Keeping one’s Temper: Ten Survival Tactics

I nearly wrote, ‘keeping your cool’ rather than ‘keeping one’s temper’, but I’m in no mood for complaints about use of the colloquial phrase. You see, whether it’s keeping my cool or one’s temper, I’m having difficulty — and I can’t blame it all on the chemotherapy or the latest brown envelope through the door!

This is the time of year when every active member of the Church goes into overdrive: the clergy are busy, busy, busy; the musicians are busy, busy, busy; and as for those helpfully labelled ‘volunteers’, they are beavering away at their respective tasks with never a minute to spare. Even the brasswork would welcome a respite from the cleaning and polishing it’s enduring. We are preparing for the great week of the year, Holy Week, and tempers are on a tight rein, without our being fully aware of it. We try, we certainly try. We bite back the words when someone comes to us with another idiotic request or impossible demand; we post what we hope are humorous notices pleading for understanding and patience (a dangerous tactic, if I may say so: humour is as individual as the writer); we scold ourselves every time we are less than gracious, but somehow the strained smile, the slightly sarcastic turn of phrase or even the full-blown row over minor details gives the game away.

In the monastery we read Cassian on anger, or Evagrius on the passions, and try to work away at the sources of our impatience or ill-temper, but that is a life-long task. What we need is an arsenal of tried and tested techniques to apply right now. Here are ten suggestions. None is infallible, and a psychologist would probably disagree with some, but I’m writing for the man or woman in the pew or monastic stall (myself, in other words). If only I were better at heeding my own advice!

Ten Survival Tactics for Holy Week

  1. Pray before going anywhere you’ll meet anyone else — especially unexpectedly.
  2. Pray before switching on the computer, reading your emails or listening to your voicemails. Pray again before replying.
  3. Tell yourself that no one ever reads notices. (No one does, except the writer — trust me, I’ve been responsible for hundreds in my time.)
  4.  When confronted with criticism (always unjustified, or it wouldn’t be getting under your skin), breathe a couple of times before trying the mildest possible reply, which should, ideally, be a play for more time. A non-committal ‘um’, as though coming back to earth from another planet can be a useful ploy, especially if you can turn a benevolent gaze on your interlocutor, as though to say, ‘What would we do without you? Bless you!’
  5. When confronted with an unreasonable request, if you are NOT a monk or nun, try the reasonable and non-commitally enthusiastic apprroach, e.g. ‘I’d love to discuss the baptism of your son/your daughter’s wedding, such a great sacrament, but I haven’t got my Easter diary with me just now. Can we get back to this after the 24 April?’ or ‘No, Father, I don’t think we can move those flowers again: the vases are giving way, and we don’t want a Red Sea flood at the Vigil, do we? Perhaps the choir would like the procession to go the other way, then they could sing the whole chant without having to omit that verse they’ve worked so hard on’. If you are a monk or nun, I’m sorry but it’s RB 68 for you and St Benedict on doing the impossible, i.e. no way out.
  6. If you do have a falling-out, choose your moment for making peace carefully, and don’t start justifying your own actions. An apology isn’t meant to be an opportunity for going over the original grievance again. Even if you were right all along, as of course you were, a little magnanimity will only reinforce your sense of heroic virtue.
  7. Never give in to the temptation to write angry little notes. The written word goes much deeper than the spoken, and that can be bad enough.
  8. Try never to let the sun go down on your anger; and remember that a rueful smile can be all that is needed to set matters right. We are all striving for the same end, after all.
  9. If you see your bête noire approaching, try to find ‘a natural way’ of absenting yourself. A word left unspoken usually doesn’t cause trouble, and even a moment or two in the fresh air or making a cup of tea can give you a little space in which to get a grip.
  10. If everything goes wrong and despite your best efforts you end up at odds with all and sundry, try the Little Flower Technique. Ask God to calm the disturbance because you can’t. Then comfort yourself with Benedict’s Balm — the remembrance that humility is the only way to grow in grace and favour with God, and the things that humble us are never things we ourselves would choose. Finally, thank God for allowing you to see how much you need a Saviour, and how richly your need has been fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ. That is what Holy Week is all about.
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