On Anger and the Pitfalls of Being Nice

I do “nice” really well.

I have friends who are pretty sure there’s not a mean bone in my body.

And once I dated a woman who told me she just wanted to see me finally get angry. I’m pretty sure she could tell that I bottle up my anger. But then, when I did finally dare show my anger, just a little, we ended up breaking up just days later.

So much for positive reinforcement.

I’m a hospital chaplain. I can witness anger and grief and despair and rage, and generally stay pretty calm and grounded. But I don’t have a clue what to do with my own anger … often I can’t even quite identify it, and usually it comes out in tears.

Sometimes it also comes out in cursing. Usually to myself, and to God.

And for the last couple days I’ve been thinking a lot about anger and language and expression, and how I manage the tension between not wanting to offend, wanting to keep spaces of discourse open so that as many voices can hear and be heard as possible, and yet also recognizing that sometimes the offensive language IS the language to express deep frustration, anger, despair, grief.

Far too often those of us who prefer to stay comfortable have shut down the voices of those who have needed to speak a very real, very important message of grief, injustice, righteous anger. And when I shut down that anger, it’s a way of distancing my self and “othering” someone else, keeping myself apart — insulated — from their pain and anger in a way that also can dishonor their pain.

The Lutheran Church tends to do a pretty spectacular job of this kind of nice that avoids all conflict. Even my (Catholic) hospital system has a culture of “Providence nice.” Jesus, however, didn’t operate that way.

As I write this, the second day of the season of Advent is coming to a close. This is my favorite season of the church year, the four weeks preceding Christmas, a time of preparation, of waiting, of sitting in the darkness watching for signs of hope. This is a season of trying to comprehend the insanity of God loving the world so much as to show up in our midst as a fragile infant, born to a poor, young, unmarried mom, and leaping into all the messiness and brokenness of people and politics and relationships.

This Advent, I’m following a devotion series on the theme #FuckThisShit.

You’ll find Day 2, by Alisha Gordon, here.

Rev. Tuhina Rasche, one of the pastors who conceptualized this series of devotions, says this:

There is a deep need to express one’s self on a visceral level. After a tremendous experience such as the death of a loved one, an act of betrayal, an experience of righteous anger, or a sense that something is not right with the world, there are many people who yearn for a way to communicate something they feel deep within their souls. Communicating such a deep emotion cannot be accompanied by flowery and polite language; if anything, the language that accompanies such emotions communicates a rawness and a sense of being both literally and figuratively torn open. There is a desire for God to rend the heavens, to have things torn open to enter into the world. Like the heavens being torn open in Mark’s Gospel at Jesus’ baptism. Or like Christ’s flesh being torn at the crucifixion… and bearing those scars in the resurrection, giving validity to our hopes, yearnings, and anguish.

We are not using #FuckThisShit to be edgy or radical. We are not using this to be “cool.” We are using these words because they are troubling. They are unsettling. They are being used to move us from places of complacency. If anything, we are using these words to reflect the brokenness of the humanity in which we live. We are using these words to reflect a deep sense of heartbreak and yearning to be in restored relationship with one another, and to be in restored relationship with God. We are using these words to call out for Christ to come again …

To be very clear, this choice of language is not a response to the inconsequential — a scratched car, not getting concert tickets, finding sausage on your vegetarian pizza. It is a response to waking up again this morning to news of an active shooter on the Ohio State campus. To the long litany of names of African American men and women who have been killed in what should be routine traffic stops. To the reality that we have a president-elect who has said vile, offensive things to and about women, Muslims, immigrants … and if I were a Muslim immigrant woman (and I work with many of them), whether I would actually say it or not, I would want to say #FuckThisShit.

I will be forever grateful to feminist Christian ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison  for all I learned from her essay, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love.” She writes,

“Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to others and it is always a vivid form of caring.” She goes on to write, “Where anger rises, there the energy to act is present.”

Yes, anger can be destructive and lead to harm. But it also can push us to work for change and justice and a more loving world where all are welcome.

And as I work as a hospital chaplain, and look around at the state of the world, I am increasingly convinced that one of the most important growing edges for us is to increase our ability to tolerate discomfort.

The more comfortable we are, the more we need to get used to discomfort, learn how we respond to it, learn how to stay grounded and loving even when we’re in the midst of chaos, pain, uncertainty.

Not long ago I sat in the family room of our Emergency Department, with a woman who had just learned her husband had died. When she found out I was a chaplain, she immediately said “I don’t want to talk religion.” We didn’t. What she did do, over the following hours, was grieve, curse, and tell stories about a man who “If he loved you, you knew it,” and who used “fuck” as both noun and verb, “as fuck” as his most common adjective, and so on. And that was time was absolutely sacred ground.

There’s no question that this series of Advent devotions won’t be for everyone. That’s fine. But as I watch it spread over Facebook and notice the responses, I’m noticing it reaching a lot of people. Many of whom are not, and will not be the churched.

The woman in the ER wanted nothing to do with religion or church. But I’d also bet she lives with an assumption that “Church” wants nothing to do with her.

And that is where my fears lie for the church … not that we’ll become a place where “fuck” and “shit” have a regular place in our litanies or preaching, but that we’ll (continue to) be a place where those who are hungry for some hope or some love in the midst of violence, poverty, abuse, despair will never feel they can bring their whole selves. A place where those who bring their whole selves, in vulnerability, rawness, brokenness, will be told they need to change to keep us comfortable, rather than be welcomed, and chance that we all may be transformed.

It is my hope that there will be more places where we can be honest about our anger, regardless of the language, and truly be heard. That change may come, along with balm for the wounded places we carry.

I expect to be uncomfortable this Advent season. Hell, I’ve been uncomfortable all year for a variety of reasons. I hope that discomfort will also push my creativity, my prayers, my writing, and whoever it is that God is currently calling forth from me. I’m grateful for this opportunity to engage the discomfort.

Meanwhile, I’m still pondering how I’ll write about and talk about this on Facebook. I’d rather have you read it than turn away because of the language. And, the language matters. For the record, there’s also a profanity-free version of the prompts titled #RendTheHeavens.

“Oh, that the Christmas miracle of God-in-a-manger wouldn’t be

just a one-time magic trick.

Because god we could use a Christmas miracle these days

because by now the ice and the snow and the darkness are

already old friends but we haven’t even

reached the darkest day yet.

And I’m scared. And I am bleeding. And I am tired.

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down…”

You can read the rest of Micah Martin’s Advent Psalm of Lament (inspiration for the devotion series) here.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing. Might tag it #FuckThisShit. Might tag it #RendTheHeavens. Maybe #FTS/#RTH. But however I tag it, may my writing be honest and vulnerable and Spirit-led.

May we be blessed with discomfort in these darkest days, and also be surprised by hope, by connection, by the unexpected.

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2 thoughts on “On Anger and the Pitfalls of Being Nice

  1. I have a fondness for you that continues to grow and this advent reflection simply enhances this feeling. I can relate to so much of what you’ve written. Sacred is. We’d so frequently reserved for official religious activities but I find sacredness in the raw/real moments I experience with others. Keep writing-your fan

    Like

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