The Price of Peace
Sermon offered Aug 20, 2017
© Rev Susan A Moran
In July, we had a Question and Answer Sunday, and when I invited the children to come forward, one older child raised her hand, and asked something along the lines of: “I see your peace sign outside so I know you believe in peace. But how do you stay peaceful when you are angry?”
I thought this girl’s question was so good, and so timely that it deserved a fuller answer than the one I gave her that Sunday. This morning, I am going to share the essential ingredients to maintaining calm or peace when in the midst of anger, resentment, conflict, or disappointment, which seems to be how most of us have been feeling for quite some time.
Another way of thinking about this is to wonder how much work is required to maintain serenity. I have learned that the answer to the question doesn’t depend on whether the anger is over something in our personal lives or the public sphere. The answer is that a great deal of work is required to attain inner peace, and the price is more than some people want to pay. But I am getting ahead of myself.
To be peaceful when we are angry requires us to first address our anger. As my late husband reminded me, “Never chase the arsonist.” If your house is on fire, you call the fire dept. to put it out. Only after the fire is out can we begin to explore how it started or whose fault it is.
If I am angry, I need to calm down. In the heat of anger, we are not using all the parts of our brain, we are only using the very primitive part. When we are really angry, the parts of our brain which allow us to be reasonable and rational and curious are completely shut down. Every one of us has learned skills over the years to quiet the primitive brain and allow the more modern one to come to the fore; only in our own minds and hearts, can we know whether or not our methods work.
I spent the first 25-30 years of my life not knowing how to deal with my anger in a mature and responsible way. With my brothers, we hit each other or threw the board game up in the air, refusing to play. Our anger came on quickly and disappeared just as quickly. Once the hitting stopped or the board game got cleaned up, we were ready to move on to the next game. It was childish but we had no lingering resentments. Our anger had been expressed, and anyway, we were stuck with one another.
With my parents, I chose withdrawal and avoidance. These choices work but I wouldn’t recommend their use if we want our relationships to grow and deepen. Ditto for throwing things, grabbing people, screaming at them, or putting them in danger.
So, how do you quench your own rages? I have learned that we can never take back any unfortunate words we said so I try very hard to keep my mouth shut when my anger appears. I remove myself from the situation, go to my room if that is possible, and eventually, call a trusted confidante. This person can be a friend or a therapist or a minister or a family member. But in the interest of good familial relations, I try very hard to not call my daughter, Katie to complain about her sister, Sarah. I try very hard to not call my brother John to complain about my brother Mike.
This NO triangulation policy is also helpful at small work places and right here in this community. Please know that telling one of our members that you are angry with another member may make you feel understood in the moment, perhaps even supported. But now there are two of you against one, and the playing field is no longer even.
A potential hazard in putting out the fire can be in the timing. With the house on fire, speed is crucial. But when it comes to our own fires, I often need to grapple with my anger for long enough to feel I have been heard, and to feel I have been understood. This doesn’t negate the first step, which is to try to return to the land of the reasonable and the rational. But I have watched people be pressured to stop being angry and forgive way too soon. I was in a CPE group with a woman I‘ll call Joanie, a 65 plus year old woman who was finally feeling safe enough to articulate decades old anger at her parents. It had never come out and it was uncomfortable for me to listen to the rage and the hurt but it was also thrilling. But then our Supervisor shut her down by suggesting Joanie find forgiveness. She wasn’t ready to find forgiveness– She had just found her anger!
Whether it takes minutes or hours or days to quiet our anger, it will probably feel different because we invited the anger in for tea. We sat with it. We talked to someone who listened and made us feel understood, even if she or he didn’t agree with us.
Once I have felt heard by someone—and not necessarily the person who has triggered my wrath, a lot of the anger dissipates because I no longer feel alone. Sometimes talking to someone who loves me isn’t enough to quench the fire. Sometimes I need to stomp on some cardboard or break old and cracked dishes. For years, my daughter Katie and I enjoyed punching this blow up clown. We finally threw it away when it wouldn’t bounce back from the floor anymore!
Some folks go for a run or play a game and swim or knit or write in their journals. As long as you are not hurting anyone, I think you can do whatever you like to calm down. So, first thing we need to do is put out the fire. Anger rarely helps our case and it certainly doesn’t help our health. Two. Know what triggers you to get angry and do all that you can do to understand why. I needed decades of therapy for this. Not everyone does. Sometimes a long walk to nowhere in particular will be enough to know why we reacted the way we did. We are all hard wired somewhat differently and what I find really annoying you may find amusing.
But for those lingering resentments and old hurt places where we were mistreated or misunderstood, professional help may be required. I hope all of you have the privilege to see a good therapist at least once in your lives. They can be invaluable. One thing I have learned from my 100s of years in therapy is that there are usually very good reasons for why we react the way we do. If I am angry at the government or at a person, it’s because something is happening that goes against my values, my ideas on morality and ethics, my long held opinions about what is appropriate and what is not. My anger could be caused by my fear of not getting what I want or losing what I have. All of these things are currently at play in this country. There is fear and bitterness, combined with ignorance and generations of bigotry.
The events in Charlottesville tell me that we have a very long way to go. We should be angry at the events that came to pass this week. Heather D Meyers was in her early 30’s, a whole life ahead of her. It is shocking and demoralizing and reprehensible that someone felt empowered to drive his car into the crowd.
