A few days ago I started re-reading the New Testament letter of James as part of my morning devotional time.
[Please note – I’m not sharing this out of any self-righteous desire to appear holy, especially not holier-than-though. My devotional efforts are consistent only for their inconsistency, so I could never hold myself up as a model in that regard. But I am grateful to be experiencing a new vitality to my spiritual life ever since I heard the “wind hovering over the water” in Tinos. Since some of the things I have been learning in the process may be interesting and relevant to others, I am making bold to share them. Whether or not you identify with the Christian faith, I hope these reflections can still have meaning for you.]
So, as I was saying, I have started re-reading James. It is a letter I have not studied in a long time — at least 5 years — although I am fairly familiar with its content as it is a much-quoted book. However, an allusion to one of the sections of the letter in a song recently drew my attention. So, on Thursday morning, I picked up my bible and started reading from chapter 1. I got 18 verses in and then I came to a short little section that I have heard or read innumerable times before:
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” James 1: 19b-20 (New International Version).
Now, I do not consider myself an angry person. My father had some issues with anger and that has always been a strong motivator for me to avoid that particular emotion. What it more, I think my natural temperament is relatively calm. My parents named me Serena because of that intrinsic serenity, and as recently as two weeks ago yet another acquaintance observed that this name is particularly apt. A variety of friends have even commented on the calm attitude I maintain in dealing with my children. One friend insists vehemently that she does not believe I ever yell at my kids, despite my assurances.
- I believe, however, that it is the change in my status from non-parent to parent that drew these two verses to my attention so unavoidably a few days ago. The moment I read them it was as though a not-so-silent movie began playing for the benefit of my mind’s eye: a flashback of the last few weeks with my children. I saw moment after moment of impatience and frustration; of exasperation and ill temper; of sharp words and snappy gestures; in short, of quick jumps from my natural calm to petulant anger in response to what were usually fairly mild behaviors from my children. These memories struck me with particular force because I know these weeks were relatively stress-free, comprising as they did the last few weeks of summer vacation with relatively few time-pressures or external expectations. In the next few days I became more conscious of these little fits of temper and I realized that they were the result of cumulative frustrations. The first time Princess Imagination grabbed onto my leg and in the process nearly pulled off my skirt I just asked her to stop. The forty-eighth time she does it I erupt with “DON’T pull on my skirt!” The first time the Gigglemonster tried to sit on top of the back of the couch I told him firmly, but calmly, that we don’t sit up there. The sixty-third time he goes climbing I pull him down not quite gently and issue a sharp rebuke. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that I love my children deeply, they have an incredible capacity to get under my skin with little misbehaviors that feel so big when I have to correct them over and over. I know I am not a unique parent in this respect, but somehow that does not give me much comfort.
My discomfort is because it means I have failed to achieve a standard I set for my own parenting. Despite my many promises to myself to the contrary, my children deal with my anger on a nearly daily basis. Certainly the anger in question is not violent or explosive. I have never even considered exploding in a torrent of cursing or putting my fist through a wall. In my current surroundings, a culture that is much more emotive and expressive than my American heritage, I witness much more obvious parental anger almost every time I take the subway or go to the park. By comparison to many of my gesticulating Italian neighbors my temper is quite mild.
But the forcefulness of parental expressions of anger (so long as they are not abusive) is not really the relevant factor for comparison. What concerns me more about my frequent descents into anger is their overall effect. The fits of temper I saw from my Dad as a child frightened me, certainly, but their general impact was to impress upon my young mind a desire to avoid such extreme expressions of anger. While they taught by negative example, at least they taught a positive lesson. In contrast, I wonder whether my mild, seemingly innocuous fits of anger might not actually be more insidiously damaging to my children’s development. Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster show no signs of being frightened by my anger or dissuaded from exhibiting anger themselves. Much to the contrary, they also demonstrate a readiness to snap at each other in response to small annoyances, or to break into peevish whining or temper tantrums when I do or say something that makes them unhappy.
Of course, I do understand that this is common behavior for two- and five-year-olds. I cannot take the full blame for what are developmentally common behaviors. Nevertheless, I have come to recognize that there is an ironic cycle at work in our domestic patterns. The Gigglemonster lets out a shrill scream when Princess Imagination touches his new monster truck toy and tries to grab it from her hands. I respond by sharply raising my voice as I tell him to share and I snatch his hand away from her. Princess Imagination whines that she doesn’t want to clean her room right now and I whine right back that I am tired of her whining and disobedience. Whether they are learning from me or I am learning from them, the lesson being learned is clearly far from ideal. Do as I say, not as I do comes uncomfortably close to the mark. If I want my children to learn how to treat others with respect, to be patient and kind, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, then I certainly need to begin by modeling such behavior.
Man’s anger, Mom’s anger, does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. This warning matters to me, and not just because of any eternal consequences linked to “unrighteousness.” I believe in a forgiving God who knows my brokenness and loves me through it. But I also believe that the righteous life is worth living for its own sake. A life characterized by love, joy, peace, and the rest of the fruits of the spirit is, in fact, a happy life. And it is the little things, like the way we treat those closest to us, that really determine the character of our lives. I may be serene and free from obvious or violent fits of temper to the casual observer, but I am realizing that I am not slow to anger. Even if my anger is mild, it is anything but slow, and I want this to change.
In the last several days I have been working on being slow. It is amazingly hard. The habit of the quick jump to peevishness is difficult to break expressly because it is not slow— it is automatic. I have been impressed, however, by how quick my children are to respond when my efforts succeed. When I am firm, but calm in response to their misbehavior something miraculous happens: they do not escalate, at least not nearly as fast. When, instead of snapping, I get down on their eye level and talk to them about why they need to stop a given action, they are much more likely to listen, actually LISTEN!
Of course, they are still two- and five-years-old, and I am still imperfectly serene. Our progress is slow. But I will take slow. Slow is good.