Put Down the Fork
I had a college professor who taught there was never a time for anger. A student from New Jersey challenged him with the Bible’s many passages about God’s anger. The student was dismissed with a quick, “That’s different.” The truth is anger is an important human emotion. If we deny our anger, all we do is turn it inward. Anger turned inward becomes depression.
I spent part of my childhood in the south, where people are not inclined to express much anger. I had to wait until I moved to New York to see a culture in which anger is readily visible. Initially I was taken aback. As time went on, however, I found people who expressed their anger were more likely to be honest with me. I liked that. I knew where they stood.
A few years ago a New York co-worker told a story about walking in Manhattan. My friend yelled at an aggressive cab driver, reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s famous line from Midnight Cowboy, “Hey, we’re walkin’ here!” The driver, unfazed, yelled back. Lots of blue words filled the air before my friend realized the cab did not have a fare. He asked, “Can you take me to LaGuardia?” The cabbie answered, “Sure, hop in.” Only in New York.
Another friend wrote to say he was glad my anger was dissipating after having been let go from the ministries I served. He said he had considered speaking with me about it. This particular friend is one of the truly good guys, and I would have been willing to receive his words, though I’m not sure he fully understood the necessity of my anger.
It caused me to reflect on why we Christians are uncomfortable expressing anger. Why was it only Christians who felt free to tell me they were pleased I had moved beyond my anger? None of my non-church friends said a word about my anger, other than to question if I was repressing it.
Sometimes we Christians are so focused on right thinking we relegate feelings and emotions to a back burner, as if they were lesser expressions of the human condition. As a child I was frequently admonished, “You can’t trust your feelings.” Seriously? When Cathy counsels people she often asks, “Where in your body do you feel that?” She asks in that way because if she simply asks, “How did you feel when that happened?” many people will have difficulty answering. They have been taught not to identify their feelings and never express their anger. When I am working with couples and there is no anger, I know there is probably significant denial and, more than likely, little passion in the relationship.
The problem with anger is not that we feel angry, but that sometimes we remain too long too angry. When we refuse to leave the table at the dinner of anger, we cannot see it is our own selves we begin to consume. After properly feeling and expressing our anger, we need to begin the hard work of examining the cause of our anger, often a deep hurt of some kind. But we won’t start healing the wound until we allow ourselves to feel the anger.
Like most things in life, the healthy place is in the middle, allowing ourselves a seat at the table of anger, but knowing when its time to put down the fork and begin the hard work of healing our wound.
My non-church friends knew they could trust me to put down the fork when the time was right. They did not feel compelled to tell me they were glad I had moved on any more than they would have told me after two hours of mountain biking that they were glad I was back in my living room. Anger is just a part of the journey, and an important part at that.
Finding the balance between repressing anger, expressing anger, and moving on is tricky business. Most of us need a little help determining when it is time to push way from the table. And it is not particularly helpful when people push us too fast in either direction.
(As I often do before posting, I sent this column to a couple friends and asked for their comments. I sent it to an Evangelical and to a non-church friend. The Evangelical had a suggestion or two, but for the most part thought it was ready to publish. The non-church friend asked, “Are you sure you have really dealt with your anger?” And so it goes…)
5 thoughts on “Put Down the Fork”
Hi Paula. Thank you for writing about this. It speaks directly into my own experience of the past week. I have been feeling very angry and hurt over a cascade of events. These events are not the result of any malicious intent. They’ve really been circumstantial and the result of oversight on the part of others, yet, have taken me into a difficult place.
I found myself yesterday speaking with a friend and FINALLY expressing my feelings in a tone and tremor that matched the intensity of my feelings. I ranted. I cried. This after a few months of suppressing my feelings because of my own judgments against them. I’ve been embarrassed to feel the way I do (or did before I let everything out), thinking my feelings are not justified because of the benignly intended circumstances that caused them. The scary part is that I was ready to make some pretty big decisions based on the feelings I was suppressing.
After sharing those feelings authentically with another trusted (and sane) person there is movement. I’m walking across the room and away from my ‘dinner with anger’. I can see that, even though I can’t see how things are going to resolve, even though my life has been changed by these circumstances in ways I couldn’t control and can’t fix, that God has a solution for me. I can continue on now, in process and trust – and I couldn’t really say that yesterday.
Your article is, once again, perfectly timed. I whole heartedly agree that we must be able to express our feelings without judgment so that we can then continue in the business of serving Christ. It’s when we hold these feelings in we make bad decisions (including deciding to judge rather than forgive others and ourselves), or, ‘live lives of quiet desperation’. I also think (in reference to ‘have you really gotten rid of your anger) that it’s a process and doesn’t happen all in one shot. The trick is to allow the process, over and over again, even after it might seem like it really is time to start judging your feelings again because too much time has passed. But, we must know the difference between expressing anger and feeding a resentment. The end goal is acceptance. And peace.
I appreciate you posting this morning very much. Be well and God bless you, dear Paula!
Jennifer, I love that language – that we must know the difference between expressing anger and feeding a resentment. Your thoughts are quite moving. Thank you so much for your transparency.
Good Morning Paula, Just want you to know I am still here reading your stories. Love them Regards Jeri
I just want to point out that St. Ignatius encouraged us to attend to our feelings and to discern where they are coming from and where they are nudging us. It is to the heart that God speaks. It is His /Her desire that we attend to its stirrings.
“My non-church friends . . did not feel compelled to tell me they were glad I had moved on any more than they would have told me after two hours of mountain biking that they were glad I was back in my living room. Anger is just a part of the journey . .”
That is surely one of the most succinct, on-target observations about both friendship and anger that I’ve ever read!
So how do we bring anything like that degree of common sense — and gospel sense — back home to the church?
Although Jesus warns against toxifying modes of hateful contempt (eg Matt 5), the gospels clearly present a Savior who is as humanly and divinely capable of feeling and expressing on-point anger as he is of manifesting any other passionate response to the world as it is, and to people as we are. Doesn’t it seem that he expected the same balance in his followers that he so evidently embodied in himself?
Paula, it was such a joy and blessing to meet you and to hear your testimony in Concord yesterday! I hope to see you again soon. Whenever you might have a chance to be in northern NH on a Sunday morning, there’s a pulpit waiting for you here in Franconia!
Peace to you, amazing sister in Christ!