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the Work is never done

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a problem with anger.

Once, as a grade-schooler, I was walking home from school and got roughed up by a couple of neighborhood bullies. During this episode, I landed zero meaningful physical punches but delivered a few insults that ultimately saved me and sent the other kids packing. I walked home marveling in my new found super-power: hurting people with words. I made the kind of mental note that was significant enough that i remember it today. “I can protect myself this way, with words that hurt.”

I made the kind of mental note that was significant enough that i remember it today. “I can protect myself this way, with words that hurt.”

Skimming through the innumerable explosions of my teens and twenties, you’d encounter young Benjamin dressing down a variety of characters with foul mouthed rage. Family, friends, lovers, passersby, authority figures, coworkers, bosses. Nobody was safe from me, including me. I was no longer ignorant about my childhood coping mechanism turned against me, but I felt helpless about finding lasting change.

Fortunately, in my late twenties a few good things happened. (1) My boss at the time told me in no uncertain terms, “You’ve got what it takes to lead this team, but I can’t promote you to leadership if you don’t get a handle on your anger.” Providing for my family and advancing professionally were really important to me, so this was a huge motivation. (2) My (now ex) wife found a book about “rageaholics” that helped me. Essentially, it framed my challenge as “addiction to rage,” and expained how, for folks like me, a lot of the conventional advice about dealing with anger was counterproductive. I started learning about my “point of no return” (once a rage-prone person passes this, self-control is often practically unavailable) and finding ways to avoid getting there. (3) With the help of therapists and a men’s group, i started coming to terms with what was driving my generalized anger (and depression) and managing myself better. I was making progress. I managed to do the difficult personal work that took me from having 2 or more outbursts a week to having 1 or maybe 2 a month. I felt like I had arrived. Turns out I hadn’t. I felt like a new person. Turns out I wasn’t.

Now, fast forward with me past the shit-storm that was marital separation, dislocation from my children, loss of friendships, and divorce. Fast forward past new love and new marriage. Fast forward to that new love and marriage hitting the rocks amidst the backdrop of new children, job stress and my own depression. I was slipping fast back into anger as a coping mechanism, driving myself further into shame and depression and away from love, kindness, acceptance and patience.

I was sad, angry, depressed, and having suicidal thoughts pretty regularly. In that space, I was doing more than my part to ruin the marriage and limit my other relationships. After years of looking outside myself for answers, I decided to look back in and I didn’t like a lot of what I was seeing. Turns out 1 or 2 angry outbursts a month was more than enough to make me miserable and the people around me afraid. So I got to work again.

With a focus on dealing with my depression (and the role that disappointment and anger play in it), I started back into therapy, and headed down the track of what I can now identify as mindfulness training. Observing and noting what I’m thinking and feeling. Observing and noting patterns, and doing little things to change them for the better. Not “owning” my thoughts, etc.

Over the last few years I have managed to claw my way out of that depression, rebuild my self-confidence, and further reduce my reactivity across the board (including anger). Thanks to the hard work of therapy and especially through mindfulness meditation practice, I am now able to process my thoughts and emotions in a non-reactive fashion, and I can do this in extremely difficult or stressful environments. Anger no longer has a death grip on me. I am able to receive the emotion and let it go. I am able to see what’s beneath the anger and pain and bring healing to those parts of me that I wasn’t able to sit with before. I am in so many ways, a new person.

But I’m not.

This morning I popped off in reactive anger when something went wrong at work. I was harsh and unkind to one of my absolute favorite employees (ugh!). I have apologized sincerely, but there is not much else I can do other than commit myself again to the life I wish to lead. Commit myself again to love above all things.

I will never arrive, and the Work will never be finished until I am.

So it strikes me that, as much as I have changed, and continue to change, I will always make mistakes. I will never arrive, and the Work will never be finished until I am. For now, I will forgive myself and do my best not to pull the hoodie of unworthiness over my head. I will grieve the moment and continue on the path of peace, loving myself and others the best that I can, and always better.

4 Comments

  1. Brian Brian

    Not sure if you’ve ever read David Whyte’s “Consolations,” but there’s a piece in there about anger that I enjoy.

    It begins:

    “Anger is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for. What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when we are overwhelmed by its accompanying vulnerability, when it reaches the lost surface of our mind or our body’s incapacity to hold it, or when it touches the limits of our understanding. What we name as anger is actually only the incoherent physical incapacity to sustain this deep form of care in our outer daily life; the unwillingness to be large enough and generous enough to hold what we love helplessly in our bodies or our mind with the clarity and breadth of our whole being.”

    Anyway, I enjoyed (and relate very much to) your piece as well.

    • Ben Ben

      Thank you for commenting, Brian. I love this part of what you quoted:

      “the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.”

      Will check that book out for sure.

  2. Lisa Pike Lisa Pike

    This is so true….and humbling. Thanks for sharing Ben.

  3. […] few months back, I wrote about anger, and my journey with it over the years. My friend Brian replied in the comments, suggesting I pick up a book called “Consolations, […]

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