Go in Your Closet and Cuss

Here’s another excerpt from an old journal (1998), with some advice I hope you won’t have to use during this holiday season.  If memory serves, the advice was inspired by a Glenn Hinson article on “Praying the Imprecatory Psalms”: the ones that ask God to smite our enemies and “break the teeth in their mouths” (Ps. 58:6).  Ouch!

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On Tuesday I talked with an 83-year-old woman whose children have decided she can no longer live by herself.  I think they are right, but that doesn’t make it any easier for her.  She came to my study to confess that she couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t stop feeling angry.  “I know I shouldn’t feel this way,” she mumbled. 

“We can’t choose how we feel,” I said.  “Choosing is a head thing.  Feeling is a heart thing.  The best we can do is identify our feelings.  Right now you’re angry, and that’s OK.  You have reason to be angry.  Your life is changing without your permission.”

“Still . . . ” she said, meekly, “I shouldn’t feel this way.”

So I wrote a prescription.  I took a slip of paper out of my desk drawer and wrote:  “It’s OK to be angry,” and then I handed it to her.  She looked at it, puzzled, and said, “But I always thought it was a sin to be angry.”  “No,” I said, emphatically.  “Paul says in Ephesians 4:26, ‘Be angry (there’s plenty to be angry about), and yet do not sin,’ that is, do not let your anger lead you to hurt or hate someone.  It’s one thing to throw a can of green beans across the kitchen in anger, it’s another thing to throw a can of green beans across the kitchen at your daughter” (the one who is asking her to move).

She smiled then.  She could see the difference.  I pushed it a little further:  “Go on home and be mad for awhile if you need to.  Rip up a newspaper.  Spit on the floor.  Go in your closet and cuss.”

They didn’t teach us this in seminary.  And it may not be the best counsel I’ve ever given.  But I couldn’t help feeling that this woman would never get to the point of acceptance if she didn’t first get through her anger, and you don’t get through it by repressing it or denying it (like pressure cookers we all need to let off some steam from time to time or we’ll blow—the trick is to let it off harmlessly, without scalding anyone in the process).

My dear, 83-year-old, friend sat for awhile thinking about what I had said, and then rose and shook my hand.  When she left my study she was smiling, looking forward (I think) to spending some time in her closet.

All in a day’s work,

Jim