In responding to life situations, is anger helpful or is it self-defeating? Anger can be useful because it alerts us to a problem and motivates us to make change in ourselves or in our world. Twelve-step groups, for example, talk about people needing to feel the frustration of “hitting rock bottom” before they turn their lives over to God in the recovery process. Likewise, anger in the face of social injustice can move us to take collaborative action on behalf of the common good. The Adrian Dominican Sisters Vision Statement states, “impelled by the Gospel and outraged by the injustices of our day, [we] seek truth; make peace; reverence life.”
While anger can serve a positive function in our lives, it can also be self-defeating. Unlike our positive emotions like affection, awe, and joy, anger feels bad and separates us from others. Our inability to handle anger effectively can entrap us in hostility, hatred, and despair. Caught in the volatility of anger, we react with revenge and retaliation against ourselves and others. Interestingly, our interpretation of events can create more anger than the event itself. Here is one example of how it can play out in community life.
I begin with the following premise: if I am a good and loving Sister, the Sisters with whom I live will love me in the ways in which I want to be loved. All is well, until one day I experience what appears to be a rejection by one of my Sisters. Feeling upset, I begin to draw out different meanings from the event that only stoke my anger. I might conclude that I am an unlovable community member who caused or deserves this hurtful treatment. I might also decide that the other Sister is a messed up, dysfunctional person because she is not meeting my ideals. Underneath my anger is the fear of losing self-esteem.
My interpretations of the event are invalid because blaming myself for the other person’s actions is diminishing my self-esteem. Making a monster out of the other person and blaming them for causing my hurt blinds me to the good in the other person and hardens my heart toward them.
Empathy, the ability to understand accurately the thoughts and motives of others, is the best remedy for anger. If I can put myself in the other person’s place and see their struggle, I will have more compassion toward them. I can talk with them about why they did what they did. The fact that they treated me poorly does not mean that I am unlovable or less of a person. I no longer see myself as responsible for their actions and my self-esteem increases. I take responsibility for my own feelings and practice self-compassion. I am now in a place of calm to work through the problem with my Sister.
We need to discern the message of anger by taking quiet time to blow off steam and work through our thoughts and feelings. We need to be willing to do the inner work it takes to have healthy and happy relationships. How have you dealt with anger in your life?
How we handle criticism affects our capacity to discern the workings of the Holy Spirit in the ups and downs of our everyday life. If we can learn to befriend our critics, we will discover that they are actually our best teachers in the process of becoming a mature follower of Christ. Growth in the spiritual life requires self-knowledge, humility, and trust in God’s unconditional love whether our behavior happens to be right or wrong. So what is your experience of dealing with criticism?
In his book, Feeling Good, cognitive therapist Dr. Dave Burns describes three possible responses to critique, which he calls: “sad, mad, or glad.”* If you go the sad route, you will automatically conclude that the critic is correct. You never take time to explore what actually happened. Instead, you jump to the conclusion that you were wrong. You magnify and personalize the negative message. “I’m always screwing up. I’m a complete failure.” Because you live with the expectation that you should be perfect, you assume that your mistake means that you are worthless. As a result, you will experience sadness, anxiety and diminished self-esteem. Your response will be ineffectual, as you withdraw in isolation and avoidance.
If you go the mad route, you will defend yourself against the ravages of imperfection by attempting to persuade your critic that they are the problem. You refuse to admit even the possibility that you could have made a mistake, that you are less than perfect, because to do so means admitting that you are worthless. Ready for a fight, you attack your critic with fierce accusations. In the heat of the battle, you may feel emboldened by your self-righteous indignation. But when it’s over, your response will also be self-defeating because you have done irreparable damage to the relationship.
If you go the glad route, you will need enough self-esteem to accept yourselves with all of your imperfections. When under critique, your first response is inquiry. You ask yourself: “Is there any truth to the criticism?” Having taken the time to prayerfully investigate the situation, you are now prepared to offer a solution. If compromise is called for, you can negotiate. If you were mistaken, you can offer an apology, if appropriate, and then make the necessary amends to address the problem. If your critic was wrong, you can find a way to address this reality in a respectful fashion. This response will enhance your sense of competence because you have handled the situation in a way that respects your own integrity and that of others.
Take some time this week and explore your experience of handling criticism. What have you learned?
*For a more in-depth discussion, see David Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 146-147.
A vicious enemy of the spiritual life is perfectionism. If we succumb to this compulsion, we become our own worst critic. We monitor our every move out of fear and shame at the prospect of being imperfect, mediocre, or, worse still, someone unworthy of love and connection. We believe our perfectionism will make us successful and admired, but in reality it sucks the joy out of life.
