Friday, November 2, 2012

Be Slow To Wrath, But Recognize It Quickly And Get On With The Journey of Forgiveness

 A few days ago after I plugged in what I thought would be the last of the posts that I would prepare on anger's role in forgiveness, I did not anticipate that I would find additional work to do on a personal level. It has come as a long awaited answer to prayer, and I marvel that I only put my realization of it together just days ago. I would love to think that the Word of God that I've planted and watered in my heart for many years concerning this subject has yielded some new fruit as a result of cultivating this topic and digging deeper into it. I realized that I have this last post to write about anger and forgiveness.

Learning to Master Anger So It Doesn't Master Me

Many days ago, I explained what it was like to honor anger for the first time, and how that process has been an ongoing journey. During the discussion that I had with my counselor which I discussed in this post when addressing anger I felt towards her, we talked about how I'd grown in my awareness of anger. Thirty years ago, I would claim that I never became angry, or at least rarely. The expression of that anger would find any other outlet for me including passive-aggression and physical illness. Twenty years ago, though I would turn most of my anger into depression or self-loathing, I would occasionally allow myself to feel and express anger that I felt was righteous (anger about someone else hurting some other innocent party). I also learned to vent a great deal of it through humor, both harmless and sometimes harmful. But when I was exit counseled fifteen years ago, the devastating experience of realizing that I'd been spiritually abused and what that meant essentially forced me to (begin to) develop emotional self awareness.

I often tell people and often write here that learning self trust and paying attention to one's gut responses protects a person against manipulation in a profound way, especially when combined with understanding of the dynamics of manipulation. In terms of anger and shame in particular, if I were to truly become a “hard target” for a manipulator, I would have to learn to be keenly emotionally self-aware. For most people, that twinge that “something is wrong” becomes their first clue that they're being lead in a direction that they would not choose under other circumstances. I continue to acquire that skill, and I've yet to arrive. As with most of the topics on this blog, I admonish myself, first and foremost.

When I discussed the episode of anger I felt with my counselor a number of years ago in this post, in tracing my more recent history, I noted to her that in my personal relationships, strong anger can still take me by surprise. In her office that previous week, I think that my awareness of anger was enhanced by my level of intense physical pain. As a general rule, however, I seemed to have a fairly predictable pattern. Deeply distressing things take me about 24 hours to process and analyze, and they are usually followed with about three days of grief. Having healed from much trauma and old, emotional wounds, I've found that all of those durations have shortened significantly. Still, I have respect for my limitations, and I consider this 24 hour followed by 72 hour pattern to be my predictable path of least resistance. If I end up ahead of that would be schedule, I treat it as cause to celebrate my growth.

Self awareness is a learned skill for me, and I continue to learn and practice. I also have to be willing to exercise it. Self awareness brings pain, and I must continually make a decision between reality when it is painful and my own comfort as wisdom requires. But that said, I am foolish not to admit my own, typical pattern when it comes to disappointments which may or may not lead to anger. (Sometimes, I make the wrong choices, despite my intent to be realistic.) And in terms of my experiences and origins, what comes naturally to me doesn't measure up to ideally healthy. I have to remain committed to self awareness for the sake of wisdom and growth, and I have to work at it.

Hurt People Hurt One Another, But They Can Heal and Grow Together

In the course of preparing these posts, and as a consequence of recent events, an old discord in one of my important relationships came to my attention.

To grow in friendship, people must be vulnerable with one another, and that vulnerability risks injury. For people in recovery (as adult children of family dysfunction or as people transcending trauma), we do a lot of stumbling at first. Each new relationship brings new risk, and intimacy is always a huge challenge. And as Sandra Wilson states it so simply in her book title, out of sheer ignorance, we “hurt people hurt people” until we learn a better way.

I relish my relationship with my best girlfriend because though we lack many of the same skills, we both somehow found the courage to be transparent and vulnerable with one another. We offend and forgive one another, trusting in the love we share, and we became willing to allow ourselves to learn from one another as we grew. My friend is sometimes my teacher, sometimes my student, sometimes the one who challenges me, and sometimes the one who comforts me, and I reciprocate for her when the situation calls for it. I have learned so much from her, and she's become one of the greatest blessings I have had in my life (for twenty years this coming April). We are learning together that hurt people hurt people, but we've also learned that hurt people can learn, forgive, and grow together in great love. But, sadly, that isn't always the case in some of my other friendships.

Emptying the Love Bank

Though other authors discuss this concept, in terms of relationships, I tend to think of how Willard Harley, Jr. describes the “love bank” in his book His Needs Her Needs: Building An Affair-Proof Marriage. To describe give-and-take in a marriage relationship which I see as applicable to emotionally intimate relationships as well, he uses the analogy of a bank account. Each of the two parties has a bank account in their heart for the other person. Treating someone well makes deposits into the account in the heart of the other person, so people who express love one another tend to have high balances in their respective accounts. When the problems of life come along, we end up “making withdrawals” from those “accounts”. 

