I can remember the exact moment anger was introduced into my life. I was 22 years old, living in a tiny apartment in Athens, Georgia. I had been acting horridly towards my husband for a week-and-a-half, and couldn't figure out why I was so..."edgy" (The words hostile and venomous also come to mind). One night I was up at 4:00 am, nursing Madeline, just simmering and festering and brooding in the rocking chair. I can only imagine the expression on my face - contorted and sour, smoke rolling slow and steady out of my ears. And it occurred to me - I'm angry!
I thought I'd been angry before, but when I felt real anger, I realized that this was a wholly new emotion and I had NO IDEA how to handle it. Sort of like being in love. You think you've been in love, until you really fall in love, and then you realize that, in hindsight, you probably didn't love your 8th grade boyfriend. Rita Rudner once said, "Before I met my husband I'd never fallen in love; I'd only stepped in it a few times." And that's exactly how my first experience with anger felt. I'd been irritated, frustrated, wronged, and hurt - all of the precursors. I'd dipped my toe into anger, testing the waters. But during my 22nd year of life, I fell in.
So at 4:00 in the morning, when I was finally able to put a word with the emotion, I felt simultaneously furious, and utterly hopeless. "I've never dealt with this before. How do I survive this? How will my joy survive? My marriage?"
I'd heard sermons and read books about anger, and how Jesus says to be self-controlled - not to let anger determine your behavior. He also says to forgive, to turn the other cheek and love your enemies. I used to tell people these things all the time when they'd come to me with their anger. I told them to take a walk, exercise, get some air. Take a long shower, pray pray pray. Ask for the mind of Christ - that you would have the ability to see people like God sees people. To see their need and hurt and sin and complexity - and that out of your new vision, compassion might be borne.
I'd heard all about how anger is a poison - that it affects your life much more than the other persons. That whomever you're angry with is likely as happy as a clam, totally unaware that you are in danger of a stroke because you're sending them mean thoughts of flat tires and bad haircuts with such intensity.
But when I was angry, it still felt like there was a piece missing. A key that, when I found it, would unlock my heart and all of the advice would just fall in and I would grow into this bigger, forgiving person. But I couldn't find it. I felt powerless against this new emotion, that, for the record, is just as enslaving and consuming as any other sin or addiction.
I wanted to find all the people whom I gave advice and say, "I'm so sorry that I didn't appreciate what you were feeling! I didn't know you were consumed. I didn't know that the word "forgiveness" didn't compute, that it felt foreign on your tongue. I know, now, that you were looking for the key."
For the record, there is no key. And if there is, it's something like getting over yourself.
There were three things that brought me through my year of anger.
Yes, it took me almost a full year to learn how to deal with new, real anger. Sometimes I relapse, but at least I know how to handle it now. (It should be said that my way is not necessarily the most efficient way, or even a good way of dealing with anger. I'm sure there are people out there with great exercises and strategies, and if it had occurred to me to talk to someone, I probably could have saved myself a lot of stress.)
But for me, what worked was:
Commitment Love And letting go.
Commitment. I was more committed to Jesus than I was angry. In fact commitment to Jesus was about the only thing in my life that was bigger than my anger at the time. (From my perspective, anyway. Everything about God is bigger than everything about me. And there were certainly much larger problems in the world - but when you're angry, you tend to think that the whole world is about you and your hurt.) So the thing that saved me was that anger could never be primary. It never really had full reign of my life, my choices or my heart. Christ had that, and it saved me.
Love. I loved Jesus more than I was angry. And because Jesus was primary in my life, I was still able to love Dan more than I was angry at him. Not in a doe-eyed-drunken-puppy kind of way, but I had a deep appreciation for who he was as a person. I believed in him, irrevocably. I have every single day since the day we met - true story. And no matter how angry I was, I knew that if we could get it right, it would be so, so good. (And it is now, for the record.)
And letting go. At some point I became exhausted of the sensation that my blood was actually boiling in my veins as I nursed Madeline in the middle of the night, while Dan slept peacefully in the next room. I felt weary and batterd, not like myself. Who has time for that? So I let go. Which is a useless thing to tell someone who's feeling angry because it doesn't compute - they're looking for the key. Except that at some point, that's the only thing there is to do. Letting go is the key.
As I committed myself to Jesus and to Dan, I was able to let go. And once I did - all of that advice actually helped. I went on walks, I took long showers, I prayed a lot. I forgave a little bit at a time, inch by inch across my heart until I wasn't angry anymore.
Believe it or not, this is the longest introduction ever to what I actually wanted to write about, which is peace. But I think peace deserves it's own post.
So if you're angry, I understand. I know what anger feels like and what it can do to your insides. But please don't stay angry. It will poison you and steal your attention away from good things, worthy things, and focus it on the sensation of boiling blood. And boiling blood is really lame compared to the sweeping, overwhelming, totally freeing, ocean-sensation of grace. Compared to laughter, connection, and trust; compared to joy, anger isn't really something worth holding on to.