I hate to admit it, but I regularly have the discouraging experience of plummeting from amicable pedestrian to hyper-angry maniac.
I can feel my heart rate increasing and my blood pressure going up with it. Indignation burns like a fire in my gut. I want to chew nails, call down curses, slash tires, and scream obscenities.
There it is, right in the middle of the sidewalk. Left there by some inconsiderate, lazy person who evidently thinks they are alone in the world. There it is, smelly and disgusting.
I am immediately outraged.
In an instant, I morph from enjoying a pleasant run to fuming with internal rage.
It happens every time I’m on a trail or a sidewalk and I come across a pile of dog doo, left there by some uncaring pet owner who, I suppose, thinks it’s appropriate to leave a pile so every walker, runner, cyclist, and stroller-pushing mom can walk around it or step in it.
Every time – no exaggeration, every single time – it makes me angry.
I’ve been griping about this for years, mostly in my own head, because most of the time there’s no one around to share the details of how severely I would punish those dog owners.
A sanitized glimpse into the dark monologue in my mind goes like this:
Who do they think they are? Why are they so lazy? Why don’t they think about everyone else who uses this sidewalk? They should have to clean up every sidewalk in League City. They should have to eat it. They should be executed in front of their dog…
I can carry on like that in my head for miles. Sometimes, all I remember about an otherwise pleasant run through a park is my angry monologue. When I get home, I often share parts of my monologue with my wife. She has to hear me present the evidence, convict, and execute the guilty.
But, there is a parallel monologue going on in my head, too.
While I’m venting my internal rage on dog owners, another voice is whispering, “Dude, relax. Take a pill. Why do you let this bug you so much?”
Admittedly, I know my angry internal monologue is not constructive. But, I am not calm and rational when I am angry. Besides, there’s something about indulging in your anger that feels kind of satisfying in the moment. The angry monologue dominates the conversation.
I guess because my small group has been reading a book about anger, I had a strange and repugnant thought occur to me as I approached a pile of dog doo on the sidewalk recently. It was weird and unwelcome and immediately rejected.
The thought I had was, You should stop and clean it up.
That weird thought just added a victim’s dimension to my monologue.
Why should I have to clean up their mess? Why should I be inconvenienced because of their stupidity? Why should I pay the price for their willing, premeditated, inconsiderate gesture? Why?
That one repugnant thought made everything worse because I could never get it out of my head. From that moment on, every time I’d see a pile of dog doo, I’d have my normal angry monologue but with an added side dish of… guilt.
“Why should I?” thinking doesn’t sound like guilt, but it usually is.
You keep asking yourself, “Why should I?” because something inside you knows you should. It makes sense. Anger and guilt are partners. Each produces the other, and each is a consequence of the other. So, I think it’s just easier to claim victim status than to address the possible merits of the repugnant thought.
It’s troubling to admit that I can be so angry and guilty. I’ve known for a long time that anger and guilt are poison to a person’s soul. It’s also troubling because anger and guilt are almost impossible to rid one’s self of, because the reasons for outrage are often legitimate. A lot of times, anger seems like a fair and productive response in the moment. So, we negotiate with our guilt by rehashing why our anger is justified. We go round and round with ourselves and end up where we started: angry and guilty. That’s me when it comes to dog doo on the sidewalk and, unfortunately, in many, more significant moments.
Think about the situations you routinely encounter that make you mad. There are dozens of little everyday annoyances that start some familiar, angry monologue.
You might not see it, but the monologue in your head seeps out. It spills out onto your spouse, your kids, your peers at work, and even the kid bagging your groceries at the store.
Those little routine angry monologues are like tiny drops of poison. Each one seems harmless, but they are not mutually exclusive events. They aggregate into who you are. They are seeds of destructive things: bitterness, gossip, and deceit.
Your anger is quite possibly the most destructive thing about you. It poisons your own heart and then poisons the people around you. But, it’s also the most obvious place for the most obvious growth.
Real growth, especially spiritual growth, is inevitably painful, and often very hard, because the only way to truly repent is to put into practice strange and repugnant thoughts like, You stop and clean it up.
I say painful because if you are like me, you don’t want to.
The book my group has been reading is Good and Angry by David Powlison. In it, the author writes that everyone gets angry, and we very often have legitimate reasons to be angry. The question is, will we respond to our anger in a way that produces good?
That is a humbling, pain-producing, and potentially life-changing question.
Will I respond to my anger in a way that produces good?
Not long ago I was out for an early morning walk. I came upon a pile of dog doo some clown left right smack in the middle of the sidewalk. I immediately opened up the monologue.
“Why are dog owners so lazy? Why don’t they….”
Then I stopped.
I took a deep (mental) breath and asked myself how I could respond to my anger in a way that produced good.
I stood there for several minutes because I didn’t like the only answer I had to the question. I knew just stopping the judgmental monologue running through my mind would not be enough. Avoiding a wrong is not the same as doing something good. Just avoiding a wrong is the very thing that sustains us in our anger and guilt. Telling yourself not to be angry is not the answer, that’s just laying the foundation for getting angry again the next time the same thing happens.
If you want to change and you want to grow, there is only one thing to do.
I made myself do it. I went and found something to use to scoop the poop and put it in a trash can.
I had a different conversation in my head for the rest of that walk through the park. I thought about how I actually just served some other people – the walkers, runners, cyclists, and stroller-pushing moms. I was glad. I responded to my anger by doing something good. It was much more satisfying than rehashing my angry monologue. I know no one else will probably ever know or care, but I do.
Then, I decided that I was going to do it again and even try to make a habit out of being the dog doo remover guy. A simple, very minor, sacrifice is changing how I respond to my anger. Now I think about how making a micro sacrifice of time and energy benefits some unsuspecting person who won’t have to clean a disgusting mess off their shoe.
It’ still exasperating to me to find dog doo on the sidewalk, but now my anger (usually) results in something productive, not oppressive. It is weirdly satisfying to know the sidewalk is a better place after I used it.
Isn’t that how a follower of Jesus is supposed to live?
I know dog poo is a trivial example. I have many more sinister angers that I must address, and so do you. But they all need the same medicine.
At some point, you have to absorb the cost of some other person’s failure.
You have to pay a personal price because someone else was inconsiderate and selfish, or maybe just forgetful.
At some point, you have to figure out how you can do something that is good, and good for other people.
Then, you have to do it.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”