Spiritual Temper Tantrums
When I get really angry, I throw things.
Luckily, I have ridiculously bad aim. The tennis ball or pillow or marker goes sailing past the offending loved one, missing them by miles. I’ve never intend to hit anyone. And it only happens when my boiling blood clouds my vision and I get overwhelmed by the sense of being powerless to make my point of view heard. Still, this is not the disposition of a yogi or even that of a mature adult.
Early on, my family caught this behavior on video camera. My gap-teethed, seven-year-old self sits at a picnic table smudged with dirt and mustard. My dad’s disembodied voice talks to me from behind the lens as I get increasingly ticked off. You can hear the laugh in his voice. My tantrum is comical to all the adults but the humor only makes steam come out of my little ears. Then, the classic moment comes. The action that will go down in family lore. I pick up my baloney sandwich, which already has a big bite taken out of it, and chuck it at the camera with all my might. Mid-air, the sandwich separates into its different parts and lands in a series of ineffectual splats.
I’ve worked with kids long enough to know that we all have different ways of reacting to that sense of powerlessness. Some go limp and refuse to move. Some are runners who sprint away from any source of conflict. Some are criers and melt down. I’ve seen toddlers erupt in curses when a star-shaper block won’t fit in a square hole. As adults, we carry many of these early tactics with us. But instead of flailing and wailing at the grown-ups in our life, we throw temper tantrums directed at our circumstances – at God, or the Universes, or whatever divine being guides our lives.
Throughout the day, I try to meditate, pray, or make conversation. I wish I could say that these are beautiful, wise, and calm moments but, honestly, like a child, I can get cranky. I complain. I whine. I threaten. I bargain. I accuse. I do the emotional equivalent of flopping myself on the floor. I beg for things that even I know are bad for me. Some days, if the divine being became manifest in front of me, I’d probably chuck a juice box in his or her general direction. And, I have to say, it would probably be pretty satisfying in the moment.
Once, when I was a teenager volunteering at summer bible camp, the kids were learning about Jonah and the whale. The creative camp director turned an entire room into a belly of a whale big enough for the kids to crawl into. As I sat in the cool, dark dome made of paper bags, I couldn’t help but feel that this reenactment was making the wrong impression. I wanted to stay in that belly. The kids were quiet in there, almost lulled to sleep after a sweaty day of hyper activity. Sure, it might get boring after a while but the whale’s belly was safe. I could see why spiritual text are all full of people acting like toddlers and telling the spirit no.
For almost a decade, I said no. I didn’t want to talk about my life in the hospital. I wanted that chapter to be over. I wanted to be recognized for my talents and personality. I wanted to be free to create my own identity and live like a normal person. When the first email came from another person suffering with bone cancer, I said to God “Oh hell no, I am not going back to that place – not mentally, not physically, not even to help someone drowning in despair. I made it out and I am done. I’ll stay here in the whale’s belly, thank you very much.” And so I stayed – stuck and stubborn.
When I was a teen in treatment, I met a young nurse who served in the same ward where he had been treated as a pediatric cancer patient. I thought he was crazy. The oncology ward was the place I wanted to escape. I made a vow, that if I got out alive, I’d never look back. I’ve tried to keep that vow.
Recently, a friend posted the quote “what screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it is supposed to be.”
I pictured health and happiness as a world were the c-word was never uttered again. And any nudge in the direction of helping others threw me into a spiritual fit. Instead, I supported other causes and told other stories. Finally, I took a look at the star-shaped block in my hand and stopped swearing about how it wouldn’t fit in a square hole. I realized that the events in my past where not a detour from the path I was supposed to take. They were the path. Call it dharma or destiny, I had messages I need to share. And when I stopped throwing things, paused in my stream of nos, and took a breath, I was amazed by how easily opportunities slid into place. Already, I can feel the sand, the sun, the waves, and the realization that it was very lonely staying safe and stubborn in a stinky, dark whale’s gut.