We need an honest and comprehensive US history to be taught in our schools. We may need to remove the confederate statues and change the names of roads and streets named for confederate soldiers and leaders. But this alone will not be enough. Where are the statues and memorials for the lynchings of innocent blacks? Where are the statues and memorials for the auction blocks? The anti-semitic chants made by the marchers of the hate groups made my skin crawl.
I have been very angry at remarks made recently by the President of the most powerful democracy in the world. I am angry at the KKK, and the other hate groups that descended on Charlottesville. I am angry at the protestors who gathered to show their displeasure with the hate groups and chose violence as the way to combat hate. What do I do with this anger?
Just as it is crucial to know yourself, and your triggers, it is also essential to know what we are capable of, in terms of action and engagement. Reading the news from my phone while on vacation made me angry. But I knew that I wanted to be on vacation so I didn’t do what I usually do, which is to dive in to the topic with full force. How much anger can you hold? Again, everyone answers this question differently but it is essential to know the answer. How long can you be angry without compromising your health?
At what point do we need a break? I can’t watch or listen to the news; it makes me angrier than I need to be, and reading the news usually gives me a more thorough and balanced view of the events.
I try to read the news first thing in the morning because then I have all day to dive in to something engaging. This leads nicely to the fourth ingredient:
To maintain serenity, learn something new and interesting and challenging every day. Read about space, learn how to meditate or to cook. Learn the location of a great hike and go. I have always thought Sigmund Freud was wrong about so many things but one of his opinions that I have never had an issue with is his belief that a good life requires two things: work and love.
Both have been saving graces for me. To be loved and to be understood is healing and comforting. It can also be provocative and challenging because these are the people you let in on your secrets, these are the people who really know you and can say, You might be angry with your dad but this is really about you.
When my husband died, one of most important things I did was to return to work, and to return with gusto. I studied and read and preached and led seminars and worked and worked. I was so lucky that I loved my work. I loved the subject matter, I loved the people I was working with, and I loved the people I was working for.
Whether I am angry at my country or angry at my husband for dying, work is a saving grace. I need something to occupy my brain besides the hubris and sheer idiocy of our President.
I need to know that I can still learn something useful, I need to know that kindness and helpfulness matter. No matter how angry I am, learning something new and interesting keeps me calm. For this to happen, we need to remain curious about the world. If we are angry at one person, we might ask ourselves, “What could have been the person’s motives?”
“What are the influences on this person?”
What is this person’s life like right now?” I learned to contain my anger at crazy drivers on the way to Boston by imagining that any one speeding and zigzagging thru traffic must need to get to the hospital right away. They or a loved one is very ill and it is a matter of life and death. Even if this isn’t true, believing it in the moment keeps me calm and out of the crazed driver’s way. I also listen to music I love or take care of the phone calls I need to return.
Anger at the current state of affairs in this country is harder to deal with than the crazed driver on 128. But work and curiosity is still the answer. What can I do right now to help the causes I believe in? What can I do right now to feel that I have accomplished something that promotes equality and respect for all peoples?
The answers will be different for all of us, and the answers will change. Some may want to join a protest. Some may want to write a letter. For some of us, unplugging may be the only way to achieve some serenity.
But I want to return to curiosity, as it is so crucial for not only being peaceful when in the midst of turmoil, it is crucial for living a spiritually grounded life. Being curious means you still have something to learn, and you are willing to admit it. Being curious means you are not necessarily in control as you have no idea what you are going to find out! This is as true for the inner exploration as it is for exploring anything outside of ourselves.
In a journal sent to me by a colleague at a medical school many years ago, I read a wonderful article entitled Curiosity. It was written by Dr. Faith T. Fitzgerald, and her point was that all doctors need to be curious about their patients. Apparently she got some push back from her residents so Dr Fitzgerald asked all of the young doctors in her charge to search the entire hospital and find the most boring patient. Then Dr Fitzgerald would prove to the residents that all patients are worthy of complete attention and excellent care.
(Tell story about the woman answering monosyllabically and Dr F starting to worry that they may have indeed found the most boring patient on the planet.)
Having almost given up hope, the Doctor finally resorted to boring questions!
Doctor (D): How long have you lived in San Francisco?
Patient (P): Years and years
D: Were you here for the earthquake?
P: No, I came after
D: Where did you come from?
D: When did you come?
D: Have you ever been to the hospital before?
D: Well, how did that happen?
P: I broke my arm
D: How did you break your arm?
P: A trunk fell on it
D: A trunk?
D: What kind of trunk?
P: A steamer trunk
D: How did that happen?
P: The boat lurched.
D: The boat?
P: The boat that was carrying me to America
D: Why did the boat lurch?
P: It hit an iceberg
D: Oh! What was the name of the boat?
As you may imagine, the most boring patient at that hospital soon had a camera crew from the local newspaper and became something of a celebrity.
I have to admit that my curiosity is much easier on a personal level than in a public one. I am not curious about our President. But that is about me and the President, not a negative feature of curiosity.
To live in this world without being angry is impossible. But we can learn how to calm ourselves down. We can learn what our triggers are, and how much anger we can hold without exploding or imploding. We can work on promoting our values and principles. We can learn something new every day, something that may be challenging and engaging. We can remain open-minded and curious about our own motives and actions, as well as others.
And in this way, we can be promote peace, and stay peaceful.
May it be so, now and always.