Monday, August 22, 2011

a visit from angry Chris

I don't get full-on angry very much. You probably haven't seen it, at least not recently. I'll get annoyed, which is a form of anger, but the full monty doesn't happen much. You'll know it if you see it. I've speculated for some time that J was eventually going to do something that would evoke that response from me, and it finally happened.

A few weeks ago, I watched J for a few hours while Anna went and did something. The usual sequence goes like this:
  1. He starts to be kind of an ass about whatever.
  2. You say, "I'm getting frustrated, I need you to do this thing and I'm not sure how to get your cooperation."
  3. He makes his well-practiced but unconvincing moaning noises, says "Don't talk about that, it makes me sad," and collapses on the floor in a melodramatic floppy pile.
  4. You stuff him in his room, while he simultaneously giggles and gets angry at you.
He likes to push boundaries, and he opened the door a couple times, once to say, very rapidly, "ChrisI'mjustopeningthisdoorverybrieflytotellyouIhateyou" *SLAM*.

He opened the door again, and I went over to tell him to shut it, to discover he was pointing a pair of Nerf pistols at me.

I can be comfortable with toy guns aimed at me when we're having fun. Pointing weapon-shaped things at me in anger is not okay, and out came a voice I've been preparing for years but I don't think I've ever needed.

I used his full name and, for lack of a better word, bellowed. "YOU PUT THOSE THINGS DOWN RIGHT THIS MOMENT."

Stunned, he dropped the pistols and started bawling. I gathered him up and he curled into a very sad ball in my lap, as we explored why I reacted that way and how my getting angry was similar or different from his experience of other adults getting angry (his dad, uh, gets angry fairly often). (Biggest difference: most adults don't let the anger go immediately and give him a hug.) We got it settled, I think, though he needed reassurance that Anna wasn't going to leave me when she suddenly found out I can get angry.

Strange as it was to feel and use that anger, I think it turned out okay. I think if I had exerted myself, I could have avoided yelling at him; it felt like half a decision, as though I recognized I was getting angry and it was a lot easier to let it come out as yelling.

Last week, he was fiddling with my motorcycle helmet and dropped it, both of which we'd already gone through the process of communicating how it was off-limits, receiving explicit acknowledgement, etc. I growled, he did that fast and nervous "Sorry" thing that people do when they're used to being around (and afraid of) angry people. But I didn't yell at him. He yells a lot when he gets angry, and I hope he remembers that other responses to anger are possible.

It seems simple, to recognize that I'm angry, and to pause and choose a response instead of the first thing that comes to mind. You know how hard it is, though: we've all looked back on times when anger seemed to take us over, and we're left saying things we regret. This is why we practice, whether it's Zen or aikido or something else. It's not about becoming some unreachable ideal of perfect calm. It's about caring for relationships. We're in relationship with others, with ourselves, with people starving in Somalia, with stars on the other side of the visible universe. Everything that is, exists in complete interdependence on everything else: everything comes into being together, everything passes away together.

Taking care of our relationships is taking care of other people, taking care of ourselves, taking care of the whole world. That's why we practice.


  1. Thank you for this Chris. It's easy to think that we're supposed to be all calm all the time but really difficult (and kind of unrealistic) to do. Thank you for sharing all the details of this moment with J, it helps me to see what's going on with me when I react instead of respond and also shows me that when I do react, I still have a choice to follow up with love and compassion.

  2. Indeed, Shannon, and I think that when we do follow up with love and compassion we open doors of possibility for the people around us. I do this with J, "oops. I was really cranky just now--did you notice? I was all worried about xxxx and forgot to focus on the moment. Let me breathe and try again." It's a powerful thing to show that one can slip up, notice it, and immediately address it openly.

  3. Shannon: Yeah, I've never heard of anybody being perfectly calm all the time: even the Buddha got kind of snippy sometimes, in his way. (One imagines that if the snippiness survived centuries of editing and idealization, the historical event was probably even more so.) And there's a famous Suzuki Roshi story from Tassajara where he got angry and ran around the zendo hitting everyone with his stick. My teacher went to a conference at SFZC where someone said, "Oh, but I don't think he was really angry." And someone who was there said, "Um, it really, really felt like out-of-control anger."

    He also stopped and apologized afterward and explained what was going on with him.

    I guess we're doing it right. ;-)