 If a wife leaves dishes in the sink and it troubles the husband (Harley notes that domestic support is very important to most husbands), it might be tantamount of a withdrawal of $1. That drop becomes negligible, though, considering that the wife makes deposits of the equivalent of $25 per day through everything else that she does in the relationship. Harley also points out that women expect different things in marriage than men do, and it behooves each party to be aware of what the other needs and what troubles them. He suggests that “making too many withdrawals and not enough deposits” predisposes marriages to affairs, hence the “affair-proof marriage.”

A number of years ago, in my budding friendship with my new friend, we started out with high balance accounts for one another in each other's hearts. But hurt people end up hurting people, just like we all inevitably do in relationships. Transparency needed for true friendship comes with the risk of vulnerability. With people who are already vulnerable, relationships can be even more tricky if each party doesn't trust the other enough. Considering that “hurt people hurt people,” these hurts draw on that balance of goodness in our accounts. Trust and care add to the balances. Distrust depletes them.

Without going into great detail, over time, my friend and I encountered events that challenged our growing relationship in addition to a strong personality mismatch in terms of how we each handle conflict.  (Differences in perception and style will be the subject of an upcoming post.)  The feelings that I felt for them in the conflict were very diverse, and because our relationship and our circumstances were fairly complicated, things were hard to sort out. When my "love bank" for them was riding very high in the beginning of the  challenge, it was much easier to be understanding with them.  This helped me to keep from feeling offended at that time, especially because I could both relate to and rationalize their behavior as understandable, given the details of their personal history.

I had a remarkable amount of empathy for them because I could so strongly relate to what they were experiencing, and I hoped to be an ongoing source of encouragement to them. I looked forward to it. I made several attempts to clear up discord that the challenge brought. I voiced my concerns that the relationship was no longer what it had been, and I wanted to take responsibility for whatever I might have done to put it in harm's way. I also asked about whether something happened to change how they saw me and our relationship, as I kept waiting for the opportunity to jump back into it to work again on building trust. They basically said that everything was fine but that they were busy. (I never trusted that this was a genuine response, primarily because their words didn't match their behavior.) They chose to withdraw, keeping emotional distance from me whenever we had occasional contact.

In the Red?

A couple of months ago, my friend decided to break contact, first through an email that I found strangely incongruent. Though it was dripping with politeness, sweetness, and exclamation points, the message it communicated to me was anything but a pleasant one. (I was not ready to admit that I found this offensive.) But like our relationship, this incongruent message was incredibly difficult to process because the message didn't remotely match the tone. It was dissonant, and if you haven't read about what dissonance does to your ability to think, read more HERE. The spoonful of sugar of its tone helped me swallow the message, but it felt bitter in my stomach.  For the drastic extreme of the finality of their decision, they gave disturbingly inadequate reasons for their choice, another source of much dissonance.  I also did not want to accept the finality of the message, so a part of me was happy for the sugar and didn't want to admit to its poorly masked bitterness. Remember that denial and acceptance are all part of that grief process, right along with anger. I'd been bargaining right along with this long process of the changes in the relationship. I didn't even realize that I'd already started grieving.

Just recently, I sent a benign email to them with a cute vignette that we all get from friends from time to time. It seemed like a good excuse to stay connected, however remotely, even if they didn't respond. The email came back as undeliverable, and after checking around, I learned that others had experienced the same thing. My friend cancelled their email account. I felt like someone had belted me in the gut and knocked the wind out of me.

As much as relationships are all about ideals, they are also strongly affected by circumstances. We get weary in well doing, too, especially if we do not work at things. The withdrawals we have to make from those love accounts become quite large when we have unrealistic expectations in relationships too. Withdrawals come with a surcharge for fantasies and ignorance. If I expect someone to do things of which they're incapable, their stock is going to plummet because I'm going to be constantly disappointed.

In the course of writing about the role of anger in forgiveness, I realized that my “love bank” for this person which once gave me great patience with them finally bottomed out.  Every time I considered my disappointment with how things were stalled and how my friend decided to withdraw, it was tantamount to making a withdrawal to pay for the grief I felt as I held out for things to turn around.   That very conflicted, “overdraft” email they sent me took nearly everything that was left in the already dwindling account. My friend had made few if any deposits, and they couldn't keep up with the withdrawals. I wanted to continue the habit of the “benefit of the doubt” and my decision to not be offended with them when the discord came in our friendship. But I think that they just used up all their banked benefit over time.  (I hadn't really forgiven them.  I was holding out for the opportunity to get the chance for ideal forgiveness and reconciliation between us.)


