At Our Worst

by Paul Johnson, LMFT, LPC, NCC
(Originally printed in 280 Living, Birmingham, AL, October 2010)

I believe it was once said by Charles Schulz, the author of Peanuts (Charlie Brown), “Halloween is the most Christian of holidays. When else can a person dress up as the absolute worst of creation, and get something good for free. That is a picture of grace at its best.” When we are at our worst is when we need grace the most; and it seems we are in need of a lot of grace these days.

In our house, grace looks a lot like patience, at least in a practical sense. It becomes the ability to slow down and tolerate a situation for longer than is normally expected. We have a new baby in our household (third son), and there is a lot not getting done around the house due to the demands of the new baby, and the ramped-up demands of the older siblings (ah, transitional times—so much fun); a general fatigue from lack of sleep hovers over everyone. There is just not a lot of leftover time and energy for normal household chores: mowing, vacuuming, dusting, mopping, washing. When small things go a long time getting done, my tolerance level gets a little thin as my comfort zone gets intruded upon. I get a bit emotionally uncomfortable, and when I get uncomfortable, I tend to get a bit cranky (my wife would say, “just a bit?”). Grace and patience is needed in our home — especially in me, especially toward my wife, especially toward my children, or anyone who happens to enter the premises (“welcome to our home; I insist that you be handy with a broom!”). I know I am a lot thin in the grace and patience department when my son’s soccer shoe gets the best of me and is the initiator of an adult temper tantrum (yes, I said a soccer shoe — ridiculous, I know).

In those moments, I need to breathe. Breathing is a great purveyor of peace, and peace is THE great purveyor of patience (purvey — to supply; thus, purveyor: one who supplies…); just a moment of breathing and then a slow walk around the back yard.

Deep, slow breathing is a major weapon against emotional discomfort; so are walks. Honestly, anxiety is the real culprit here. Anxiety is a state of agitation or apprehension that results in increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, weakness, and internal discomfort. Anxiety arises for specific reasons, but especially in the presence of things not done or something else that causes pain or discomfort. Because such an experience is usually undesired, we humans tend to chase peace and tranquility at all costs in the presence of anxiety (a major contributor to our addictive behaviors). And when we do that, we literally turn into little monsters, or big monsters, worthy of being advertised as its own costume for Halloween (“trick or treat”; “oh, and who are you, sir?”; “myself, in a highly anxious state”; “oh my, that is scary; no trick for you, only a treat; eat for comfort and have a nice night…” — if we could package comfort food, like mashed potatoes, into a treat bag, the merrier the anxious adult might be).

Problem is, when one of us encounters someone who is emotionally uncomfortable, we tend to try to power them down, to finesse them into a calmer state through such helpful responses as, “Calm down, dag-nab-it”, “Ease up, will ya?”, or my personal favorite, “You just need to chill!” These jewels of advice actually have the opposite effect of making the emotionally uncomfortable person more of a monster; because now they feel they are disappointing someone, which heightens the discomfort.

So here is the best route or course of action: peace, then patience. Help the uncomfortable person to back away from the cliff by lending a sympathetic ear, hear them out, and simply echo the worry or concern back to them. Do not try to fix the problem, rather address the “problemee” by seeing what they see, agreeing that the problem exists, then affirming their ability to handle it (not fixing it for them). Peace and patience plus affirmation equals grace; it can turn any monster into a human again, and any trick into a treat.

To talk further about grace and extending grace, peace and patience in relationships, please consider LifePractical Counseling for your counseling or consultant needs. You may reach us at 205-807-6645, or contact us via our website at Paul Johnson is a professionally licensed marriage and family therapist and professionally licensed counselor in the state of Alabama. And no, he is not looking forward to the sugar-high his kids will experience amidst the extravaganza of candy, but hopefully grace will abound.