“When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear”
Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson, 1894
Samuel Clemens and Walt Whitman, two iconic authors of the 19th century, may have been more honest about their wrath than others in their time. Whitman published a series on how to stay fit that surfaced recently. He touched on sex, climate, bathing, gymnastics, baseball, footwear, depression, alcohol and shaving. The one that caught my attention regarding exercise was bare-knuckle boxing, which was illegal in the day. Did the poet have a desire to deal with his anger and perhaps his rage by way of fisticuffs? Could be.
When I was interviewed by the Board of Ordination to become a minister I was told I was too angry during the session so they urged me to deal with it, and try again the following year. It struck me recently that the compulsory therapy groups we had to endure in our first-year of seminary never left me. The purpose was to single out those who were attempting to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. It was a one-semester requirement but the counseling professor claimed I needed to sit through another term. He said I was hiding my true feelings. He was right, I did not wish to reveal anything about my inner life.
For the second semester the professor hired an outsider, an aggressive therapist, to deal with us one-on-one, and maybe mostly for me I think. Evidently religious counselors were too nice. He was a secular hard-nosed assailant who pushed relentlessly. That did it!
Frankly, I was relieved to learn that nearly half of the population of the United States of America have been living with latent anger, along with me. It could be a form of truth-telling. I credit Mr. Trump for managing to blow the lid off those hidden burdens. However, if he were to get elected as President I’m pretty sure I would go from anger to living with rage. Of course the anger and fury can get out of hand when protestors decide to knock down barriers and dance on squad cars. But what if such demonstrations tend to let off steam and lessen the inner anger among those present and those at home? What if they were to become more vicious behind the scenes by not demonstrating?
When I became a pastor I sensed it was not appropriate to deal with member’s deep anger or rage so the pre-marital and marriage-breakup counseling sessions were rather soft and safe. After retiring I bumped into former church members in town on occasion. One revealed her ex-spouse was stalking and frightening her. In fact, within that week, I learned that three distraught women were dealing with such malicious treatment. I wondered if that kind of callous behavior was present decades ago and held back from clergy and therapists, or whether it was just easier to confess to a pensioned pastor. How many citizens are sitting on powder kegs ready to implode or explode and how many church members would be willing to attend a session with a pastor or therapist? Have we played it too nice for too long?
The most volatile occasion in my ministry occurred while serving as a district superintendent when a Staff/Parish relations committee meeting went ballistic. I doubt if I would have attempted to deal with it if I had not survived the therapy ordeals in seminary.
I drove into the church parking lot in the evening thinking I would be meeting with cordial committee members. A gentleman, who turned out to be not so gentle, yelled at me. In fact, he screamed while I was still in my car. “Get the hell out of here, we don’t need to deal with you Methodist officials when you refuse to move a pastor who has been here for way too long. So get off the premises, we’ll deal with him!”
I stepped out of the car rather quickly and he backed up a bit.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
I asked abruptly “Are your committee members on the so-called premises?”
I cut him off. “We’re going to have a come-to-Jesus meeting now. Let’s go!”
My heart was pounding, palms beginning to perspire, and fear emerging but we marched right toward the church building. Fortunately he followed me into the room where eight people were seated chatting but they appeared nervous when I stepped into the room. And frankly my nerves were on edge too but I was certain we could resolve whatever turmoil we might have to face.
I went to the pastor’s office and asked him to let me deal with the members without him present for a while. He was relieved to not be present right away. I went back to the meeting and asked for a show of hands if they were upset with the pastor’s ministry. All hands went up. No hands shot up when I asked if they had told the pastor how they felt about him. They had admitted they repressed their sentiments toward the pastor for five years.
I knew then we would be in for at least one volatile session or more. I asked them to tell me what they felt about him. We sat in silence for several minutes until a member said he did not want to go through with the process. Three others claimed they felt the same way, but they remained in their seats.
“OK, I’m not leaving until you reveal to me your feelings about the pastor. He has to have sensed how you are with him. It’s only fair to let him know, face to face.”
A woman said it was not appropriate to convey their anger toward anybody in a church setting.
“I do believe,” I replied, “it is totally appropriate to be honest with anyone, anywhere. So let’s try to be truthful toward the pastor.”
We sat in silence once again until a member said “I think we need to let him know but how do we do it in a way that it does not devastate him. Can you lead us through this mine field?”
“I can try.”
He asked “Are you uneasy about doing it and are you as fearful as we are?”
“Yes and yes, on both accounts.”
I pulled out a yellow pad to take notes and urged them to begin telling me why they were angry with their pastor. We sat in silence for a good five minutes. A young member finally claimed that the pastor was distant and not engaging. Another said she thought he did not want to be here. The floodgates opened and most everyone revealed their concerns but the comments seemed to be just the tip of the iceberg. About the third hour they began to disclose deeper issues. They felt good about the process when we finished.
I said to them, we need to have another session before engaging with the pastor.
“Can’t you just let him know how we feel about him?”
“Nope, I believe that’s your responsibility and I think you all are still holding back with your anger. We need another three-hour session.”
I urged Dan, the pastor, to come to my office during the process if he needed to talk.
When we finally met with Dan and his wife the members refused to be fully open with him. When they didn’t come through I read off my yellow pad for each of them what they left out. The pastor admitted that he knew most of their frustrations. He was calm, tearful and brutally honest. That’s when the members began to admire him and admitted they had never sensed that kind of raw openness from anybody. I don’t think I had ever experienced anger, fear and unconditional compassion within any setting in the church in my ministry. So, I’m crediting the Insula organ that houses all those profound emotions. We plunged into that innate cranial wellspring and managed to surface.
After the second session with the committee my administrator warned me that Dan had come into her office and he seemed rather nervous and irritated to meet with me but he suddenly left. Ten minutes later he barged into my office and told me to stand up. I thought he was going to throw a punch. He grabbed me and hugged me and said “Thank you for how this all turned out. I was stunned to learn the committee wanted me back but I’m in my 60s so I’ve chosen to retire.” We both teared up.
I never wanted to take on too many of those but I felt we were at the core of truth-telling with those courageous church people and pastor. It was one of the most meaningful undertakings I ever experienced during my tenure.
And get this, we got beyond swearing or bareknuckle boxing.
Ire and empathy may belong together at times for good reason. What if it takes risk to keep them together in the midst of heated arguments? The fear is it may lead to deeper anger and less compassion but what if both need to stay together on occasion? Why is that necessary? Because they are swimming in the same genetic pool and they may not want to be separated. What if fury is not so bad at times and intimacy is not so great. Is it conceivable that ire might reveal more raw truth-telling qualities than empathy, and compassion may have a tendency to smother forms of veracity at times?