“A vexation arises, and our expressions of impatience hinder others from taking it patiently.
Disappointment, ailment, or even weather depresses us; and our look or tone of depression hinders others from maintaining a cheerful and thankful spirit. We say an unkind thing, and another is hindered in learning the holy lesson of charity that thinketh no evil. We say a provoking thing, and our sister or brother is hindered in that day’s effort to be meek. How sadly, too, we may hinder without word or act! For wrong feeling is more infectious than wrong doing; especially the various phases of ill temper – gloominess, touchiness, discontent, irritability – do we not know how catching these are?” ~Frances Ridley Havergal
I remember how, as an adolescent and twenty-something, so often I would allow my shifting emotions full airing in front of family or friends without thought and without any workable strategies to recalibrate a bad mood. If I was gloomy, all I could see was my gloom. If I was irritable, watch out! You’d soon be sensing my irritation from my tight jaw and dismissive body language. Although I wish I could say that, with maturity, I have fully mastered my emotions and never spread a bad mood, that of course wouldn’t be truthful. I am grateful, however, to have learned to be more aware of negative moods and to metabolize them through a consistent, honest, and humbling process. These days, I am more inclined to leave other people out of harm’s way as much as possible. When I’m feeling down, I no longer want you to feel just as miserable as I do. And I no longer want to stay in a low mood or in a place of anger. I have been learning to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14).
We have a tendency to behave as though secondhand moods are not harmful to the people we interact with and that it is only when we actively wrong those people that we need to reproach ourselves. Sure, I’m sharing my bad experience with you for your sympathy or validation, but I’m not subjecting you to the experience. I’m not the perpetrator. I’m just the messenger. “Don’t shoot the messenger!” It is easy to forget that even sharing secondhand stress, secondhand slights and aggravations can disrupt the peace of those listening to our woes. Of course that does not mean we should never share openly and honestly about what we are going through. But it does tell me that I should be thoughtful, intentional, and selective when I share my negative thoughts and experiences. Sometimes a good friend or family member really can help to be part of a solution or can provide very necessary support and perspective. It is a matter of practicing awareness and intentionality in deciding when, what, and with whom it is necessary and helpful to share a challenging situation. Unsuspecting coworkers, friends, and family members don’t need to feel my ever-changing moods secondhand. When I do need perspective or some kind of legitimate support, I can choose with whom to share a difficulty with the goal of arriving at a solution or some kind of peaceful resolution within myself or without. More often these days I take it to God and find that is enough.
Daily I discover that one step towards living a life of transcendence, a life that transcends daily frustration, slights, and disappointments, is to get beyond myself and to consider how my moods and reactions impact others. As I write this, I feel as though I am setting myself up for a good friend and reader of this piece to notice how unsuccessfully I combat a low mood sometime in the near future. Nevertheless, my goal in this endeavor is “progress, not perfection.” I do not claim mastery of this new mode of being, only growth.
Would you like to make progress in this step towards transcendence in your own life? It is empowering to realize that we can pause and choose our responses. It is also a source of self confidence to recognize that we do not have to drag others down with passing unpleasant moods and thoughts. We can leave another’s sky unclouded. More often than not, there is no need to bring the storm cloud to their fair day. Usually, the more we talk over an aggravation, the larger it grows. The more we feed the fury or the dismal perspective, the worse it becomes. Perhaps this week you can join me in thinking carefully and intentionally about what you will share and to whom and why. If the person is part of the solution or can offer a wise and grounding perspective, the next right thing might to be share our suffering. If we want only to vent and receive commiseration, we might find we feel better about ourselves if we resist this temptation and turn to a power greater than ourselves to cope with the situation instead. Are you with me?