Although I’ve come a long way, I still haven’t mastered controlling anger and yelling, especially during bouts of my teenage son’s hormonal angst, when uncharacteristic disrespect spews from his otherwise kind heart like a curve ball. Living with a teenager is often like living on the San Andreas fault line, or in tsunami vulnerable areas. Like an earthquake or tsunami, teenage angst strikes without warning. Sometimes, before I know it, I’m underwater, churning in a tumultuous sea, entwined in knots of teen hormones like being twisted up in tangled streams of seaweed, or I’m thwarting the darts of unintentional, disrespect. My knee jerk reaction is to yell back, demanding obedience, respect, and his self-control. Yet, after the initial relief from a good, hardy belly yell, I have regrets. Why wasn’t I more loving and firm, more instructive?
I think St. Paul says it best, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
By the time things settle down, my son forgets anything that happened, and tells me he doesn’t remember being disrespectful. He’ll plop on the sofa next to me chatting about the latest movie, while I’m recovering from the angst blast, regretting my shrill outburst. I’ll question myself again, “Why didn’t I take a deep breath before I responded?” I’ve made many a resolution not to scream or yell, to be a model of healthy communication, but in his 17th year my parenting tool box needs bigger more sophisticated tools — like power drills. I felt better about yelling when I heard author Anne Lamott in an interview say she once wrote about slapping her teenager Sam in the face. She got a lot of flack from readers about it, some even called her abusive. At least I have a handle on that kind of response. However, Anne’s honesty is refreshing, I’m sure she speaks for many well-intentioned, good parents who have lost it once in a while.
I’m sensitive to the fact that because I grew up in a family that communicated with an unhealthy amount of anger, I’m more prone to being raging bull when emotional triggers are lit, than say someone brought up in a good Christian home with parents who had the self-control part of the fruits of the spirit down to perfection (or is this my fantasy of a perfect Christian home?).
Good sense makes one slow to anger.- Proverbs 19:11
Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. Ecclesiastes 7:9
Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty. Proverbs 16:32
Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding. Proverbs 14:29
But as we read scripture in the gospel of James, we realize harnessing anger and harsh words is easier said than done: “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue.”
Anything that smells of disrespect, betrayal, abandonment, or threatening my security can trigger me, lighting my anger torch. Of course, stress is also culprit. How do we continue to live a life of everyday holiness when our inner monsters, when old festering emotional wounds get triggered, when stress levels are heightened? I’ve gotten down on my hands and knees praying to God to send some dirty job angels into the recesses of my subconscious mind, where my yelling monsters lurk, for a good basement cleaning. A few scrub brushes, vinegar and baking soda, and several large plastic bags could do the job. It means surrendering those weaker parts of ourselves to God, the great and mighty counselor, who can help us, overtime, transform our weaknesses into strengths. It means turning back to God when our lives become roller coasters of stress, finding time to re-balance, to return to God’s fountain of peace.
My biggest hurdle when I lose it, is is being disappointed in myself for not being the perfect mother, communicator, wife. Of course, our most intimate relationships also shine spotlights on our deepest flaws and weaknesses, and yet, on a more positive note, they’re also like petri dishes for deep healing and transformation. I’ve had to surrender my illusion of perfection, realizing I’m a work in progress, that parenting, relationships and marriage are both wonderful and hard. I have to remind myself that most of the time I’m a pretty great parent and wife, that I’ve come a long way in love, and that God loves me just as I am. With God, we’re all becoming made anew, we’re being pruned, we’re in process of being reconfigured, reshaped, cleansed, purified, becoming more Christ like in our humanness. With God, we’re in process of becoming the best humans we can be, set-backs included.
God’s forgiving love is the soil where radical transformation, and self-forgiveness begins. I’ve noticed over the years as I’ve matured spiritually, surrendering my vulnerability to anger into God’s loving spirit for sacred correction, most of the time now, I can say to my son, “I love you, I see you have a lot of angst, but I won’t be disrespected. I’m here for you, but I expect you to get control of your angst, and express yourself in a better way. I’m learning, too. ” Where I can say to my husband, “what you said really bothered me, and this is what I need.” Just the same, my son always comes back later, saying, “I understand, or I apologize”, or my husband says, “I’ll work on that, I hear you”. Intimacy is the very place where forgiveness can happen over and over again, seven times seventy-seven times. We get better together.
I’m more likely now to yield today to the wisdom of Proverbs, A gentle answer turns away wrath.
But I also forget easily, like I did again just yesterday, when I yelled again for a brief minute, when I intended to speak with more instructive, healing words.
I set apart time for prayer this morning, spending quiet time with God, seeking wisdom at the altar of mercy, for a better way. It’s clear now, our stress level has been high lately, work, driving back and forth to my son’s back-to-back evening rehearsals and theater performances an hour away. We’ve had such little time for self-care, for abiding, for balanced family time, those lovely evenings curled up together in the comfort of our home, watching a movie, enjoying a meal together. We’ve been eating on the run, at cafes, dragging coolers of pre-made dinners to a local park by the theater, or eating in the car.
Stop. Return. Slow things down. Begin again with Godly intentions, with the holy word etched into our hearts.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord. Psalm.
As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart. – Proverbs 27:19
Bodies, minds, and hearts that hold anger, and mean or hurtful words, are like the insects I collected as a child in jars–worms, ants, beetles and slugs. God helps us becomes vessels of love, of right speech, speaking words of kindness, wisdom, building one another up, and turning our insect jars into snow globes, filling our mouths with diamonds, rubies, shells, and starfish. I think of a beach in a small cove in Mendocino, California, where thousands of pieces of ocean worn glass washes up on it’s shore, colorful pieces of turquoise, green, and white glass glistening in the sunshine. Compared to beaches loitered with garbage, bottle caps, plastic water bottles, and sharp pieces of broken glass, the Mendocino beach reminds me of the work God does within us–God smooths out the sharp edges of our words just as the tumultuous ocean refines the edges of thousands of pieces of colorful, broken glass.
As we’re transformed, we become vehicles of transformation, vessels of God’s power and love, speaking words of peace to our neighbors, family, friends, our children, teenagers, and even enemies.
But it takes work. It takes prayer, setting apart time for daily spiritual practices, calling on the spirit to help us in our weaknesses, surrendering at each and every opportunity unhealthy ways of communicating, turning toward God’s virtuous callings, to the way of peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, and leading our children in the way they should go.
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