Sep 7, 2009

St. Anger

It is one of the most universal of emotions. Every person can relate to it. The burning around your neck and up into your face. The elevated heartbeat. The clenched fists, locked jaw, grinding teeth, furrowed brow. It is like a volcano has been unleashed inside your body. It actually takes every ounce of strength to keep the vitriol from spewing out over everything in the blast radius. I, of course, am talking about anger.

Anger. What a rotten thing. I have battled with anger my whole life. I come by it honestly, as some might say. My dad was one of the angriest people I ever met. He blew up about everything. And that anger, when it was unleashed, was a frightening, powerful explosion. I have seen and heard some horrible things that were generated by the anger of that man - some things no child should ever be in the vicinity of. And I probably had the easiest time of all of us. With all of those memories haunting me, you would assume that I would strive to become the opposite. But, when I look at my life, one of the biggest battles - and failures - has always been my anger problem.

As a Christian from an early age, I always heard how anger was wrong. So, I always battled another of anger's running buddies as well - guilt. Anger feeds guilt and guilt feeds anger. They are quite a parasitic tag team. You blow up at someone, immediately you feel guilty. Feeling guilty makes you angry at yourself, which then trims your fuse for the next unsuspecting doofus who crosses your path. So I would fight my anger - which naturally meant burying it. Act like it isn't there. If it isn't there, and no one sees it - then no one thinks you are angry. Or so I would believe. Obviously, that is not true. People know. For all of ninth grade my mom told me I walked around with a black cloud over my head. I was trying to push all those nasty, sinful emotions deep down inside - ignoring them instead of giving in to them.

Turns out that is just as damaging. And, it makes the explosions even worse. I know that for a large portion of my life that I would do this - and then one day finally the dome would blow off the volcano and burning napalm would toast everything around me. Many times, the target of the explosion had no clue what was even going on. They didn't know I was angry at them. So when the vicious attack finally came, it was like shock and awe. They were shocked at the magnitude of the blast and awed by the transformation that took place.
  • In college, my poor roommate Matt got blindsided one night. I was battling insomnia, a case of inflamed rib cage cartilage, and coping with the new status of being on my own. He was listening to Leno (with his headphones on no less), and he was chuckling to himself. I was already upset about some other stuff, so this just got on my nerves. I laid there and just got madder and madder. I whipped myself into such a frenzy that after about 30 minutes, I finally blew up. "WOULD YOU JUST SHUT UP!!!!" He was just staring, stunned. I ended up taking over an hour just to calm down enough to go to sleep.
  • My good friend Greg made the mistake of trying to teach me golf. We were at the driving range and I was getting more angry with each lousy hit. He would try to give me tips, but I was just getting embarrassed and very very mad. Finally, he came over again and I said, "Unless you want me to stick this golf club in your forehead, don't come over here again." He didn't. We are great friends. We just don't play golf. (Just like I have a list of friends I will not play Monopoly with.)
  • A couple of years ago, after my brother moved back to Florida, we all were going to drive to Tampa to see my mom. I was already harboring some stuff - and from the morning we got in the car, more stuff got added on. By the afternoon, I was in a state. He finally made some remark about how I disciplined my kids. I launched into a hateful and insulting tirade. The best part was it was in front of my wife, my kids, my sister, my mom, my aunt. I lost a lot of respect with a lot of people that day.
  • My mom got the same treatment about a month later. I was upset about how she had handled some things with my kids. Rather than ever talk to her, I just tried to ignore it - avoiding the inevitable fight. When "the final straw" happened, I blew up at her. I ended up loading up our van and driving back to Orlando. I don't think I talked to her for a week, and it took about two months before things got back to normal.
  • One night at a Defender event - a week long conference at a church - I got really upset at the rude behavior that the kids were exhibiting. So when I finally got done with my talk, I took a few minutes to "pull a Moses" and rip into the kids for their behavior. It was like throwing a bag of Chinese stars into the crowd. The minister actually came up after me and tried to settle the kids down. I even came up and apologized at the end for it. One of the high points in my ministry.
I've knocked over piles of laundry, chucked a smoothie against a wall, punched a cheeseburger, threw my keys against the sidewalk, jammed a pair of scissors into the wall, and - naturally - had many many verbal explosions. I have never hit anyone, thankfully. I have been "working on my anger" for about thirty years. And I can see my ugly streak in my kids - from throwing game controllers to shoving a sibling to stomping on the floor to growling. I absolutely detest that this has carried through - and here comes the guilt train to pour kerosene on that fire.