As I've written these recent posts, the matter keeps grinding around in the back of my mind, and it finally dawned on me. I'm angry. With the love bank now depleted, there's nothing left to draw upon but the general principle of love, and I'd made no deposits, either. I wanted to think that I'm big enough and full of enough love spiritually that I wouldn't even get offended. That was a fantasy that I willfully chose to feed, even though I had already. I'm angry, and I didn't want to call it that. Because of the complicated nature of the relationship, I didn't feel like I even had the right to feel offended. I suddenly realized that regardless of those complications, I am offended. I couldn't even admit that I was angry about that email that came a few months ago.
I'm well over the typical timeline on my predictable pattern of 24 hours of self-realization and the 72 of grief, but I think that all of the complicated elements of things combined with my grief process changed the timeline. Now I can express this anger (which I've largely done at this point, getting rid of the energy of it all), grieve, and forgive.   (I have to let it all go.)  And I have more grief about it than I'd like to admit.

I can now deliberately deposit God's divine love into the account as often as I have need instead of requiring my friend to make a deposit to keep them "in the black."  God has plenty of love, compassion, and mercy for all of us, and He gives them to us freely, bidding us to share them. And I'm also not going to be paying those withdrawal penalties anymore, because my expectations have been adjusted to make them far more realistic. (I'm going to have no expectations at all anymore, honoring the boundaries that my friend has set – now that I've finally chosen to accept them.)

Did I follow God's ideal process of being slow to wrath and patient with my friend? Have I been kidding myself over years about forgiveness as that account dwindled while I held out to restore the relationship?  In my denial of anger, did I sin?  I have some well considered ideas, but I don't really know for sure. 

I dealt with my feelings as soon as I understood them as resentment/anger (something different than the general grief of disappointment), remembering that this is a process.  I know that I pursued reconciliation every time that I could.  I labored honestly over the matter in love (perhaps just in only my own, natural love apart from God's divine love) until I couldn't do so anymore.  Offenses bring the true test of love.  We're called as Christians to return evil with goodness, taking these things patiently though it doesn't make sense in earthly terms by turning the other cheek, all while we exercise wisdom, too.  I've sought to do what God required of me and have pursued forgiveness and reconciliation, though the other party didn't want to do so.  I now have to respect their boundaries of desiring no contact, and I can do that by letting go.  If I failed the process, it started with my lack of self-honesty and self awareness about what I was really feeling.  I wouldn't have operated with false expectations for so long, prolonging and intensifying the pain I felt.

This I do know for sure:  Events happened the way they've happened, but I am still determined and committed to grow at this process of forgiveness.  As a Christian,  I'm duty bound to master it.   I will surely "do forgiveness better" next time with the benefit of hard experience and even more attentiveness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  (And I have to be forgiving with myself in the process, remembering that God forgives my failures when I repent for failing in the process.)

Be Encouraged

So to those of you who struggle with anger and how to deal with it, I hope that you find this encouraging. I'm making great progress over time, but I still have to work at relationships and the purity of my own heart before God and with others. This is ongoing, just like the journey of forgiveness is. None are one time events. I don't believe that anything about grieving is easy, and it takes great courage. Self awareness must be learned, and many of us have to work at it, remaining committed to it. We have to choose that radical realism that Sandra Wilson sees as an essential element of genuine forgiveness. We do this by putting away our wishful thinking, either giving up on the fantasy of what we thought happened or what we wished had happened in the past so that we can go into the future with open hands to receive the real, good, and new things in our relationships. This realism helps us to develop more realistic expectations about ourselves and others.

Christians are taught to be slow to wrath, but when we get offended and angry, we should be quick to identify that anger so that we can deal with it – putting it away from us on the journey to the full, genuine experience of loving forgiveness.

God Has a Great Sense of Humor

Within hours of having my epiphany that I was both offended and actually angry over the specific situation with my friend, I received this email devotional from the National Association for Christian Recovery on Ephesians 4:26 (In your anger, do not sin). The devotionals follow themes, and much to my surprise, they just switched to the new theme of forgiveness. You can read the list of them for the month HERE, and you can sign up to receive them via email yourself for free, too. They're also available in the book Rooted In God's Love.

Living in relationship with other people means that we will experience seasons of anger. Anger is a normal human emotion. It is an unavoidable ingredient of any fellowship.

Unfortunately, for most of us, anger is a problem. We know that anger can lead to destructive behaviors. Some of us have been on the receiving end of verbal and physical attacks from an angry person. And some of us have lashed out at others with our anger. So we fear anger because we have seen the destruction which results when anger leads to sin. We have seen how anger can damage relationships and lead to loneliness.

But anger does not have to be destructive. We can be angry without harming others. Anger can, in fact, be a constructive force in our lives. Anger alerts us to the fact that something is not right. As a result, anger can protect us and energize us to take constructive action.

The fellowship we need in recovery cannot always be conflict-free fellowship. There will be times of anger. And that can be a good thing.
Read the entire devotional HERE.

More to follow on forgiveness.

(Click HERE for the next post.)