By Rev. Dr. Sarah B. Drummond
“Hurting people hurt people.”
I repeat the mantra above whenever I’m trying to breathe through an outburst of anger on the part of a person who’s making me nervous. Angry people always make me nervous; always have, probably always will. Wondering what caused the hurt behind the acting-out keeps me calm, whereas my more natural train of thought — “Please don’t yell at me!” — makes me feel like a cowering child. My cowering inner child is always there in the background anyway. She needs no more airtime than she already gets.
Avoiding becoming the recipient of anger seems to be a prevalent leadership priority at this moment in the COVID-19 pandemic. The newspaper here in New Haven, Connecticut recently included an editorial exhorting readers to please not take out their anger on principals and teachers if they didn’t like the latest information they were getting about mask mandates in schools. That grownups need to be instructed not to blow up at those who are in the same uncertain mess as everyone else, and who don’t have power over the public health realities of COVID, seems to me incredibly sad.
Desire to deflect anger extends well beyond schools. The barbershop in my neighborhood has a sign on the door telling all who enter that they must wear a mask because it’s the law. “It’s not our idea, we promise!” the sign might as well say. “Get mad at someone — anyone — else.”
I have many flaws but taking out bad moods on other people isn’t one of them. I have never appreciated people who act grouchy, thinking doing so makes them seem deep and complicated.
I consider blowing up at the person to whom we have most convenient access to be self-indulgent. Relatedly, I’ve never liked it when people criticize my cheerfulness, suggesting it’s an act or some manipulative form of toxic positivity. Thank you very much, but I simply choose not to take out negativity on those who have nothing to do with it.
For instance, I don’t yell at people when they enact mandates that are either imposed upon them, too or are intended to keep the community safe. It’s a policy of mine, in other words, not to be a jackass.
Trust me: I am not cheerful all the time. I get frustrated when people don’t respond to questions whose answers are necessary for me to do my job, for instance. I refer to my irritation at non-responsiveness as “re-sentment.” As in, I resent having to re-send a message to someone whose job it is to respond to me so I can do my job. I get pretty irritable around the end of the semester, too, when compassion- and every other kind of fatigue has set in. I can tell I need the students to go away on break when I find myself fantasizing about shouting, “Solve your own %$#@$# problems, would ya?” So sometimes I have to give myself a break when theirs is far away.
What is a Christian leader’s responsibility to the overall mood of an institution? Is absorbing rage that comes their way simply part of the job? Are leaders required to act happy, even when angry people are treating them badly? You probably think I’m going to say no, of course not… but it’s not that simple. Christian leaders actually do have to model for others the kind of behavior that makes staying in-conversation and in-community possible.
Sometimes faking a positive attitude is the only way to keep people together, and keeping people together is something leaders need to do, more than they need to be liked, or to be right. Leaders are all being tested right now, and not just for COVID. The pandemic is testing how positive they can be, and stay, in their affect and comportment, even with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Imperviousness to angry outbursts has of late become a leadership charism of great value.
Many years ago, I worked with a Methodist minister whose congregation had a history of brutal, internal conflict among lay leaders. The only time those lay leaders seemed to agree with each other was when they found something about her ministry on which they could beat up. She said that when tempers began to flare in meetings, she focused on where her hips hit her chair. She would ground herself physically through awareness of where she was in space. Then, she would remember that sticks and stones could break her bones, but these people needed to get over themselves. So she’d smile. And she’d model how they ought to have been behaving. She modeled equanimity, and, somehow, others began to follow suit. Not through any logic, mind you, as their rage had never been logical. But because emotions are as contagious as viruses, people started to talk and listen to each other rather than react and rage.
When Jesus intervened on behalf of a woman about to be stoned to death, people around him were all hyped up on adrenaline, ready for bloodshed. As they yelled, Jesus doodled in the sand with a stick. When he looked up, his face said, “Are you done?” His mouth said, “Let any of you who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7)
Everyone is tired these days. Everyone is skirting burnout, ready to lose their cool upon hearing news of some new God-forsaken COVID variant. Those who are in leadership are naturally going to be tempted to craft their decisions around what will result in the least anger coming their way, but there is a better strategy: be whole. A whole person might not like to be yelled at, but they can smile through it, until the yelling one pauses to take a breath, and the community can move forward before they start up again. Their yelling posed no existential threat to the whole leader.
How do we get to wholeness? The same way we get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.
Feel your hips, and where they touch the chair, and remember that you are wholly beloved by God, no matter what other people think.
Doodle in the sand rather than engaging those who are angry at you, but not really angry at you.
Remember your calling. Remember your mission. Remember your baptism.
Rev. Dr. Sarah B. Drummond is founding dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.
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