Those tell-tale signs

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I had ignored the tell-tale signs for years. Like the time I had thumped my Year 12 classmate in the ear when he reminded me for the umpteenth time that I should be preparing for my HSC Latin exam. He was right, but I didn’t want his advice. We didn’t sit together in class again for two long weeks. Or like the many times I lost it as a high school teacher with some unlucky Year 8 or Year 9 History class, bellowing at them about this or that, seething with fury, left wondering at day’s end if this job was for me. The School Counsellor told me later that in my first year of teaching, there was no more hated teacher in the school: my students hadn’t given me a nickname like every other teacher. And there were other instances that I could recount. I ignored them all, explained them away, or forgot them.

So it was highly unusual for me one evening after driving home to realise that I had a problem with anger. I had been rolling around in my mind a set of minor irritations, unintended rebuffs, and unvoiced disagreements with a fellow believer. He had become persona non grata and I hated his guts. I knew that this was a totally unacceptable attitude to have towards anyone, let alone a brother in Christ. As my car nosed its way home, I remember praying to God and confessing my sin, only to have another burst of venom well up. So I would pray and confess my sin again, only to experience even more explosive thoughts about him.

I got home, put the car in the garage, walked up the stairs, and realised something remarkable. I could not remember anything about the trip home. None of the roundabouts, or the winding road through the small stretches of bushland, none of the traffic lights, or ascending and descending the Gladesville bridge, none of the oncoming traffic or the shops and businesses along the way, or the ‘rat-run’ though the inner western suburbs. Not a single detail. All I could remember was the person I had hated metre by metre: he was my journey home. I had a very serious problem.

I spoke to my wife about the issue and we decided to see a counsellor. Three things stood out in the sessions that followed. First, my realisation of my total powerlessness as a child in a difficult set of family relationships: my rage about my ‘powerlessness’ as an adult in various situations reflected the unhealthy ways of coping that I had developed as a child. Second, the impact of my anger upon my wife: she convulsed with sobbing before the counsellor as she explained to me how difficult life was living with a ‘volcano’ always about to erupt. This type of continuous pressure was like ‘walking on egg shells’: all she could do was to try to make things right. Third, the counsellor said to me that I must be exhausted living with anger all the time. I remember a deep wave of recognition washing through my entire body as I absorbed what he had said. But emotional stability seemed a long way off in my case. I was just so darn tired of continuously lugging around resentments like jam-packed shopping bags.

It would be great to say that this was the beginning of the great reversal of irritation in my life. Anger still continues to leak through my reactions to people and events. The routine rebuffs of life fill my emotional space with irrational fears about my personal status and fuel the resentment of being overlooked.

But some things have changed. A strong dose of humility before God and other people has helped me to moderate the indignation that can spiral out-of-control in the face of personal provocation. When there is some recognition of your own personal brokenness as a human being in front of God, it allows you the space to extend grace to others. The transformative dynamic for me here is that Christ has extended costly grace to others on the cross, not reviling them when they reviled him, extending them forgiveness where none was offered him. Somehow this deep cruciform love of Christ for me and for others has allowed me (on better days) the freedom to drop the ‘status games’ and let my dismissal by others to have no lasting effect.

Faced with events that are out-of-control, I still obsess about impending catastrophes that rarely (if ever) happen, stirring up my irritation levels to the inevitable meltdown. But, gradually, a sense of God’s providence has allowed me to accept what I cannot change, including people whose personal style gets up my nose, or of whose success I am secretly jealous or resentful. I realised that anger, an unpleasant and powerful emotion, did not have to be vented against others for me to feel better for a little while, before regret and guilt set in over what I had said.

Perhaps the most surprising thing in my case was to take seriously Jesus’ command to pray for your enemies and to do good to them. Recently, I did this over a period of time, praying about people whom I had demonised over the years, and praying God’s blessings upon them. At the same time as I was praying, another person whose personal style I was finding irritating and whom I had studiously avoided became a personal friend through a series of unexpected encounters.

Anger can become a deeply ingrained and carefully cultivated habit in our lives, to which we return again and again. It deludes us into thinking that it gives us a sense of power over people and circumstances by the emotional catharsis and personal vindication that it provides. In reality, it constricts our relationships, shapes all that we think about, and eats away at our resilience and emotional well-being. Personally, I am enjoying dropping those shopping bags, jam-packed with resentments, one by one.