Apparently writing on Sundays is not so easy. I came home last night, exhausted from a long and full weekend away, to a pile of clean but unfolded laundry, a book I was anxious to finish and a very welcoming bed. Writing was the last thing on my mind. C’est la vie.
I regularly get emails from Inward/Outward, a blog that examines the relationship between our inward selves and our outward relationships through the writings of spiritualists, mystics, saints and poets. Each day a new quote arrives in my inbox, sometimes profound and intimately connected to my daily experience. Sometimes not. A few days ago, this piece arrived:
“Once a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.'”
“My messy house” says it all: with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out.
If that boy had been a novice in the fourth-century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human.” – Kathleen Norris
Doesn’t it make you think of the boy in Where the Wild Things Are?
Often enough I have been the one to rage and terrorize, but that’s not what I’m thinking about today. Being at L’arche, living in such a ‘shared life’ way, gives me lots of opportunities to bump up against the ‘monster’ in others. One question on my mind has been how can I stay grounded and centered, while another rages around me, or even at me? My natural inclination would be to rise up to the challenge and prove I can shout just as loud or be just as sarcastic. I could demand my way and exert my power over the other. But I know that I too would be left, sitting in my messy house, holding a bruised relationship, and saying to myself “I shouldn’t have done that.”
There’s a few things I think about in reflecting on this passage. First, on the use of power. I have lived in this house for two weeks. Both the other assistants and the core members have been here for much longer, some for more than my whole life. One of the founding core members of Sherman House moved in 27 years ago. It becomes a very delicate balance when society generally hands me the greater percentage of power in our relationship, despite the fact that he is older and has had significantly more experience in communal living. With another core member, I have quickly discovered that trying to ‘force’ my way is incredibly counter-productive when motivating someone to get out of bed. Even the softest tug of the hand or tap of the shoulder of someone who would rather stay in bed inevitably leads to a power struggle, one I am destined to lose until I am willing to sit down, try a new approach and ultimately resign myself to patiently waiting for her to be ready.
Secondly, I find myself wondering how I can accept, even honour the rage within the other person. Anger is a naturally occurring emotion. It’s the way in which that anger is released that can sometimes become problematic. When another person is angry, particularly if their anger is directed towards me, how can I respect their emotion and allow for the release of it, without becoming consumed myself? Too often my first reaction is to defend myself, thereby isolating the other person in their emotion and deafening myself to their story. Sometimes I have no clue where the source of emotion is coming from, sometimes I am unfairly made the target, sometimes the person is totally justified in their anger. If my first reaction is to defend myself, I limit my ability to discern the source of the anger, and become ineffective at helping the person find a healthy release. I end up only seeing the monster in the other, and fail to see the human.
In the end it comes back to that lesson we’ve all been told a thousand times – I cannot control another person’s actions, I can only control my response to them. I commit to staying grounded while another rages around me, to find the human within the anger, to honour their emotions and to try as best I can to learn (for myself and others) how to release anger in healthy ways. And I commit to taking the first step towards repairing bruised relationships when I find myself sitting in a messy house, saying to myself “I shouldn’t have done all that.”