Your mother was right: Count to ten

ImageI have never had another profession as an adult other than parish minister.  Sure, one summer I worked the snack bar at the pool, then I was a lifeguard and swimteam coach, and I worked at psychiatric hospitals, but as a card-carrying, graduate-degree professional, it’s been ministry.  With people.  In church.  Where tempers can flare just like they do in the “real world,” and that includes the pastor’s temper.  Nope, they do not issue “off” switches for red hot anger with your seminary degree or your ordination, which is a shame.  So yeah, our anger issues are just like yours; the best we can hope for is to minimize collateral damage and point to the oft-quoted passage of Jesus losing him temper in the Temple.  See?  We say.  Even Jesus got fed up with church folk.

So, no surprise when several years ago I’m sitting in a meeting with two leaders of the church, and the topic turns to my upcoming sabbatical – Yes, every 7 years our denomination strongly suggests we clergy take 3 months away.  They are probably worried about collateral damage from temper flares as well!  And one of the church leaders innocently remarks she’s been getting a lot of questions about this “sabbatical” thing.  And she then innocently says, “Maybe you should explain it so folk know what you’re  talking about.”  And right then, I could feel my heart start to race.  Because I had addressed the “whys,” and “hows,” and “whens” and “wheres” til I was blue in the face.  I had written newletter articles; preached sermons; answered individual questions; had meetings; talked with church leaders.  What more could I have possibly done?  Why wasn’t it enough?  (After more research on the brain, I now know why information isn’t always enough to sway people; but that’s another post.)

I knew I needed to walk out of the room or I was going to blow.  I took a brisk walk around the parking lot, then another, because I knew this very important fact about our brains:

Left unattended, the hormones and neurons and neuro-chemicals responsible for the sympathetic nervous system’s high alert of anger and rage will dissipate in a mere 90 seconds IF they are not stoked.  Of course, it’s the “left unattended” part that gets me, and I’m guessing you, every time.  How long does your anger last?  You know why it can last so long?  Because you’re so smart!  I know – But it is our very intelligence that keeps those angry thoughts churning which keep those fists clenching, jaw tightening, heart racing, adrenalin surging,.  Hmm.  Put it that way, anger sure doesn’t feel so good, does it.

Armed with that little tidbit of information – The 90 second rule, I tried to take deep breaths – To calm my panting breathing.  I walked fast, to use up some of the adrenalin coursing through my muscles.  I did my very best to be aware of my thoughts, which were something like:  What more do I need to do!  I have explained, I have answered questions, what is wrong with these people don’t they understand how 24/7 this job is to be kind and caring even when you’re irritable and frustrated but it’s your job to be pastoral and it can WEAR A PERSON OUT?  And on and on and on.  You know, the sort of thoughts that race through your mind, seemingly uncontrollably, when you’re angry.  But I knew if I just watched those thoughts race by, they would run out of steam really fast, as long as I didn’t give them any fuel, that is, any more ammunition of more angry thoughts.

Two laps around the parking lot, and I was better.  I went back to my office, explained I had left because if I had stayed I was going to share anger with people who didn’t deserve it, but now I was calmer.

So when your mom told you to count to ten, it’s because that folk wisdom was right:  Give yourself 90 seconds, and the chemical surge will pass, and you’ll be in your right mind again.  Well, we can hope.


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