Part three in a series on grief by Shauna Caldwell with G. Neil Parker. In the previous article Shauna explored the emotion of fear, which is often protected by anger. She wrote about the value of taking an intentional posture: “leaning” and “embracing” grief. In this article, Shauna examines the uncomfortable emotion of anger.
Recently, Jason and I watched the touching biopic movie about Fred Rogers: “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood.” Woven into the fabric of the film was Fred’s gentle, personal, positive and endearing nature. It contrasts that of the cynical and jaded journalist, Tom Junod. Roger’s persistent kindness, spirituality, patience and calmness disarms Tom’s crippling anger.
“What do you do with the mad you feel?” was a familiar song on Mr. Roger’s TV show in the 1970s. His iconic cardigan and the little red trolley were not the only notable things about him. Fred had profound and honest insights into our life struggles, mirrored by his Christian faith.
Anger is an uncomfortable topic for me – one I’d rather avoid. I am not an expert on the subject. All I can offer is my personal experience with anger and loss.
Let’s back up the little red trolley. As Mr. Rogers shared: “life is unfair, and there is no normal life that is free from pain.” Being mad is an expression of one’s pain – the sum of hurts, losses, feelings of helplessness, and sadness. It is a way to express the frustration in answering the question: “why has this happened to me?”
My anger scares me and threatens to take me places that I do not wish to go. I’ve found it helpful to interrogate my rage with the “5 W’s and an H”: who, what, when, where, why, and how. I want to take anger captive so that it doesn’t take me hostage. By frisking my thoughts with these six questions, I uncover my deeper feelings and ultimately how I chose to respond to others, God and myself.
At WHOM am I angry? I can project my anger onto others. Here are a few unhappy recipients: an innocent store clerk, the driver who cut me off, or those who may open their email and read a terse response. Often, the people closest to me are the ones I may hurt the most because that feels “safe” to me. I can be angry at the person I’ve lost. I can be mad at people in authority: a boss, a nurse or doctors, a bank employee, institutions, politicians, even entire governments. Likewise, I can be angry at myself. Some unintended outcomes are relational ambivalence—I don’t care, or alienation—I get cut off. In essence, no one understands my frustration.
WHAT is my anger all about? Anger is unpredictable. It can simmer under the surface then explode. On the other hand, it can be shoved down inside and implode – then physical distress becomes an unwelcome addition to my emotional pain. Anger can get ugly.
Remember, anger is a secondary emotion. The primary emotions, like fear, rejection, and abandonment, find a safe harbour while my anger unleashes its stormy fury. Anger keeps my primary emotions out of reach, both for myself and others, stopping me from being whole and happy. It’s hard to admit I feel anger. When losses and changes happen, anger can become a defensive response that seeks to protect my more vulnerable feelings.
WHEN is my anger at its worst? When depleted: physically tired, emotionally spent, and spiritually empty, I can feel utterly inconsolable. On the flip side, I get in touch with my anger when I feel safe around a small number of people who understand. Because God accepts me unconditionally, I can safely vent with him.
WHERE does my anger find expression? Anywhere! The believer’s challenge is to admit that they are angry. The scriptures do not say “don’t be angry,” but rather, when you are angry, do not act independent of God. (Ephesians 4: 26ff).
WHY am I feeling angry? The most important question I ask myself when feeling emotionally off-balance. It is a necessary discipline to ask “why.” I need to stop myself and ask, “Why did I respond like that? Why do I feel so angry?” Don’t ignore the answers because they will reveal you aren’t so much angry as you are experiencing the more gentle and vulnerable emotions. Those vulnerable emotions may scare you more!
I may only be able to reach down inside myself to draw it up and take a peek and then nestle anger back inside. Over time though, as I reach within and examine the feelings behind the anger, those feelings stay awhile longer. Examine your anger from different angles: write lists and journal your discoveries. You may weep or have a revelation. It’s okay to have angry feelings as companions. They are teachers as we grow. Let them educate your character as you discover the layers of more genuine and tender feelings beneath your anger.
