Maybe like me you suffer from road rage. I say suffer because I don’t know anyone who gets in the car with the goal of becoming angry. Fortunately my case is relatively mild. Road rage is probably an overstatement but I am frequently miffed when I am driving. One of the goals of my work is empowering people to gain better control of their emotions, especially anger. I have facilitated numerous group and individual counseling sessions to try to encourage people along their goal of gaining control of difficult emotions. Every now and again I am reminded of just how difficult controlling anger can be.
One of the most universal provocations in our society is bad drivers. Nearly every day on the road we encounter circumstances that increase our stress and anger. I am grateful for these situations because they remind me of a very simple lesson. Often what we want to do the least, is what we need to do the most. The other day I was driving my normal route to work. As I rounded a curve I encountered a car that was parked so that it was blocking both the bike lane and part of my lane. I had to step on the brakes to avoid hitting the car. Fortunately traffic was light so I was able to switch into the other lane with no difficulty. Immediately I was angry. How inconsiderate of that driver! How irresponsible! Dangerous! Selfish! Before long I had turned a nameless, faceless driver into my arch nemesis.
I was reminded of just how difficult it can be to control emotions. I teach it on an almost daily basis and yet I am nearly unraveled by one crummy driver. I imagine what I would say to people I work with if they found themselves in the same situation. “Take a deep breath. Ask yourself if it is worth getting upset about…” I think this is generally good advice. The problem is that anger can feel really good. It can feel good to get indignant about all the bad drivers out there. When it comes to anger the last thing I want to do is take a deep breath and demonstrate patience or grace, which is exactly what is needed. This doesn’t just apply to anger. How about patience? It is easy to be patient when I am getting everything I want when I want it. The challenge comes when things are not going my way. How about forgiveness? It is easy to believe in forgiveness as a concept, especially when we haven’t been mistreated. The difficulty comes when we have been treated maliciously. The last thing I want to do in that case is forgive and yet it is what is most beneficial.
I haven’t found a magical potion for making the right thing the easy thing. I have found that we can get better with practice. Maybe we can’t snap our fingers and snuff out our anger but perhaps we can take 2 minutes to get over it instead of 5. Maybe I can’t demonstrate the patience of Gandhi but perhaps I can be a bit more patient today then I was yesterday. Maybe I am not ready to forgive today but maybe I will be tomorrow. What is most necessary is often the last thing we want to do. Everyday is an opportunity to bring the right thing a bit closer to becoming the easy thing.
The bright blue of a warm July day yielded to red and orange, which had patiently been awaiting their turn to color the sky. I walked down to the dock where a canoe was bobbing in the gentle waters. It was getting a bit chilly but I had my sweatshirt, a lifejacket and the eagerness that occasionally comes to city dwellers when they embark on an outdoor adventure. The plan was to spend an hour or so cruising along the shoreline, discovering, exploring, thinking and relaxing. Nature does funny things to plans. I haven’t had much experience with canoes but I am fairly coordinated and have good enough balance so I wasn’t terribly concerned when the wind picked up.
I pushed off from the dock with my paddle and began my journey. It wasn’t long before I realized that my plan of a peaceful, solitary canoe ride would feel more like I was competing for a gold medal in Olympic rowing. The difference was for me the finish line didn’t represent a gold medal, it meant that I would be able to see my friends again!
Evidently I have dramatic thoughts when floating away from shore, wondering if I have the strength to make it back. I immediately knew that my voyage would need to be abandoned as the winds began howling and the dock shrank. I began to turn the canoe around but the wind kept catching the side and returning the canoe to its original position. The harder I tried the more exhausted I became. I really could have used a break but rivers don’t believe in breaks, and rest is not something they offer those who traverse them, unless your destination is downstream. Mine wasn’t. I wouldn’t say I panicked but I did have a rush of adrenaline mixed with accelerated thinking as I began considering my options. Yell for help? Maybe. Try again but paddle harder this time? Not a chance. Run aground and walk the canoe back? Shoreline too steep, nowhere to walk. Clearly this bout would be won by the river unless I changed my tactics. Rather than fight the wind and the current at full strength, I decided to try to paddle backward. I would still be fighting both, but the angle of the canoe would lessen their impact.
I began making progress. Encouraged by the momentum, I began paddling harder. With each stroke I imagined the thrill of feeling the dock beneath my feet. I might see my friends again after all! I began moving fairly quickly and was nearly jolted out of my seat when my canoe hit the dock…the neighbor’s dock. After 20 additional yards of paddling I reached the dock at my friend’s cabin. Grateful, I tied the canoe to the dock and went back to the cabin where my friends were getting ready for a board game. The entire adventure had taken less time than it took me to write this account. “Wow you’re back soon” they said. I thought about telling them how I was almost swept to sea and how grateful I was to see them and how grateful they should be to see me. I discovered that tales of valor on the high seas don’t feel as significant on land. So I just smiled and said “Yeah.”
Circumstances can change quickly, turning a peaceful adventure into a struggle to get home. I appreciate the metaphor of the anchor because it can symbolize two very different experiences. For example, when I think of an anchor I think of stability in rough waters. Sometimes the waves are higher than they appeared from shore. In my situation I felt that I couldn’t do justice to my experience if I tried to tell my friends about it. Maybe you are in dangerous waters and no one else knows. Maybe you have been anchored by friends, family or God. In these cases and others, an anchor can be a great thing. In other cases our anchors really prevent us from going where we would like to be. Maybe you would like to explore the open waters, but your anchor, an addiction, unhealthy relationship, fear or any number of other things, keeps you from going where you want to go and being who you want to be. In these cases imagining what life would be like if you could lose the anchor is a worthwhile consideration. To what are you anchored? Do you need to lower or raise your anchor?
My brief journey on the water was a reminder of how powerful nature and circumstances can be. Anchors weigh us down. Whether that is good or bad depends a lot on where we are and where we want to be.