Most people who know me now would never guess that I have an “anger problem.” At moments of sudden pain or disappointment (i.e. physical or emotional pain), a surge of adrenaline rushes through my body, and with satanic force, a clear picture appears in my mind of something (or someone) to hit, break, throw or kick. In my late teens and twenties I learned to keep the rage monster in its cage. But every now and then it still rattles the cage seeking to get out, and to my shame sometimes does, or very nearly does.
As a teenager I noticed (the first step in almost all spiritual and personal growth) a predictable process whenever I lost my temper. The very first phenomenon was always a numb shock, followed by either intense pain or anger depending on whether the trigger was physical (banging my shin into a low table) or situational (a sudden disappointment). The pain or anger would release adrenaline and I would feel what seemed to be a surge of strength pulse through my chest and arms. After a moment–there is always a mental moment before the picture appears–the image of me hitting, kicking or destroying something becomes vivid in my mind; and with this picture comes a tacit shadowy promise that by acting out the pain will go away.
It never does.
This rage monster cycle was getting embarrassing. I looked stupid, hurt myself, broke things, and drove away people I loved. I decided to try an experiment. Unfortunately, these episodes of rage happened often enough that I could experiment with them. I said to myself, “You don’t have to do what you see in the picture that appears in your mind. Just don’t do anything. Just bear the pain. Make the choice in the quiet moment and then ignore the picture. Just walk away.” Somehow by the Grace of God, I was able to try this experiment and experienced inconsistent results, but decreasingly inconsistent. In the quiet moment between the rush of adrenaline and the mental picture of violence, I chose to master myself, to walk away, to just bear the pain.
One of the problems I encountered in this experiment, and it is a problem I have encountered in other areas when I have attempted to control myself, is a particular counter thought, or counter feeling, which is not very reasonable though the feeling is forceful. That is, when I would say to myself “no” something else inside me would say and I would feel, “but you are missing an opportunity that you may not get again.” What a strange counter thought (you might say), but it is quite effective. I would ask, “the opportunity for what?” And the answer would come (and again, this is a feeling-thought), “you will miss the chance to show how much you hurt, to impress on others the reality of your pain. If you don’t do something, they will never know how much you hurt.”
This counter thought has often tricked me into letting the rage monster leak out a little (the rage monster is like used motor oil: it squeezes through the smallest gaps and stains whatever it touches). The only successful response I have found to the counter thought is “the offering”: I treat any freely chosen missed opportunity is an offering to God.
Up to the point of the counter thought, caging the rage monster is pretty much merely a personal and social affair. I don’t want to look like an ass, break things, hurt myself and alienate people, so I do what I can to control myself. But transformation is seldom successful on a merely human plain. We need something (Someone!) bigger than ourselves. We can’t, as the saying goes, pull ourselves up by our own boot straps. By offering missed opportunities to God, negatives are turned into positives. When I let go of a chance to be recognized, I gain an offering to give to God. When I walk away from the opportunity to inflict the intensity of my pain or disappointment on others, I have a gift, a unique gift in that moment, to offer God. When I don’t eat the last piece of cake, the uneaten cake becomes an offering to God.
So far this strategy has worked fairly well for me, so long as I pay attention. When I look for ways to make my life an offering to God, I usually find them. Often, however, I don’t look and the wake-up call of a flaring temper or a bulging waist reminds me that I have not been offering, or paying attention to offering, my life to God.
And so we confess our sins to one another and pray for one another that we may be healed. Even my failures, in a sense, can be offered. I can do nothing about the past but offer it to God. Today, however, I can pay attention. By God’s Grace, I may pay attention a little better today, and in paying attention I may see the unique gifts I have to offer to God today.