So recently, I started reading a book by Dr. Gary Chapman. I think the dude is straight up brilliant. His Five Love Languages series has done wonders for thousands of couples and families. His Five Languages of Apology made a HUGE difference in my marriage, and it is something I make anyone I am doing premarital counseling for read. So, I was scoring big sale items at Lifeway Store the other day and I caught this one out of the corner of my eye. Anger: Handling a Powerful Emotion in a Healthy Way. $6. Bought it. And I found inside something startling. Anger is not bad.

Now, before you go flaming Dr. Gary Chapman's email with hateful angry comments, let me explain. We have for so long linked the emotion of anger with the effects of anger, that we just think of them as the same thing. But they aren't. Anger is an emotion - just like happiness, sadness, fear. There are natural biological responses to those emotions. But that is different than the actions that follow. If you were to do a scientific study of emotions, you would see how a body responds to each. "Happiness: smile comes to face, eyes sparkle, posture straightens." "Sadness: tears from eyes, mouth drops, shoulders slump." "Fear: cowering stature, dilated pupils, racing breathing and heart rate." But when it comes to anger, it's like, "Subject entered room in a neutral state. I made him angry by commenting on his receding hairline and large gut. Subject hit me in the face with a chair."

But that comes after the initial response by the body - the racing heart, the increased temperature, the narrowed eyes, the scowl. THAT is the response. After that, it is what we do with it. Chapman makes the point that anger is actually designed to get people to rise up against injustice and wrong behavior. We should be angry when people are mistreated and hurt. Anger should come when we hear some of the travesties that are going on around us. And then, the absolute clincher, anger is always supposed to push us to lovingly try to bring about change in that situation. That is what Jesus did in the examples in Scripture when He was angry (and there are several BESIDES the moneychangers at the Temple).

I remember after Grandpa Blann died, his kids found a bunch of his old letters. I read a few of them from when he started his ministry in Africa. It was astounding - the forceful assessment of the situation, the urging the churches in America to do SOMETHING. As I read them, I realized that he was angry. I only remembered one time that I ever saw Grandpa angry - and it was when he was talking to me about a book I gave him that he gave back due to theological errors he saw in it (which I realized thanks to him). And another thing that hit me as I read those letters was how much he sounded like, well, me. His crying out sounded like me when I talk about battles we at Defender have with churches and their members.

That anger that is in me is why I even do what I do. It is why, in many ways, I am a good minister and a good teacher. See, whenever I found myself preaching or teaching with power, I would write that off as passion. But it was a passion that was a correct implementation of how I should respond to that initial anger. I think that was why Grandpa was willing to raise his family in Africa for all those years. It made me realize that he was an angry man - but he used it right. He used it as a impetus for action - and that action was always housed in love. My father was not just an angry man, he was an out-of-control man. He misdirected his anger. I don't remember him ever getting angry and then lovingly trying to fix something due to it.

I will never be able to squelch the anger - to make it go away. And I'm not really supposed to any more than I am supposed to eliminate happiness or sadness. My challenge now is to find out to harness that anger. How do I pause after the initial emotional hit? How do I look to see if it is valid or not - and then let it go or try to do something about it. It was a freeing discovery for me. My natural anger is not bad. It is part of who I am - it is what makes me want to educate and challenge and confront. What is bad is when I selfishly respond to perceived slights to my person in a volatile way instead of taking a moment to deal with it rationally. When I get cut off in traffic, or get the wrong sandwich at Mickey D's, or when my kids act rude, or when my wife doesn't say what I want her to. Those are the moments when I need to recognize the anger and decide how to handle it in a healthy way. It won't be easy, but I already am finding myself being more aware of my behaviors. I actually am catching myself before the train hurtles down the track into my family. It is a long battle, to be sure. I'm sure this is not the last you will hear on this topic.


Michelle said...

Thanks for this, David. I really appreciated it. My Dad's Dad also had anger problems (besides being an abusive alcoholic), which passed to my Dad (who I highly respect for harnessing it appropriately), which passed to me. Interestingly enough, my Dad is a first generation Christian, and the anger seems to be decreasing with each generation. So, with Christ, there is hope for our children!! Love you.

Michelle said...

I should have said that the sinful, negative responses to anger are decreasing with each generation. Hopefully the anger that drives us to do good will increase.

Tim DeMoor said...

Wow. I'm going to have to check out Dr. Chapman's book. I've been dealing with all sorts of anger issues for about two decades, and they seem to get worse the older I get. And I don't really have much of an outlet for it, so I bottle. I bottle 'til I burst. And when I burst, it always becomes my fault. Heh. I wasn't one of the rebellious teenagers by any means; I always felt this strange need to be responsible for my Mother's sake, and I'm not really sure why. So, now that I'm 27, I feel like I'm going through that rebellious stage, though it's a bit too late because NOW I'm supposed to be responsible. Ha. Life? Is confusing. So, anyway, I'll be sure to check out his book when I finish up my current Donald Miller.