The Fire Alarm

I’ve struggled with anger.

This is perhaps a strange thing to write about on Christmas Eve, but I’m guessing that my struggle is not unique, and I think that many people suppress their struggles during holidays, which only makes the situation worse.

Not so long ago, my family was falling apart. I was profoundly embarrassed at my failure, so I went internal and stopped communicating with friends. The problem was insidious. I didn’t see its magnitude until it reached critical mass. It even started out, as most crises do, small and with good intentions.

I had a vision for my family. I wanted my kids to develop character so they could become successful adults and responsible citizens. I imagine most parents want that for their kids. I’d seen the damage this world can do to young people if they take the wrong path, and I have many images of that wrong path seared into my consciousness. My kids, being kids, didn’t yet have that. I failed to communicate my vision in a way that helped them internalize it.

My fundamental problem was that I didn’t have a strong relationship with my wife. We weren’t presenting a unified front to our kids, and we began working at cross-purposes. When one of the kids would act in a way that was detrimental to their development, my wife and I didn’t see it the same way. I was certain that they were going to end up as homeless, drug-addicted criminals. She wasn’t as concerned. I thought her response was encouraging the behavior. She thought my response was too overbearing and was diminishing my influence with the kids. We were both right. This problem got worse over time to the point that it drove a wedge between me and my wife, and between me and my kids.

My family was headed for disaster, and it made me angry. Something was wrong, but I felt powerless to change the situation. I felt like a pressure cooker that was about to break. From my childhood, I’d seen the destructive force of anger, and I didn’t want to do the same thing to my family. So I wrapped steel bands around the pressure cooker. I tried to use my self-discipline to contain it. That worked temporarily, but that just allowed the pressure to build. So I wrapped more bands around it. The bands kept the rage inside and everyone else outside.

I felt like I was being crushed. My wife felt like she was dying.

As crucial as self-discipline is, it will only get you so far. It’s like working out. There’s a weight that’s crushing you, so you go to the gym and start lifting in order to cope. There’s no doubt you’re getting stronger, but the weight is increasing. You keep working out, but you’re still being crushed. Everyone has a limit. No matter how strong you are, at some point, you will be confronted by a weight you can’t lift.

My bottled-up anger turned into resentment. I knew that apathy wasn’t a viable solution, but I felt unable to be a good influence on my family. Eventually, the resentment built to a point where the only option I saw was to let my wife and kids know how wrong they were, and I conveyed that message with disgust rather than with love.

Our marriage came to a crisis point. My wife talked me into seeing a counselor. I was skeptical but was fortunate to find an incredible therapist. His name is Wes. The counseling wasn’t what I expected. I thought my wife and the counselor would gang up on me, pummel me, and tell me that I was a horrible human being; but it wasn’t like that.

What Wes did was teach us was how to communicate—something we hadn’t done effectively for a long time. He broke the word communicate into two parts: commune – to become one, and -icate – to make. Communication isn’t two people talking at each other. It’s working together to become one—to forge a connection between two wildly different people.

Image by Jose Cabello

Wes taught us that we don’t have to agree with each other on everything. He taught us that if two people agreed on everything, then one of them would be unnecessary. He taught us that we needed to understand each other, and to do that, we had to listen. Listening isn’t just giving the other person a turn to talk before you tell them what you want to say. It’s making an honest effort to see through their eyes. To understand someone, you have to acknowledge that just maybe, they might be right. Like Wes said, “You’re both crazy. You just have to understand each other’s crazy.”

I learned quite a few things from Wes. One thing in particular surprised me. I expected him to tell me that anger was a sin, but he said that anger was a gift from God—a mechanism designed to help ensure the survival of the species. It’s like a fire alarm. It’s an indispensable tool designed to help us survive. But how we respond to the alarm is what makes or breaks our relationships. When the alarm goes off, you can panic, or you can respond in a constructive way. Here’s an example.

Imagine you’re in a building, and the fire alarm starts blaring. There’s a child in the building, and you need to get her out. She’s standing there, clearly afraid and unsure of what to do, so you walk up to her and scream, “There’s a fire in the building! GET OUT NOW!!”

The child is startled. You’ve just triggered one of her other survival mechanisms: fear. Her instinct is to freeze.

That’s not good, you think. If she stays where she is, she’ll die in the fire. So you respond to the alarm with all the seriousness that it deserves.

“I SAID GET OUT! DO YOU WANT TO DIE IN THE FIRE?”

Now, the child is cowering in the corner, trying to stay as far away from you as possible. Her fear mechanism is overriding her ability to reason and determine the best course of action. You want what’s best for her, but your method of helping her has become an obstacle. You’re not communicating. You’re not making a connection. You’re not building trust. There’s no relationship.

Wes showed me a middle path between apathetically ignoring problems and lashing out in anger. He taught me to be assertive. Not assertive as in putting your hands on your hips and getting in someone’s face, but assertive in a way that, when there’s a problem (when the alarm goes off), you react calmly and address the issue in a way that enables the other person to understand your concern or your pain.

When my marriage was in crisis, I struggled to manage the mental pain I felt. I contemplated suicide. I couldn’t see a way out of the pain. I couldn’t envision any possibility that my life would ever get better. I know my wife felt devastated as well.

After an intense struggle, God brought us through the crisis. I share this, because every now and then, I see others going through similar situations. I imagine such situations are far more common than most people suspect.

During the holidays, we gather with family and friends, and we tend to suppress our problems. We wrap more bands around the pressure cooker. Maybe it’s so no one will see our failings. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to spread drama. If I may offer unsolicited advice, I would tell those in a situation similar to mine that if your alarm system has been activated, it’s for a reason. Your response, however, is what will make or break your relationship. Your spouse, your parents, your children may not be acting the way they are out of a sense of maliciousness. They may be carrying a heavy weight that you are not aware of. They may be hiding a debilitating pain. Your response to the alarm could be a searing light that drives them further from the help they need, or it could be a soft light that leads them out of the darkness.

A child in a burning building is far more likely to respond effectively to an offered hand than to shouted instructions. When the fire alarm starts shrieking, consider that how you respond is more important than just being right.

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