“To bless means to say good things. We have to bless one another constantly. Parents need to bless their children, children their parents, husbands their wives, wives their husbands, friends their friends. In our society, so full of curses, we must fill each place we enter with our blessings.”
Usually, my wife is the recipient of my teenage son’s recommended reading list. So, a couple of weeks ago, when he handed me a book and said, “You’ve got to read this,” I didn’t ask any questions. I just started reading.
One-hundred and forty pages later, I came to this scene:
A Native American elder is standing in an icy-cold lake with a delinquent youth—a kid so consumed with rage that he is destroying his life and the lives of many others. Though the kid has tried to control his anger, he has had little success. The elder hands the boy a stick and tells him the left side of the stick represents his anger and the right side represents his happiness. Then, he instructs the boy to break off the left end of the stick. The boy does so, and the elder points out that the stick still has a left end. He instructs the boy to break it off again. And, once again, the elder points out the stick still has a left end.
The book reminded me of three essential lessons I’ve learned about anger and resentment during my last two decades as a psychologist and my last four decades as a human being:
- Anger cannot be erased completely. You can’t rid yourself of anger—or any unpleasant feeling, for that matter—by trying to get rid of it. And if you try, you will destroy any chance of happiness in the process. Every moment spent trying to erase anger is a moment of potential joy wasted. Instead, we must allow both our anger and our joy to co-exist. Then, we can choose which one to cultivate. We can choose which end of the stick to sharpen.
- Anger isn’t always a bad thing. It has some truths to teach us. For instance, sometimes our anger is telling us we are worthier than we’ve been treated. Sometimes, it’s telling us we need to set healthier boundaries. Sometimes, anger is telling us that the world is really broken and the things that make us angriest are probably the things we’re here to do something about.
- The real problem isn’t anger; the real problem is what anger gives rise to in us. If we focus exclusively on expressing our anger, we cultivate resentment, and resentment only gives rise to more anger. But if we focus instead on feeling our anger—experiencing all of it rather than acting out some of it—then we become aware of the fear, sadness, and grief beneath it. And these don’t give rise to more anger; they give rise to healing and forgiveness and redemption.
I suspect Aidan gave the book to me, rather than his mom, because he watched me have a very rough summer. Struggling to balance my work with the demands of caring for my kids, I gradually sharpened the left edge of my stick. And I knew I was doing it. So, I tried all sorts of tricks to get my anger and resentment under control. Prayer. Meditation. Writing. A gratitude journal. I tried to break my anger off in countless ways.
To no avail.
But after reading the book, I quit trying to eliminate my anger and, instead, I remembered the wisdom of Henri Nouwen:
In every moment, we have a choice between being a blessing or a curse.
After reading Aidan’s book, I decided to simplify my days and my heart a little bit. I decided I would try to focus on being a blessing to those around me, rather than cursing them with my resentment. I’d let the people I love know about the good things I see at the center of them. I’d even watch for the good heart underneath their bad habits, and if I spoke about anything, I’d speak about that heart.
When we simplify life like this, a simple beauty emerges.
Our sense of powerlessness evaporates and we are flooded with the power to choose. Our sense of scarcity goes into hibernation, and our sense of abundance awakens. Our loneliness dwindles and our experience of being connected to everyone and everything multiplies. As we focus on becoming a blessing, a funny thing starts to happen: we begin to feel more blessed.
What if every moment is an opportunity to receive a blessing, by becoming one?
What if this week, in each and every moment, we asked ourselves one simple question: “Which end of the stick do I want to give this moment to? Do I want to fill this place with a curse or a blessing?”
It’s the simplest, most powerful choice you will ever make.
Indeed, it has the power to change everything.
One blessed moment at a time.
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