Billy’s Legendary Anger
*Billy’s Dad ditched him and his mother before Billy could walk. As his mother churned through a string of nasty boyfriends and three smoldering step-fathers, Billy’s anger was set to boil in record time. Arrested twice for assault before his 18th birthday, Billy was headed straight out of the high life on a one-way ticket to prison or the grave. Only his mother and a few close friends knew the truth about Billy: he was actually a good kid with a big heart. Fact was, his heart had been shattered by life and like most men, emotions didn’t come cheap and he did everything he could to avoid them. Anger was the one he landed on to express the frustration, rage and sadness that roiled inside him from all the crap he’d seen, felt and done. When Billy did talk, his anger spilled over like a mud slide, destroying everyone and everything in its path. More than once he’d put his father’s old gun to his head, fully intending to pull the trigger. His mother never knew he’d kept it, tucked beneath his mattress, for just such an occasion when he felt his life dead ended into a black abyss, one he didn’t know how to get out of.
Thankfully, Billy met a young man during one of his juvenile stints that would serve to turn him around, though David was an unlikely suspect to turn anyone around. Also an orphan, David had fended for himself on the streets since age 15, did his share of turning tricks and burying himself in liquid magic from a dirty needle. David would later muse that he had absolutely no explanation for how he’d avoided Hep B, Hep C or AIDS. David tells the story of a simple conversation with a total stranger, a small kindness really, that rocked him on his heels and opened the door for his own journey back from hell. He won’t tell you all the details, but what he will say is that the man “hired” him for the evening, fed him a hot meal, spent hours telling him stories of tragedy and triumph and the madness of war, never laying a hand on him and sending him home with $200 in his pocket and the name of a woman who could provide him shelter in exchange for work. David never saw the man again. As he tells the story, his eyes mist in the light of the fire and he muses as to whether he was a man at all. When asked what had been so special about him, David replied, “I can’t say, really. It sounds so stupid but when he looked at me, I knew he saw who I could be, not who I was. He treated me like the person I wanted to be, but had lost hope that I would ever become.”
It took time for David to get on his feet. Ms. Marshall, as promised by the stranger, took him in and gave him food and shelter in exchange for work. She went to AA and NA meetings with him, supporting him as he kicked his habits. He eventually got his GED and started working construction. As he turned his own life around, he began looking for boys like himself. Boys he could mentor through simple acceptance and hope. Boys like Billy. It was through David that I would meet Billy.
“David understood my anger,” said Billy. “He didn’t look down on me. He taught me that anger was nothing more than my body’s way of saying something was wrong, out of kilter.” Billy looked down, uncomfortable, needing time to gather his thoughts. His wore his youth on his face, while his eyes held the weight of a million years.
“It made such a difference. Eventually, I stopped reacting to my anger and just started trying to figure out why I was so angry and then worked on that. For so long, it had all just been a pot that boiled over. But I started watching myself, you know? Pretty soon, I was able to figure out when I was right to be angry and what I should do about it or when something just punched my ticket and I needed to work on calming down rather than doing something I’d regret.”
Knowing Billy’s mother had said this much and more to him on many occasions, I asked what made him hear it with David. He thought about this, kneading his hands.
“David had it rough, too, you know. But if he can come back from that, well I figured so can I.”
“I still have my bad days, but I just keep to myself and listen to music or workout. Pretty soon, I’m okay again. David taught me to keep track of my ‘wins’ so I put a chart up on the wall. It’s simple. Nothing fancy. I just list out a few goals and check ’em off on the days I make it.” He smiled sheepishly.
I asked him what he noticed most from his chart. Looking down at his feet, then glancing up at me with a sly grin, he said, “Funny thing is that I found out I win more than I lose.”
The look in his eyes was priceless. It was the look of pride.
We Win More Than We Lose
What a mouthful. This is exactly why we must track progress. Most people totally lose sight of the fact that we often win more than we lose. But you won’t notice this unless you track it. It doesn’t have to be elaborate – it can be a hand made chart on the wall and tic marks across the page.
It is also priceless to see that simple kindness, acceptance and encouragement from another person can help us change our perceptions of what we consider to be our fatal flaws – perceptions that drive us right of the cliff into oblivion and endless suffering. In a pay-it-forward kind of way, through the eyes of a stranger, David saw what he could be and moved toward that image. It turn, through the eyes of David, Billy saw that same frame of hope. He learned how to see his anger as communication, rather than a character flaw. This subtle shift in perception, meant gigantic internal shifts that flung wide the door of possibility, though Billy still had to choose to walk through it.
Negative Themes are Rooted in Survival
Have you ever noticed in your own life that it is so much easier to pay attention to negative life events than it is to pay attention to positive ones? Lest you think yourself too much of a Negative Nellie, first realize that this basic tendency is true for everyone because it is rooted in survival. After all, happiness is not typically life-threatening. Most of the time, anyway (wink, wink). Thus, at our core, we are much more likely to orient to possible negative or threatening events and be more dismissive of positive ones. This tendency can be further strengthened by habitually focusing on and rehearsing painful life events through constant complaining, bitterness, excessive anger, adopting a victim stance or harboring an unforgiving attitude.
In reality, we must attend to threatening events to some degree to ensure our safety. Past this initial attention and evaluation, however, mental fitness skills can help a great deal toward rapid recovery and optimal functioning by habitually focusing us on the experiential benefits of each situation, even the most egregious ones. Every event we face has the potential to enlarge our capacity for adversity and to bring clarity and insight, once we pull off the pain of it. Just as David and Billy learned, hardship is the best teacher we will ever have. This means that re-interpreting negative events gives us the opportunity to mine gold out of negative circumstances. This is what we refer to as a mental fitness skill. You learn a specific skill that enhances positive mental, emotional and social adjustment.
Another mental fitness skill for making positive changes and weathering hardship is to set and track very specific goals related to the changes you wish to make. Just as we naturally pay attention to negative events, we can train ourselves to naturally re-interpret negative events as positive in a meaningful way, then track and appreciate other positive events, such as accomplishing specific goals that enhance our mental fitness for everyday living. Set specific goals, track them with an event log or through journaling and deliberately celebrate successes, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant. After all, one step at a time climbs the mountain so long as we don’t quit or turn back.
*Fictitious names and details inserted to protect identity.