Oh, dear. After I finagled my way into the ICU, I found my sweet, eighty-seven year old friend lying in bed with a bruised and swollen face, stitches in her forehead, wired to flashing and beeping monitors, and in tears as she told me her story.
“I was walking my terrier when another dog came by. He started barking and straining against his leash and I couldn’t hold him. Finally he made a powerful lunge toward the other dog and pulled me right down on the pavement. I guess I blacked out because when I opened my eyes, neighbors were standing over me calling 9-1-1.”
My friend eventually healed but her story came to mind last week when a highly distressed man facing divorce was asking me for spiritual direction.
“Rose, I want to reconcile with her if at all possible. I don’t want a divorce! But I also realize how angry I am at her for leaving us. I’m furious! She wants us to just be friends. Friends? Really? She’s hurting our kids! I’m not sure if I can forgive her! What should I tell her? Will she listen? I’m losing control. How do I handle all these emotions?”
So I told him the story of the terrible terrier.
Like beloved pets, our emotions belong to us but we need to master them. They can sit in front of the fireplace and nap, frisk playfully around the yard, or even purr in contentment. But other times our emotions can bark at others, snap at their heels, and even attack when scared or angry. In those times our intellect and will often need to keep our emotions on a short leash. In high stress situations some of us may even need a muzzle or, God forbid, a shock collar. We can’t keep emotions locked up in a dark dungeon, but they must stay under our control. We shouldn’t neglect, stuff, or deny emotions, either, but we also shouldn’t indulge them or cater to their every demand.
My neighbor, Karen, is a good example for us all. She keeps her dog, Barney, under control by making sure:
He knows who is boss.
We can remind ourselves in times of great emotional upheaval that we are in charge even if we don’t feel like it at the moment. Self control is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Pray for it and practice it. Seek forgiveness when you lose it.
He never gets too tired, stressed, or nervous.
The old Weight Watchers motto to help people from binging was “HALT! Never get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.” Those states predispose us to losing control mentally, emotionally, and physically. Karen knows her pet’s unique signals; we need to stay in touch with what is bothering us, too. Maybe we just need a nap!
She doesn’t take him places where it will be almost impossible for him to go nuts.
Call it “avoiding the near occasion of sin.” Don’t go places or be with people when high emotions can be triggered. If you do, bring that “leash” which are mechanisms for helping you rein it in. Walk away. Hang up. Say nothing. You don’t have to attend every argument to which you are invited! Just stay home.
She checks regularly for underlying health problems that need fixing.
When people attack, they are afraid or in pain. Others stuff their fears or resentments into a deep, dark place where cancerous tumors grow. Take your interior life’s temperature. Check your emotional pulse. Examine your conscience. Be honest. Uncover the root of your dark or raging emotions, get to confession, and get help if necessary.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1767) affirms that “In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they engage reason and will.” So what will the man holding the leash do with his feelings? Emotions can be taken up into the virtues or perverted by the vices. With God’s grace, some skills, and practice, it’s up to us.
Be like Karen. Then you’ll be mastering your emotions with assurance, and even joy, by “Putting Your RELIGION into your RELATIONSHIPS.”