There is a little boy who lives next door to me. He is 3-years-old and while his speech is, perhaps, a little better at this mid-point of summer than it was at the beginning, he is not as far along as he should be. His parents are aware of this delay and will get him help when the school year begins. They care deeply for their son and his progress. I will call the little boy Joshua.
A few times, Joshua and his sister have come to my house for playtime. While both Joshua and his sister are highly intelligent, his sister is currently the sibling among them who can clearly and quickly communicate her needs and desires. She is 4-years-old and extremely, delightfully, verbal. Thus, there are times when Joshua wishes to be heard and if he feels he is not being heard through the obstacles of his sister’s vivacious communication and his own inability to tell me what he wants or needs, he becomes quickly angry.
For example, one afternoon he wanted me to change the channel so we could watch a different cartoon while the three of us were coloring together. I had just switched the channel from Doc McStuffins to Dora the Explorer and when I was scrolling through our options, he saw a different program he wished for me to choose, Bubble Guppies. First, he stated his request calmly and I could not understand him. I asked him to repeat his wish. Second, he repeated it, this time more loudly but no more intelligibly. Third, I asked his sister to help me understand his request. Joshua repeated himself and while his sister can usually decode his desires to me, this time she was also stumped. Fourth, Joshua began to scream, he threw his crayons to the ground, hit the paper on which he had been coloring and then pointed at the television, his eyes blurry with tears. It was not until I observed his nonverbal cue of pointing that I understood that Joshua was displeased with the show upon which I landed. Finally, I quietly spoke through his screams and tears and asked, “Joshua, I think you would like for me to change the channel. Is there a different cartoon you would like to watch instead of this one?” He nodded his head and, together, we all found the desired prize, thus restoring peace to Joshua’s emotions and the general environment in the room.
In considering Joshua’s reaction of anger in this moment, I learned something about anger. As an intelligent and practical psychologist named June Hunt describes, anger is a secondary emotion. It is secondary to the emotions of hurt, fear, frustration and/or injustice. Anger is like the light coming on the dashboard of a car that alerts the driver there is something wrong under the hood. In Joshua’s case—the case of the skipped-over Bubble Guppy—frustration built quickly into anger and, because he is only 3-years-old, anger built quickly into a loud cacophony of sound. In this moment, as the adult in the situation who knows how to close the gap between cognitive dissonance and restored balance, I was able to calmly focus on Joshua’s cries for help and, eventually, to hear his request. This does not make me a better human being than Joshua, it only means that I have the communication tools and experience that come with age, as well as the ability to oversee such a situation. Joshua, however, was stuck in a moment, as Bono once sang, and he couldn’t get out of it until his need was met.
Does this remind anyone else of our relationships to God? In our limited perspective we can often cry out in short bursts of anger, or in long drawn-out dirges of waning hope and despair, for that one thing we desperately desire—a desire we are just positive God is either not aware of or does not care about. “But He should be!” we cry. We lash out at others in anger, or even turn our anger inward in bouts of self-deprecation, loss of hope and we look at ourselves in the mirror with squinty eyes and steely gazes. We roll around in the anger produced by the distance between desire and resolution and this anger, like the light on the dashboard of our hearts, begins to grow brighter, thus blinding us and those around us.
Because we are not 3-year-olds, like Joshua, it would be socially unsavory for us to scream and throw things (though some do resort to such behavior). Instead, we manifest our anger in other, adult ways . . .
What if there is another way?
I suggest to you that in moments of anger we can ask ourselves, “What is behind my anger? Is it hurt, fear, frustration and/or injustice?” If we spend a few moments allowing our minds to educate our emotions, we can arm ourselves with a deeper understanding of our reactions and, thus, anger loses its power and becomes helpful, instead.
Personally, I have recently come through a season of anger. I had been touchy, easily annoyed, short-tempered and uncharacteristically introverted. I could feel my anger and I always regretted when I allowed it to be seen so I, in turn, isolated myself so as not to allow my anger to be seen. It was not until I went to visit with my sister in Oregon, and through some conversations I had with her, that I finally realized why I was so angry: I was frustrated. Just like Joshua but for age-appropriate reasons.
I was frustrated for several reasons—that I will name in a different blog—and I did what any normal person does when she allows her anger to go uninspected: I became more internally agitated, depressed and then I allowed a quiet anger to build toward God. Instead of yelling, screaming, throwing my crayons and pointing at the things I wanted, I pouted, crossed my arms and grew silent (perhaps the female equivalent to Joshua’s male reaction). But again, my “anger” toward God was only a signal to something deeper . . . I felt hurt, fearful, frustrated and I felt that He was forgetting about me. It was not until I went to God, told Him the truth about my frustrations, pointed my finger at the things that were hurting me and then made a decision to once again trust Him that my anger subsided.
Consider, again, Joshua. What if he did not even have the ability to communicate through his anger? What if he had no voice; or the ability to point and throw things? His frustration could have sunk into isolation and that inability to communicate could possibly turn into depression.
Consider those around you: we never know the battle someone else is fighting. What if the people we have labeled angry or impolite or rough around the edges are stuck in a moment—even a moment from their own childhood—and they need someone else to react not to their anger but to see their sense of hurt, fear, frustration and/or the injustice?
I do not advocate that anyone allow another person to treat him/her badly, no matter what the reason. This is not a call for you to allow yourself to be abused by another person’s out-of-control emotions. It is, however, a call to lean into your ability to see through the crayons being thrown to the ground by a person within your own sphere of influence and to quietly choose to treat them with grace, kindness and patience remembering that you may never know the depth of their story.
–Jill Szoo Wilson