A Winter’s Fast
Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline writes about how when someone fasts (intentionally goes without something for a time) they will quickly become aware of what darkness plagues their inner self.
Fasts are most often associated with not eating for a pre-determined length of time such as for a few hours to a day or more. I have done food fasts before and found that when done in a safe and healthy way, they can be very beneficial for my physical and mental health. A person can fast from other things than food though.
Recently, I have come to realize that I have been participating in an annual fast that goes on for much longer than a few hours or a day. For me, by nature of living in the Midwest, the winter season is a several months long fast. The days are short and often overcast, vegetation is sparse or has died off and the temperature is bitterly cold. Forced inside more than I would like, I am left with more time than in any other season for introspection and self-evaluation.
Over this latest season of winter, I have re-discovered a somehow forgotten truth about myself.
I have noticed I am often angry.
Not at any one person or any specific event that occurred. More so, it’s just a general feeling of frustration that is consistently present somewhere in my mind. It is usually a small irritant that does not prevent me in any way from going about my day at work or at home or elsewhere. Nor, does it prevent me from having good healthy relationships with those around me.
It really would not be worth mentioning at all save for the fact that sometimes my underlying anger becomes more than that. Sometimes situations or something someone says causes my anger to grow and grow until I can concentrate on little else. It becomes a battle between justifying myself and trying to stop myself from getting angrier.
In a certain sense, my anger is like a lit candle on the mantle above my home’s fireplace. It can burn for hours with little attention given to it. I know it’s there but there’s nothing to worry about because it’s a small flame and it’s under control. In fact, in some instances, it’s even useful. But, then, when I’m not looking (or even perhaps when I am) a draft of wind comes through and blows a piece of paper into the flame. The paper catches fire and falls to the floor, the flame spreads and suddenly what was moments ago was a small, easily put out flame is a raging fire threatening to destroy my home.
There is sometimes an assumption that anger is wrong or ‘bad’. But, in and of itself, anger does not have a negative value any more than it has a positive value. It is a naturally occurring emotion whose function is to serve as a heads up from the body to the brain that something may be off-kilter. Its inherent value is arguably neutral. Why it is often assumed that anger is wrong or negative is because anger is often used as a justification to act in way that is highly negative, destructive and harmful.
Ultimately, my goal is to use any feelings of anger I have in a positive way. Or as I prefer to view it, in a way that is helpful to myself and those around me.
How then do I use anger in a way that is helpful?
First, I need to determine what in mere seconds triggers my anger to go from the manageable flame of a candle me to the roaring housefire.
To do this requires some forethought. That is, at a neutral time, it is helpful for me to think through what past experiences have created pathways of anger in me today. For instance, I have a strong aversion to injustice. Specifically, I do not like bullying. If I perceive in a situation that either I or someone else is being bullied, I get angry quickly.
When I become angry quickly, I usually have one or two potential responses that pop into my head. For me, it’s a string of unprintable words I would like to say or a physical action I would like to do. In all honesty, neither of these responses are helpful over the long term. This is especially true as the clear majority of bullying I have seen in the last few years is on Facebook and Twitter between ‘friends’. To respond in an aggressive way would only serve to spread more anger.
(Now, this is not to say that I have an excuse to ignore behavior that involves bullying or belittling others. Rather, I am saying there are more helpful ways to push back than adding more fuel to the fire.)
Second, I need to have a plan.
Again, anger in and of itself is neutral. It’s merely a warning mechanism. Once I recognize my anger is growing, I need to do something about it. If not, two outcomes are likely to occur. Either I will shove it away, never to deal with it and risk remaining on edge for an indefinite amount of time or I let my anger explode out in an uncontrolled burst of aggression and fury. Both options risk hurting myself and those around me.
By having a plan for how to manage my anger, I am minimizing the risk of acting in a way that I will later regret. To be perfectly forthright, currently, I do not have a great plan on how to manage my anger. I feel as if I have been at step one for years. I have spent a lot of time thinking about my triggers to the point that I feel I have a decent grasp on what some of the specific causes of my anger are but the next step of managing my anger in a helpful way has thus far eluded me.
This is not to say I am out of control or act in a harmful way towards others. I’m not and I don’t. In fact, friends, family and colleagues generally describe me as very calm and congenial. But, despite my outward calm demeanor, I often have anger on my mind as I try to put it out or egg it on.
Over this winter fast, as I examine the world around me and my place in it I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the anger I have. It is a part of who I am. It shapes how I see the world and the injustices, inequality, and inequity found throughout it. But, I often let myself be controlled by anger rather than the other way around which leaves me mostly ineffective and unhelpful.
As I have come to this realization, I have decided to attempt to do something about it. I recently read The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen in which Nouwen writes about the practices of silence, solitude and prayer. Silence is not ignoring injustice, it is speaking to it with wisdom and discernment. Solitude is not isolating myself, it is intentionally giving myself the space to wrestle with the tension of who I am and if that is who I want to be. Prayer is not the often meaningless words of condolence is has so often been turned into, it is a lament, a choice to be vulnerable and a recognition that help beyond me is needed.
Silence, solitude and prayer are not acts to be done only in the moment when anger, tragedy or hardship occurs. These acts are a way of life to develop so that my response is helpful and compassionate when anger, tragedy and hardship occurs.
I encourage you to take a few minutes to examine yourself for anger as well. Our world certainly seems filled to the brim with it. Be honest in your introspection. As the famed psychologist Carl Rogers once said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Identify what makes you angry and then come up with plan so that you can handle anger in a way that will be helpful to you and those around you.
Thank you for giving me the time of your day to read what I have written. It is a gift that is appreciated.
You are loved, valued and welcomed here,