HOW is anger affecting me? Collateral damage occurs when anger is controlling me. If I allow it, anger can destroy my relationships, making me and those around me miserable. I can push people away because of my unresolved anger. Don’t be quick to fly off the handle. Anger boomerangs. You can spot a fool by the lumps on his head. Ecclesiastes 7:9 MSG
Now back to Mr. Rogers. In the movie, Fred loves to take photos of everyone he meets. Let’s turn the camera around and take a snapshot of him. What makes Mr. Rogers tick?
There was a moment in the movie that startled me. Fred was all alone on the TV set. He sat down at a grand piano (both he and his wife were concert pianists), and he started to pound on the piano keys. Loud, sinister, unsettling sounds. Somehow, Fred seemed much more “real.” The calm, happy man struggled with anger too. It was surprising and, frankly, refreshingly encouraging.
It’s hard to overlook the fact that Fred genuinely desires to get close to people. He makes a concerted effort to get people talking at a deeper level. Fred listens. He wants a relationship. Why? I think it is because he cares about people becoming whole. Mr. Roger’s reflects the character of Jesus in the following ways:
Acceptance: When journalist Tom Junod realizes that Fred is genuinely interested in him, he begins to lower his guard. Fred’s ease with an angry person was born out of years of personal growth. Acceptance is a life-long process that starts with knowing how delightfully acceptable you are by God, who fashioned you in his image.
Kindness: Tom is surprised by his second encounter with Fred because he remembers Tom by name. It becomes a reflection of knowing Tom more and more deeply. Fred’s gentle voice had a calming impact. It surprised Tom that Fred would deeply listen and then nurture vulnerability in Tom’s story. As was the nature of Jesus. He stopped everything for an individual in need.
Availability: Fred was more than willing to meet with people. It didn’t matter if it was an inconvenience; Fred never felt rushed. Much to the chagrin of his production staff, there was no way to keep Fred on a tight schedule. Individuals were more important than anything else. You are a priority to Jesus.
Forgiving: Fred practiced forgiveness. He could let go of offences, keeping a generous attitude toward others because he forgave and forgot. When we know we’ve been forgiven a great wrong, we lavish others with forgiveness. As Jesus instructed, “whoever has been forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7: 47b NIV). Jesus is the friend of sinners.
Loving: On the TV set, we see Fred’s compassion toward an emotionally shut down child. Fred kneels to the child’s level, patiently drawing him out of seclusion. The child lights up, is attentive and fully present. Jesus is “God with skin on” who gets down eye to eye with us in the mess of life.
Seeking out others: Tom’s family is celebrating a birthday party when the doorbell rings. Fred shows up at the party with a cake, camera in hand. Within a short time, Fred is relating through stories. Fred consistently pursues others in love. Sometimes called the “Hound of Heaven,” Jesus pursues us in love.
I need these qualities to companion with me in the mad that I feel. I need to feel safe, supported, cared for, loved, accepted, and forgiven. I have someone who is patient with me when I am angry—a gentle soul comes after me and brings me out from my anger.
We all need a “Fred” in our lives! We all need Jesus in our lives. I need to work on my anger. I can be disappointed by those around me, but Jesus is the companion who doesn’t give up on me, especially when I don’t know what to do with the mad I feel.
Next month we will explore what it means to lament.
Shauna Caldwell lives in Calgary with Jason, her husband of 26 years. In one calendar year, they were gifted with three children – Katie, Jordan and Evan. Parenting “Irish triplets” provided opportunity to learn to cling to Christ for needed daily strength. Katie is now a medical school student. Shauna’s twins graduated to heaven in 2016, after a dreadfully public accident. The Caldwells own a small IT company. Shauna serves on two boards: Cornerbend Ministries and Youth for Christ. Shauna is grateful to her Uncle, G. Neil Parker, for his significant editorial assistance with her writing.