How is it that so many of us are short tempered and have little patience with those around us? I know that I am terribly guilty of this very often, and though I try to be a frequently praying person, this bugbear of mine doesn’t seem to get less airtime in my daily life. Perhaps this is one of those things, like St Paul and his ‘thorn in the side’, which he prayed three times for it to be taken away, but the Lord said “my grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:8-10).
We see this short temperedness being displayed in just about everywhere we turn. It occurs on buses, on trains, in the airports, in cars, in the office, in the church car parks (especially after Sunday Eucharist, apparently), and in the home. It takes the will of a giant to control this leviathan inside of us, and though it may be chained up and locked in a rather safe place inside of us most of the time, it can take a very small matter, a careless word, an unplanned reactive gesture, or an unexpected sound to ‘release the Kraken’ as Zeus would say (not that we believe in the existence of Zeus, but Greek mythology is charming to a fault).
Why is this so? Why is this beast within something that we struggle with and fail to overcome so very often?
While I don’t pretend to have any comprehensive answer to this perennial question that plagues so many of us (including the mystics), I have a small insight to share. I think it has very much to do with the false belief that we will live forever. Let me elucidate.
When we know that we are in a place for a limited time, or seeing people for a short time and do not have the pleasure to prolong our encounter with one another, we seem to be able to put our ‘best face forward’. But it is when we think that we have such a long time to be with one another, or when we mistakenly think that what needs to be said or done can be infinitely postponed and placed in the proverbial back-burner, that we take others for granted. When we do that, we procrastinate in becoming who we should be – loving, kind and generous children of God. In my ministering to couples who have lost their spouses, a common lament is that they ‘should have said this, or should have done this’ while they had the opportunity. When I ask them what held them back from doing this when they had the time, the answer is often one of “I thought we had more time together”.
Could this then be the real reason behind a lot of our short-temperedness and unchecked anger? We think that we have oodles of time left on our life-timer, but what we don’t realize often is that the sand in this timer keeps shifting.
But I must put a caveat here. You may be thinking that I am saying that we should live under a cloud of darkened fear that because we may die tomorrow, we become overnight pessimists. This is not what I am advocating at all. What I am driving at is that if at our short-tempered moments, that we are able, with the grace of God of course, to pull ourselves away from the situation at hand and realize that we will not live forever, that we have very limited time on this side of eternity as compared to what awaits us at the other side of it, we can perhaps do as John Keating, the character played by Robin William in the movie The Dead Poets Society encouraged his students to do and carpe diem or ‘seize the day’.
What we will be able to ‘seize’ is that reality that our methods, our wills, our desires, and our designs are not the only ones that are legitimate and right. We will be able to seize also the truth that our point of view is just that – a view from a point, which means that there are other points to view the same situation before us. And more importantly, we will be able to grasp the reality that each of us is a fellow pilgrim on life’s journey to fulfill the will of God.
Perhaps this will wake us from our small-minded stupors and live our lives in a new way, as we begin to know, like St Paul, that God’s grace is indeed sufficient for us.