Perfectionism also urges us to focus on the deficiencies of others, blaming them for our irritability, upset, or unhappiness. We often project our weaknesses onto others, accusing them of faults we fail to admit in ourselves. Sometimes putting others down becomes a strategy to prop up our own collapsing self-esteem. If we persist in perfectionistic fault-finding, we will lose our capacity to feel warmth or genuine like for ourselves or other people.
One effective way to free ourselves from the burden of perfectionism is to discover our motivation for maintaining this compulsion. Imagine doing poorly at a task that is important to you. Ask yourself, “Why would this be a problem for me?” Repeatedly ask this question of yourself until you discover the hidden assumption that is at the root of your perfectionism. Perhaps you have been deeply hurt by the put-downs, disapproval, or abuse of others. Perhaps you fear being disliked and abandoned by others. Perhaps you fear being incompetent or vulnerable and out of control. Whatever the particulars, embrace your wounded heart with self-compassion. Hold your pain with tenderness and allow God to wrap you in unconditional love. Gently address your fears with sound reason. By facing your fears in this way, they begin to lose their power over you.
Do you struggle with perfectionism? If yes, what do you think is the hidden fear that grounds your compulsion?
Consider these three roadblocks to discerning the call of God.
Is following the call of God your top priority in life? Are there other obstacles to discerning God’s call that you would like to add to this list? Write us a comment on your reflection.
Would you agree with the following statement: the only person in the world who has the power to insult you is you and no one else? When another person levels harsh criticism at you, certain negative thoughts begin to flood your consciousness. Perhaps you exaggerate the importance of what is being said or jump to the conclusion that the criticism is valid and accurate. You may see this single negative event as part of a recurring pattern of defeat. “I always mess up! I’m a complete failure! I can never correct this mistake! Everybody hates me! This criticism shows that I am worthless!” Your emotional reaction will be produced by this bombardment of negative thoughts and not by what the other person says.
In his book Feeling Good, cognitive therapist David Burns gives some helpful advice. He suggests that one important way to conquer the fear of criticism involves your own thought processes: Learn to identify and analyze the negative and irrational thoughts you have in reaction to being criticized.* These distorted thoughts can create negative and hurtful emotions. Upon reflection determine whether the criticism is right or wrong. If it is wrong, then there is no reason to feel upset. It was the other person’s mistake to criticize you unfairly. With a spirit of compassion, let it go. No one is perfect. On the other hand, if the criticism is right, still there is no reason for alarm. Humbly acknowledge the mistake and do what you need to do to make amends. With a spirit of self-compassion, gently forgive yourself recognizing that you do not need to be perfect. If you have healthy self-esteem, it is easier to hear and to respond to criticism. You do not require the approval of others to be full of love and at peace.
Take time to reflect on how you handle criticism from others. Do you fear criticism? Do you recognize how your own distorted thinking can create negative and hurtful feelings? Can you grow and learn from criticism in becoming your authentic self?
*See David D. Burn, M.D. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, (New York: HarperCollins), 131-148.
By Sister Judith Benkert, OP
Last week I was listening to an interview of one of our Sisters. Sister Ann has given 60 years of ministry in a variety of settings. When asked what three words she would like on her tombstone, Sister Ann paused a moment and said, “I always said yes.” If you have a chance click here to view the entire interview on YouTube—it’s amazing!
It’s true that, when the Congregation asks a Sister to consider a ministry, we take it very seriously because we believe God works through the Congregation in calling us to serve the people of God. Over the past forty years, the ministry of Sisters has changed. We slowly turned schools and other institutions over to very capable educators and administrators who carry the mission and ministry forward. We strive to “Preach with Our Lives” in a variety of ministries. New members will find a place in ministry in areas of social justice, law, ecology, health care, education, parish ministry, campus ministry, and more. The future belongs to new members who stand on the shoulders of Sisters who walked before them and said “yes” to God.
Will you come follow these Sisters and say yes?
After a winter of snow, ice, and freezing weather the new blossoms of spring seem so far away. We hear of a new wave of cold arctic air to hit the Northeast. And yet the first blossoms are bravely opening with the urging of the warm sun.
Discernment was for me a chilling winter. Where was the answer to my seeking? Where was the God I so believed in? Give me an answer, and soon! Then one morning I was out the back door and peeking through the winter soil was the small point of a peony plant. I lived in the Midwest. I was able to see the warmth of the sun bring the decision to light. I haven’t looked back. Spring blossoms are always reminders for me to believe in the warmth of God’s grace.
Young adults who are discerning their vocation from God often ask me, “How do I hear God’s voice in my life?” Sometimes we think that God’s will for us comes from beyond us, outside our world, like the Ten Commandments delivered to Moses on stone tablets. Yet, a closer look reveals that God is present and active within us and among us through the ordinary circumstances of life and through all the decisions we make that shape our lives.
