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…)