Anger, anxiety and trusting God
I never intended for controlling feelings of frustration and anger to be the theme of my prayers and writing for the past few weeks, but ever since the subject first came up I haven’t been able to avoid it. I didn’t realize how often I let my Irish temper get the best of me until I tried to work on it — and, boy, do I have a lot of work to do! But I had a major breakthrough this weekend that has brought me great peace that I thought I’d share in case anyone else finds it helpful:
A couple weeks ago when I first started writing on this topic, I stumbled across this line in St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life:
With the single exception of sin, anxiety is the greatest evil that can happen to a soul.
Wow! Those were such strong words that they really stuck out in my mind. I didn’t see that as directly related to the topic at hand, so I moved on and just made a mental note to review that passage again some day.
Meanwhile, Friday night I found myself in a state of being just furious. I was trying to get somewhere, I was running late, it was really dark, and Google Maps had taken me to the wrong place. After circling around a poorly lit neighborhood for a while, I realized that I was going to be so late that I would simply miss the event. I’d gotten all dressed up, put on makeup, set aside a bunch of work I needed to get done, told my friend I would be there, got everything in place to leave the kids with my husband…all for nothing. I believe “livid” is a good word to describe how I felt.
I recalled Abigail‘s recent advice to look past anger to focus on what’s really bothering you. I realized that I was so angry because I felt totally out of control: I couldn’t turn back time to not be late; I couldn’t guarantee that my friend wouldn’t be offended that I didn’t make it; I couldn’t be sure that I would get to all the things I needed to do that evening, that this lost time wouldn’t be a big setback to my to-do list; I couldn’t throw a brick through a window at Google’s headquarters to show them what I think of their mapping application. I’m kidding about the last one (kind of), but you get the idea. As I went through this list of what was really bothering me, I recalled that seemingly unrelated St. Francis de Sales quote I’d stumbled across, and realized that anxiety was at the root of my feelings of anger. Not just in this situation, but almost always.
When I lose my temper with the kids it’s not usually on days that I’m all caught up on housework and things are otherwise under control; it’s when I feel like their misbehavior is totally derailing something else I’m trying to do, e.g. putting away laundry or getting us out of the house or getting lunch ready. When I get really frustrated with some little thing like a person at the grocery store blocking the aisle, it’s not usually when my day is otherwise running smoothly; it’s on the days that I feel like I have way too little time and way too much to do. And so on and so on. As I thought through these examples, I realized that all of this — pretty much every time I end up losing my temper about something — comes down to one thing, and one thing only:
I don’t trust God.
To use my example from Friday night, I felt like the weight of the entire situation was on my shoulders alone: I had to control everything. I alone had to make it right. Heck, I alone had to decide what making it right would even involve. I was extremely anxious because of this self-imposed pressure, and my anxiety had manifested itself as frustration and anger. I had a vague recollection of something else St. Francis de Sales had said in his section on anxiety:
When you perceive that anxiety begins to affect your mind, recommend yourself to God. Resolve to do nothing that your desire insists on until your mind has regained peace, unless it is something that cannot be put off. In that case you must meekly and calmly try to check the current of your desires and restrain and moderate them as much as possible.
So I decided to pause and turn to God before anything else. Specifically, I decided to trust God. I pulled over on the side of the road to stop and think for a moment. I had so many options whirling around in my head: “Should I try to find the church or am I too late?! Should I just go home?! Should I do some errands first?! Should I call my friend?!” I set all that aside and decided to make a conscious decision to trust God, and to seek a state of calmness and meekness. For all I knew maybe there was some big reason this all happened; and, even if it was just a screwup on my part, God could surely make it right if I calmly, humbly sought his will for me in this situation.
For brevity’s sake I’ll skip the details of what happened next, but suffice it to say that I was led down a totally unexpected path that culminated in a wonderful experience that left me feeling very close to God. It ended up being one of the best, most spiritually fulfilling nights I’ve ever had. Yet I would have missed it all if I’d insisted on blocking out God’s voice with my noisy thoughts of anxiety and anger.
St. Francis de Sales writes:
If it is out of love for God that the soul seeks escape from its troubles, it will do so patiently, meekly, humbly, and calmly and look for deliverance rather by God’s providence that its own efforts…If it seeks deliverance out of self-love then, as if success depended on itself rather than on God, it will excite and wear itself out…Now if it does not immediately succeed in the way it wants it grows very anxious and impatient. Instead of removing the evil, it increases it and this involves the soul in great anguish and distress together with such loss of strength and courage that it imagines the evil it be incurable. [This] produces anxiety, and anxiety in turn produces sadness.
Every single time since that night that I’ve found my temper flaring up, it ends up boiling down feeling anxious about something, which boils down to not really trusting God. The other day I posted about trying to let go of my attachment to the sin of anger. I’ve realized that even this is rooted in a lack of trust: I will continue to find it oddly cathartic to indulge in feelings of anger and frustration as long as I feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders, that it’s entirely up to me to make it right. But when I can finally get it through my head that it’s not up to me at all, that there’s really not much more for me to do here than to cultivate trust in God at each moment, then I can finally relax. I can quietly, humbly do what I need to do each day, finding peace in the knowledge that when things go wrong, God will take care of it. He’ll tell me how to proceed, as long as I’m listening.
The best prayer for me to focus on here is not, “God, show me how to stop being angry.” It’s not even, “Show me how to stop wanting to be angry.” The best prayer I can say to help with this is, “God, show me how to trust you.”
[UPDATE: A Part II to this post is here.]