Spring in Winnipeg these days looks an awful lot like winter, with high snowbanks that are melting too slowly and temperatures that are dipping way too far below zero. One day this week I was winding my way home down a snowy back lane when a truck needed to pass me. I pulled over. Snowbanks and rutted lanes made navigation tricky for the truck so I decided to back up a bit and then… BUMP! I hit a car I didn’t know was behind me ever so slightly.
I wasn’t even sure whether to get out, that’s how lightly our bumpers touched, but I got out anyways. It was the last thing I had wanted to do. What I wanted was a nap! The young driver got out his iPhone and took pictures of the very light scratches on his bumper and we exchanged particulars. I apologized and felt chagrined at my silly error. He was kind enough but as we parted he said, “Be careful.”
At first I felt defensive at his words of caution. I had barely done anything! But as I drove away, I realized his words were not out of place. An old high school teacher used to say to us students, “Let a word to the wise be sufficient.” I knew right aways that I had been driving home with feelings of anger after a tougher than usual day with the kids. Some days the role of “cop” (i.e. conflict solver) gets to all us teachers, and it can leave me a bit crusty around the edges. I had lost the “big” perspective of life, at least temporarily.
I could easily blame the students who tested my patience, but I also knew I had left the inner place of “emotional sobriety”. A few months ago our pastor Paul told me in passing how incredibly important it was for me to practice this.
Emotional sobriety is a concept important in alcoholism and other addictions recovery. It’s all about regulating the negative feelings that come up. For addicts, the purpose is to avoid discomfort, craving and ultimately relapse. At first, literal sobriety is the most pressing issue. Long-term emotional sobriety is a slow and steady battle not to let events and upsetting emotions throw one off kilter.
In recent decades, people of faith have realized the relevance of the rich tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous and the teachings of its founder Bill Wilson. I first learned about the 12 steps not because of a substance abuse problem, but as part of a meditation/study group in my church. That class so many years ago is still foundational for me.
I can’t imagine anyone alive who doesn’t have some type of problem that is addictive in nature. For me, I have this strange addiction to negative emotions. I’ve written about it before I’m sure, but in short, the addiction is something I call my “9-1-1 tendency” – a pull towards being alarmed and getting a charge out of drama. Like any drug, I suppose it gives a high but it is a false friend. All it took was one day of forgetting this week, and there I was driving home angry. I forgot to give it all to God, as I wrote about in last week’s blog.
To me, “giving it all to God” is another way of describing prayer, that mysterious word which is partly a verb and mostly just a state of being. It’s like cultivating an interior silence and relationship to God. Jesus practiced it all the time, despite the demands of his huge popularity with the crowds. In fact, the classic invitation of prayer comes from him: “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to the Father in secret…” (Matthew 6:6) [note: God is also our Mother].
It’s no coincidence that after writing about empty rooms last week, God reminded me again to go back to this inner room of prayer. It wasn’t wrong to have a tough day or have feelings of frustration. What was wrong was to think I had to carry it all on my shoulders or in my heart.
My little accident (and thank God it was so tiny) came with a word of caution from God this week. God’s messenger came disguised taking pictures with an iPhone and, as God always does, spoke in a short sentence. “Be careful.” “Lydie, don’t let that small stuff settle in your soul. Like barnacles growing on an ocean vessel, it’ll clutter up your heart.”
After swallowing my pride, I took a breath, took that nap before supper, and thanked God for the wake up call.