The fruit of the Spirit is love,
joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness and self control.
The first responses I received when I told people about being diagnosed with cancer were usually responses of shock and compassion. I felt tenderness from most people. And I was soothed by that tenderness.
Within days, however, I wrote in my journal that I was feeling that somehow too many of the interactions I was experiencing about my cancer seemed “off.” People could not say the right thing or have the right tone. People didn’t call or send cards. Or they did. Either way, I might have some reaction. I even wrote in my prayer journal that I realized I was reacting negatively to other peoples’ expressions of sympathy. I didn’t like hearing or seeing their sympathy. Perhaps it made my cancer diagnosis too real. “Something is wrong with me,” I wrote.
I was emotionally raw. I was riding on emotional white water rapids. I was suddenly uncertain about many things I usually took for granted. And I was afraid.
When we are faced with a scary situation that continues for some time, we often become reactive. We cannot always talk ourselves out of this reactivity, but it is helpful if we at least know what is happening. Being aware that we are raw and reactive can help us to be more mindful and more prayerful about how we go about expressing our reactivity.
People who are recovering from addictions of various kinds are at risk of relapse. Some people believe that when a person is hungry, angry, lonely or tired they are at even greater risk of relapse. This can be remembered with the acronym, HALT. The idea is that a person will be less likely to relapse if they halt and pay attention to these basic concerns. People are reminded to get something to eat when they are hungry, to get some quality rest when they are tired, to make a phone call or go to a meeting when they are lonely, and to take responsibility for their feelings when they are angry.
I think this wisdom can be applied to our tendency to react when we are distressed or afraid. Not all of us will be tempted to pour ourselves a drink, but we might do something just as counter productive. We might tell people off, or withdraw from people who care about us.
Before we attack or withdraw, we do well to HALT. Then we need to take care of ourselves. We need to eat, rest and connect with someone who is supportive. We also need take responsibility for our reactions. We need to remember that we are raw and we need to remind ourselves that the people we are reacting to are people who care about us, even if they are not able to always express that care in ways that are helpful to us.
There were a few times I told myself to sleep on it, before I told someone how “hurt” I was. If the sleep didn’t calm my reactivity, I spent time asking God for wisdom. I asked God to show me whether this event was something I needed to let go of or whether it was something I needed to talk through with the other person. Only once or twice was there something that needed to be talked through. Mostly, I needed to ask for grace and comfort from God and let it go.
Many years before being diagnosed with cancer I went through a long period in which I felt emotionally raw while I came to terms with childhood trauma. I would, at times, be thrown back into the feelings which I had experienced as a child—but which I could not express at that time. During those times of wanting to do the equivalent of throwing temper tantrums, I came across a helpful piece of advice from Thomas Merton. Merton said that we do well to not inflict our suffering on others. It is wise advice. I do not want to inflict my suffering on others.
So, what to do? In addition to using HALT and praying for God’s comfort, grace and wisdom, I found it helpful to remember that self control is a gift of the Spirit. As we invite God’s Spirit to live in us, as we surrender our wills and our lives to God’s care, the life of the Spirit begins to flow through us more freely.
This requires us to practice the basic disciplines that help us with reactivity to any life event. Stay grounded. Keep breathing. Feel what we feel. Pray. Practice surrender. Set aside extra time each day to be quiet in order to practice these basics. In this way we are often able to receive the comfort and correction we need. In this way we can invite God’s Spirit to flow into us and through us, giving us the gifts of self control that we need.
When you don’t know what to do…notice your reactivity.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. What have you noticed about your own reactivity?
2. Which of the suggestions made here have you tried and how did they work?
3. Which of these suggestions might be especially helpful for you?