes we face and resist perhaps most strongly are not those that come upon us from the outside, but those we go through within ourselves as we grow and mature.

Reflecting on that, I was drawn to consider the humble lobster. You may know that a lobster as it matures must shed its spiny, hard shell to make room for the inner life to expand and grow. It’s called molting.  I watched on YouTube a video of a pet lobster shedding its hard outer shell, and let me tell you it’s obviously a struggle. It looks painful, a lot like re-birthing.

At the end of the struggle the lobster literally pulls away from and out of that hard shell that was its protective covering all its life, and lands on the soft sandy floor of its watery home. What you see is that inside the old shell a new shell had been forming. As it formed it must have created intense pressure because the hard outer shell wasn’t made to accommodate the new one. This old shell must have constricted and constrained the growing lobster inside until the creature had to undergo the tremendous struggle to get free.

Freedom and expanding life come with its price, of course. The time just after the molting and before the new, soft shell has hardened is a time of great vulnerability for the lobster. Waves and currents wash over and batter it; predators can more easily assault it. But the new shell allows the lobster to grow.  If the creature didn’t let go of the old shell it would likely die within it.

As for us, unlike the lobster that lives with its strong protective skeleton on the outside, we live with our “shell” on the inside. If you think of the lobster’s shell as a metaphor for the interior structures of protection and stability we have built up in our lives, then we are a bit like the lobster, aren’t we. We build up an interior shell against the outside world: ways of deflecting pain, of coping with challenges, ways of perceiving people and events, ways of judging, ways of thinking, and beliefs to make sense of life. They harden and for a while seem to serve us. But in the end they may come to constrict us painfully. Then we will feel the urge and the need to grow beyond them. That’s when courage is needed.

I’ve been thinking about all this in light of the story I’m trying to write. It’s about two headstrong people and their relationship with each other.  I think of all their self-protective ways and the challenges their relationship thrusts upon them. Will they be able to shed the hard shells they’ve built up within them, the shells they’ve built against vulnerability? Will they be able to grow and mature as lovers as they risk new ways of being, risking intimacy and trust? Will they grow into a more expansive life, or wither within the old shells that have hardened against that possibility?

It has been said that there are only three reasons people will change: when they hurt enough that they have to; when they learn enough that they want to, and when they receive enough that they are able to.  I would say this: we dare to change when pain and desire combine to create the urge to live more fully and the urge has become too strong to resist.

What is the urgent call you may be feeling now to grow, to let go of the old protective ways of thinking about and relating to the world, to risk living a new way? It’s a struggle, for sure. I hope and pray that you will be able, when it is your time, to change, to live a more expansive life, and that you will have courage for the struggle.

More Than We Think Is There

Someone once said that we are all trying constantly to tell our story, in spoken or unspoken, conscious or unconscious, ways. But few of us are able to recognize the story, so the story goes unheard. We see with blind eyes. We hear with deaf ears. All we see is the surface of the other, and much of what we see is only projection of our own experience.

When I was younger I tended to see people in black and white, by which I don’t mean racial distinctions, but the simplicity of mere silhouettes without a perception of depth. Or what depth I thought I saw was uncomplicated by nuance, out of any context but my own feelings about them, framed in my preconceptions and judgments. I saw mostly how I felt treated by them and formed judgements about what that meant about who they were.

Here’s an example that comes to mind. There was a man I worked with, back in my 20’s when I was trying to become a respected member of an executive team, who relentlessly talked to me in teasing tones, treating me alternately as a potential sexual object and an inconsequential girl. The kind of behavior and language he used, especially about women, framed the way I saw him. I was disgusted by him, thought I “knew” what he was: a southern “old boy,” wickedly smart, but shallow, callous, loud and boorish, a man to be avoided. In one sense he did behave in those boorish ways, and he may have been some of that, but it was not all of who he was – maybe not even the largest part, although I’ll never know.

Eventually I rose to executive status and was serving our company’s corporate clients well, and he had moved on to become vice president at the corporation where I was my company’s liaison. One day, after the marketing group meeting, he took me to lunch. To my surprise his whole demeanor toward me had changed. Over lunch he told me what he’d really thought about me when I’d first joined the firm where once we’d both worked.

He said he’d “seen too many women sleep their way to the top.” He illustrated by pointing to a woman we both knew who had had an affair with the man who became company president. Soon after, she’d been elevated to vice president. My nemesis/client/now-friend thought she’d climbed past him for no other reason than her sexual relationship with a powerful man. He said, “You can’t compete with pillowtalk.”  He’d come to resent women in business because they use sex, he said, to get ahead of more qualified men.  He said he had misjudged me when I came to the company with my ambitious agenda. He realized now that I’d advanced on the strength of my skills. Then he went on to give me career advice. He thought I was in a dead-end job, suggested that if I wanted to find a better position he’d be happy to make some connections for me and offer a reference.

It was an unusually frank, friendly, and honest conversation – the first we’d ever had of that kind and the last personal conversation, as it turned out. But that day I realized I had misjudged him.  I began to see a whole person instead of an enemy, a man with dimensions he kept carefully hidden. His behavior toward me had been egregious and his judgments were not particularly wise in personal matters, but he was more than I thought he was.

Back then I thought that what you see is who they are. Now I know that all of us are much more complicated than that. We are not mere silhouettes, black and white shadows in a simple frame. I’ve grown up enough to realize what a great mystery we are to each other, and even to ourselves.

We are complex, complicated creatures, marked by unique experiences. We each have found ways to protect ourselves from the traumas that life has meted out to us and from the insecurities that threaten us. We can be at once many contradictory things. We may have given in to the worst impulses and plans, but that is not the whole story.

This comes together for me in three important take-aways:

  •  there is far more about each person that I don’t know than what I actually do;
  • each of us is living out a story that, if we knew it, would change how we see and treat them; and
  • there is something in each of us that needs to be forgiven, and there is something in each of us that can and ought to be appreciated, possibly even cherished.

Now, if only I could keep my eyes open to these things with everyone I encounter!