As a kid growing up in Southern California, I’d pull out the little, red portable record player from under my bed and play one of my favorite records, Music Machine. This Christian record for kids had catchy songs about the fruits of the Holy Spirit. I can still remember all the words to songs about kindness, patience, and joy, but the song on self-control really struck a chord with me.
In the silly, faux-country-style song, a little boy sings about having a knot in his shoelace that won’t budge. He ends up getting so mad that he kicks the door and hurts himself. At 5 years old, I truly identified with this song. I had feelings I didn’t know what to do with. Sometimes the smallest thing, like having a knot in my shoelace or wanting the toy my sister was playing with, would unnerve me and send my emotions out sideways.
At 45 years old I still identify with the song and struggle with self-control. It is rarely in moments that really matter, like a big life event or trauma. More frequently, in the most simple and mundane situations my emotions will get the better of me. I’m embarrassed to give examples because I know how insignificant these “infractions” can be—my schedule derailed, my systems disorganized.
My lack of self-control manifests itself mostly as anger. I won’t listen, or before I hear all the information I’ll lash out in words and intensity. It can happen in a flash. When it does, I’m not much different than I was at 5. It’s not particularly “cute” anymore, especially when I see that one of my sons struggles with this too. I’ve passed this along to him through both nature and nurture, as he has seen me model this sin as a norm.
Anger has a way of taking over my body. My breathing becomes rapid or I might barely breathe at all. My shoulders, back, and neck tense until I am a knot of fury. I say words that hurt, bite, and slash. I say simple words with an intensity that sends shivers up the spine of those who hear them.
Toni Morrison once said, “Anger . . . It’s a paralyzing emotion. . . . You can’t get anything done. People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, and igniting feeling—I don’t think it’s any of that. It’s helpless. . . . It’s absence of control.”
This is true in my own life. My lack of self-control and anger walk hand in hand. It’s strange that you think anger will help you move forward and get things done. Instead, as Morrison pointed out, it is paralyzing. Anger is a lie, and it’s ugly.
Proverbs 25:28 says those who lack self-control are like a city whose walls are broken down. They are left defenseless. In the midst of my frustration and anger, I feel like I am defending myself but instead am defenseless. My lack of self-control hinders me from being a source of God’s grace to those around me and from experiencing God’s grace in my own life. I am left empty and purposeless.
St. James (1:19) says we should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” This is how we become the righteous people whom God desires. These are the instructions for how I should react and how I can live a more righteous life. It is almost as if St. James was the first to say, “Take a deep breath.” If I did so, I could listen and slow down.
St. Paul teaches us to do this too: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). St. Paul says this is how to live a peaceful, anxiety-free life.
I try to remember this when I am in the midst of my grown-up temper tantrums. Sometimes all it takes is a deep breath and to look around me for something or someone to grab onto, like something in nature or my children. Sometimes I need an image ready, one I can return to again and again to ground me. My most recent favorite is imagining Christ at the Sermon on the Mount.
And sometimes it is the lyrics to that simple children’s song on self-control. “Listen to my heart and do what is smart.” I heard this in my head and heart as I started to get caught up in the latest drama at my children’s school—drama I cannot change, but if I get caught up in it, it threatens to change me. I love that God knew I’d need this catchy little rhyme to carry with me all these years.
Today I sang the song to my 10-year-old son. He’d had a bad day and, in his own words, he hadn’t been his “best self.” He got frustrated at school and threw a tantrum that mirrored my own, but he’s just learning to control his emotions. I sang my song to him and shared my own tools for learning how to control my anger. He rolled his eyes, but I kept singing until he laughed. I know he heard me. I know it made a difference to know his own mother understands.
“Listen to my heart and do what is smart” will be my prayer in the moment, when frustration and anger rise within me. May I keep my focus on the Holy Spirit—and be shaped by God’s pure peace.
This article also appears in the May 2020 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 5, pages (43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.