The Things that Make for Peace: Making Friends with Your Emotions
I’m using my blog posts this year to explore a question that emerged from my encounter with Luke 19:42 last year: What are the things that make for peace? Find the rest of the series here.
“What do you do with your anger?” a friend asked me several years ago. I understood his curiosity. By all appearances, I'm a pretty emotionally stable, happy sort of person. It takes a lot to ruffle my feathers. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve lashed out at others in anger. I’ve even gone back to apologize for lashing out only to have the other person act confused as to why exactly I was apologizing.
Still, my friend was very perceptive with his question. Anger isn’t an optional part of the human experience. We all have it. To be a human being for any length of time is to deal with frustration, grief, struggle, and loss. Often the natural emotional response to these unwanted and unwelcome experiences includes anger. How our anger manifests varies pretty widely based on a number of factors, but anger itself is not optional. The question is not will you deal with anger, but how.
It wasn’t until several years after that conversation with my friend about anger that I finally had an answer. What do I do with my anger? If my anger goes unchecked for a good while, I get really, really depressed. Anger has a tendency to want to destroy things. My anger is less likely to seek to destroy someone else than it is to seek to destroy me. That’s one of the things I’m learning about my anger as I get to know it better.
So I did what you do when you’re a (sort of) high-functioning depressive who realizes he needs help—I found a really good counselor and got to work.
Over time, my counselor gave me a really helpful metaphor. "Your emotions are like a bus," he told me. "Every emotion has a seat on the bus. But when something happens to us, different emotions try to climb from the back of the bus into the driver’s seat. Most emotions are really terrible drivers."
There’s also one passenger on the bus who never drives. In fact, he’s pretty small and just sits there and doesn’t do much of anything. My counselor named him, the “I’m-not-good-enough.” But the thing about “I’m-not-good-enough” is that he’s the most important passenger on the bus. Because all the other emotions think it’s their job to protect him. So whenever “I’m-not-good-enough” starts to feel threatened, there’s old anger, sadness, fear, and all of their friends trying to climb into the driver’s seat to rescue him. (This conversation took place before the movie Inside Out came out. If it happened today, he might just tell me to go watch that movie!)
I remember this conversation so vividly, because I thought it was a real breakthrough.
“Great!" I said, "Now that we’ve identified 'I’m-not-good-enough,' how do we kick him off the bus or make him grow up?"
"You can’t!" My counselor told me. "Every passenger on the bus is YOU. You can’t kick them off. And “I’m-not-good-enough” will never totally grow up. All you can do is get to know him, find healthy ways to keep him safe, and maybe even learn to love him—and all the other passengers on the bus.”
One of the tools he gave me, a brief meditation of sorts, is to catch myself when I’m experiencing negative emotions and ask, “Who is driving my bus right now?”
And, over time, I’ve discovered I really only have one good driver in the whole busload—my faith. The part of me that believes God loves me and that trusts in God. The rest of my drivers each have their role to play, but if they drive for too long they’ll usually put me in a ditch.
I was thinking about all this recently while teaching a class over Matt 5:21-26. It’s the first of Jesus’s re-interpretations of core teachings from the Torah included in the Sermon on the Mount. “You’ve heard about not murdering people,” he says, “But I want to talk to you about your anger.” (I’m paraphrasing.)
In essence, Jesus talks about the things we do when anger drives our bus for too long—we tear people down with our words. We lash out. We destroy others and ourselves and break the often-fragile bonds of peace that honor human connection and relationship.
Jesus says his followers will be people who are learning how to control their anger and build relationships rather than tearing them down.
Preparing for my class, I was struck with this thought: It ought to be an entirely reasonable assumption that Christians—those who bear the name of Jesus Christ and follow his teachings—excel at managing their anger so they can build up relationships with others rather than tearing them down. It’s literally one of the first core teachings Jesus offers his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. And yet … how does it seem like we’re doing at that?