In reflecting on my own life, I realize how my vocation to be a Dominican Sister was realized through many years of paying attention to how God was meeting me in my life and how my response to God’s presence brought me a deep sense of joy and fulfillment that only God can give.
Here is just a glimpse at one meeting with God which happened my junior year in college. I was a history major. My academic advisor told me that I needed to take a course on the Protestant Reformation because that particular split in Christendom had powerful political ramifications for all of Europe. So, quite unexpectedly, I ended up taking my first college religion class. This situation has God written all over it!
During one class, our professor explained to us that one of the great themes of the Protestant Reform was the right of every Christian to read the Bible in his/her own language. At the end of the discussion, our professor said, “I challenge each one of you to pick up the Bible and read one of the Gospels all the way through.” Can you hear God’s voice echoing in this challenge?
Since I didn’t even own a Bible, I borrowed a Bible from a Protestant friend. One night I decided to take up the challenge. I opened to the Gospel of Matthew and started to read it. At one point, I got to the passage in the Sermon on the Mount: “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.” I sensed, for the first time, the presence of God with me, speaking these words directly to my heart, awakening me to a divine love that I had never known before, a love unsurpassed. “Ask and you shall receive!” What open-handed, unconditional love! It wasn’t “Get good grades, and I will love you!” or “Do what I say, and I will love you.” Rather, I experienced God’s presence as a lavish, unconditional love. I was in tears. This experience was totally unexpected. God’s love was real!
This meeting with God, which happened through very ordinary circumstances, became a beginning step on the way toward fulfilling my religious vocation. Through the help of many other faithful Christians, I gradually learned how to develop my relationship with God through prayer, community, and service to the poor and those in need.
How do you sense God is working in your life? What is your response?
When we are stuck in a state of restless dissatisfaction—“I want this, I want that”—we can fail to see the value of life and focus only on what is wrong with the situation, ourselves and other people. We may relentlessly push ourselves to achieve success and independence because we want what do not have. And once we have it, we want something else. When we are caught in this dynamic, we do not value the good things we have in life or take joy in God.
The remedy for this unhappy state is simple: gratitude. It should not surprise us that people who feel thankful acknowledge inner richness and deeply appreciate small things that many of us take for granted—good health, the beauty of nature, a kind word. Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, often speaks about the joy of breathing!
Are we supposed to be thankful even in times of suffering? How are we to respond to the tragedies and evils that cause us such great pain and turmoil? Gratitude does not mean ignoring hardships in life. True gratitude exists only where compassion and awareness of evil are present. It is strange but true: when we have struggled with illness, we appreciate health; when we experience a broken relationship, we rediscover the importance of friendship, when we have experienced the agony of defeat, we appreciate the sweetness of success.
In good times and bad, may we allow gratitude to open us to the presence of God. May we learn to savor God’s loving relationship, who gives us this day our daily bread. As Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart states, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
As you celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, take time to reflect on your practice of gratitude. Do you easily give thanks for the many gifts in your life in a spirit of inner contentment for what you have, or are you easily caught up in the sense of dissatisfaction with life, forgetful of your blessings through lack of time or attention? How might you cultivate gratitude in your life?
True love, the foundation of discernment, never avoids conflict. This kind of discernment is the most difficult to practice. It arises out of a situation in which we are suffering from a situation that we think is caused by the person or community that we love the most. We might refuse to ask the person or community for help in understanding and dealing with our hurt.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, tells of a young Vietnamese man who went off to war, leaving his pregnant wife behind. When he returned after three years, his young wife and son welcomed him home with tears of joy.
When his wife went out to buy food for their celebration, the young father tried to get his son to call him daddy. The little boy refused, saying, “You are not my daddy. My daddy is somebody else. He visits us every night and comforts mommy when she cries. Every time my mommy sits down, he sits down, too. Every time she lies down, he lies down, too.”
The young father was stunned, heartbroken, and humiliated by these words. When his wife returned, he refused to talk to her or even look at her. He stormed out of the house and spent the day at a bar. This went on for several days. Finally, the young woman was so distraught over her husband’s change in behavior that she threw herself in the river and drowned.
When the young man heard the news, he returned home, and lit a lamp. Suddenly, the little boy exclaimed, “Look, it’s my daddy! He’s come back!” He pointed to the shadow of his father on the wall.
In reality, his mother had been so alone in the house that every night she had to talk to her own shadow. Now her husband’s false perception was corrected, but it was too late. His wife was dead.
We all fall victim to our misperceptions every day. When in a painful situation of conflict, we must check things out with the other person before taking action if we want true love to guide our lives.
Sister Sara Fairbanks, OP
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Get out your bell-bottoms and platform shoes, because DISCO is here!
Okay, so it's a little less dancing, a little more talking... Sisters Lorraine Réaume, OP, and Sara Fairbanks, OP, have a video series called DISCO (Discernment Conversations): Dancing with the questions of life!