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]

Playing Hide and Seek

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Photo by Luis Aquino on Pexels.com

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.

The War Inside Us

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The story I’m developing is about a woman who is at war within herself, wanting one thing passionately, but resisting it at the same time. There’s a battle going on inside her, though at first (and for a long time) she doesn’t fully understand it.  It’s a battle a lot of us have waged, often unwittingly until something intrudes to expose it to us.  She desperately wants to be loved, part of an intimate couple and a family; but she carries inside her a fear equal to her desire: fear of losing herself in the relationship.

Whatever the particular shape of the tensions tugging at us, it often comes down to this: the heart is torn between desire and fear.  Why do we so often run up to the goal only to turn away from it in the end? Why do so many of us self-sabotage, denying ourselves the very thing we most desire? At root, the enemy is some form of fear that has taken hold of us. It becomes a question of whether we can overcome our fear enough to reach beyond it.

In my story, she (the protagonist) deeply wants someone to love her but she also wants independence and is fearful of losing it.  On the other hand, he, her lover, longs for intimacy with her but is afraid of the vulnerability required. This is just one of the tensions they are coping with as they try to fill their hungers and reach out to each other through their fears.

What do you want most passionately in this life?  What is keeping you from achieving it? I’ve had to ask myself this many times. It isn’t easy to suss out the answers. We tend to build up strong protections against self-knowledge when fear’s involved. But unless and until we can face our fears and move past them, we’ll continue to be crippled by them, at war within ourselves, trapped in a painful conflict. The resolution isn’t inevitable. But it also isn’t impossible.

The lives of the couple I’m thinking about, who inspire my story, tell a sad and painful tale. He never was able to overcome his crippling fear and the relationship couldn’t last (though they tried for a long time). She was able to move on, and because I prefer to live in hope I like to imagine that she found peace from her own inner struggles in the end. But it’s a cautionary tale.

 

 

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ro 7:14–15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

The First Duty of Love

listening heartHere in America we are going through a cultural crisis and severe partisan division. Our divisions are characterized by an extreme unwillingness to listen to anyone who doesn’t share our point of view.  We are doing more talking than listening, and our talk is going on in silos, so that all we hear is other people shouting at us from across a great distance. Continue reading “The First Duty of Love”

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!

 

On greatness and power

How great or powerful do you want to be?

red candle
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I believe that every living creature is endowed with a certain greatness inherent in them, planted there by their Creator. But in this world many people run away from their innate power and betray the possibilities within them. Like the story about an eaglet raised among barnyard chickens, they settle into a small, limited life without ever discovering their inner strength and talent, their deepest value, their greatness of soul. Continue reading “On greatness and power”

The Trouble With Lying

 

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Fake news. Alternative facts. Calling lies truth and truth lies. “Gas-lighting,” that tool that some use to diminish and control others (found especially in abusive marriages) is a particularly pernicious form of lying. How are we ever to sort out what to believe?

Simply put, the trouble with lying is that it’s destructive on so many levels. Continue reading “The Trouble With Lying”