“Irises” by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Zundert 1853–1890 Auvers-sur-Oise) via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under CC0 1.0

A Leap in the Dark, Part 2: Calm

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence…
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others…
Whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
 — “Desiderata,” by Max Ehrmann

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a short fuse. I’m not proud of it and yet up until recently, I clung to the tendency somewhat defiantly — as if, through tolerating the vicissitudes of my life, I’d earned the right to spite. Maybe it was just my nature, too deeply rooted to ever reform.

Then my daughter, who’s nine, said something which stopped me in my tracks — and part of what arrested me was she couldn’t say it to me, for fear of my response. She told my husband she felt like sometimes I was a big bush, and she never knew what was going to come flying out.

Once I got past the funny visual (which was less amusing, the more I thought about myself as a large, thorny shrub capable of hiding nameless, indeterminate fears), I began to internalize her words and the feelings behind them. What did it say about the way I treated my daughter, if I had to hear her words relayed secondhand by my husband?

In that moment, I knew I must go to any lengths to change. My inability to control my temper was hurting me and the people I love most.

I dug back to the root of my short fuse, which wasn’t terribly difficult. I’d observed and learned at a young age to fear the expression of anger, and at the same time to respect its capacity for power.

Over the years I’d developed patterns. I’d try to keep my temper in check, but I’d resent holding back my true feelings. After keeping them bottled in, I’d explode, for otherwise insignificant reasons. From time to time, I’d also use my anger deliberately to intimidate others and get what I wanted.

However I expressed my temper, it always had a price: first, feeling out of control in the moment — which seemed heady, yet frightening. Then, the damage to my relationships. Finally, like a bitter aftertaste, came the guilt for hurting the people I was trying to control.

Often, when I was afraid my emotions might be destructive, I directed my resentment inward. Sometimes it came after I felt remorse for lashing out. Either way, the result was the same: self-loathing.

Back of tranquility lies conquered unhappiness. — David Grayson

My first concrete goal toward being calmer was to stop yelling at my kids. I tried a few different strategies to help me along the way — I spent some time participating in the Orange Rhino community, which is a great support system. I tried to be transparent with my kids about what I was doing, by committing to talk about problems or disagreements in a neutral tone.

The transparency approach had its limitations. It helped me be more accountable (“Mom, you’re yelling at me!”). However, my kids are smart and rather crafty about pushing the envelope (and my buttons) when they think they can get away with it. In some ways, it became even harder to not yell when I knew they were trying to work me.

Ultimately, what brought me closer to calm was establishing a consistent practice of self-care and mindfulness. This isn’t as woo-woo or intangible as it may sound; I’m nothing if not a pragmatist.

Here’s what it looks like for me. A monthly massage therapy appointment helps me manage stress and arthritis pain. Exercising three or four times a week keeps me fit and healthy, both physically and mentally. Giving myself a fifteen-minute buffer before appointments helps me be punctual without feeling rushed (which is a huge trigger for my yelling). Setting aside time alone at the beginning of each day to meditate, pray, and write gets me spiritually centered and connected.

I’ve learned I must put on my own oxygen mask first, so to speak.

Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inward peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset. Commend all to God, and then lie still and be at rest in His bosom. 
— St. Francis de Sales

Identifying my emotional landmarks and then reshaping my inner landscape has been a gradual process. Slow, but incredibly rewarding.

Over time, I’ve come to recognize when I lose my cool, it’s most often because one of two things has happened: I’ve neglected my self-care, or I’ve failed to set healthy boundaries. As a result, I’m pretty vigilant about maintaining them.

I’m learning to prioritize not just between bad and good uses of my time — but between good, better, and best. Saying no when something seems compromising gives me freedom to say yes when I feel good about it. If I miss a day or two of meditation (like I did last week when I had a cold), I consciously give myself amnesty and then jump right back in where I’m at.

Even an imperfect practice of mindfulness and self-care blesses me with the ability to stay calm in otherwise overwhelming situations.

For example: over the last year, my husband’s job has become increasingly stressful. Arrhythmia runs in his family on his mom’s side, but in the almost twenty-one years we’ve been married, my husband has never had problems with it.

Until this past week.

Four days ago, he started complaining about his heartbeat being irregular. “Do you need to go to the doctor?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.”

I know better than to push him, so I let it go. Then, last night as I was cooking dinner, he came into the kitchen and said, “I think I need to go to the emergency room. Now.”

In that instant, the serenity kicked in. We have a thirteen-year-old son who babysits, but this didn’t feel like the right time to leave my children alone to worry about their father, while I took him to the hospital. I said, “Would your dad be able to take you, so I can stay with the kids?”

Fifteen minutes later, my father-in-law picked up my husband and took him to the emergency room, while I stayed home and fed the kids dinner. I was able to talk in a calm way with my children about what was going on, stick with our regular bedtime routine, and have structure in an otherwise stressful situation.

The whole time, an oasis of peace stayed inside me, making it possible for me to remind myself that I didn’t need to panic until the results of the blood work, x-rays, and other tests came back — until I had something quantifiable to worry about.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. My husband returned less than two hours later, with the news he’d been experiencing nothing more serious than stress-related heart palpitations.

Apparently, he needs to learn how to cultivate his own inner calm.