Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues: Week Nine, Q1

Moderation: “Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”

Personal notes:

  • I am a person of extremes; focus on control.
  • Sometimes I go 0 to 60. Pump breaks. No need to fly off into a rage or think dark thoughts.
  • Avoid hyper-criticism of those closest to you.
  • Master emotions.

I thought I was doing well this week. In fact, during one moment of foolishness I had a cheery idea, “there might not be much to write about,” but that proved to be wishful thinking. You see, I have kids, and as much as I love them, they are a relentless force; piling on requests, pleas, cries, and messes, until the weight of exhaustion crushes my resistance and destroys all notion of emotional control. 

This week the (first) moment of lost emotional control happened in the bathroom. Like most dads, I just needed a minute, and there’s no place better to catch up on world events than some quiet time on the throne. Halfway through a Wall Street Journal article on the Panama Papers, my 4 year old daughter kicked down the door SWAT style and blew up my momentary fortress of solitude. Now in this exposed position, my ability to physically respond was limited, so I resorted to a hard and angry bark “Get OUT!”

“But I just want to show you this picture I drew for mom.”

“Get out, NOW!” 

It’s hard to capture just how angry I was, the emotion electrified my entire core, my voice turned to a growl, and while it may be tough to capture this evocative anger here, one thing was for certain, the anger and annoyance was clearly audible to a four year old. She backed away, lip downturned, eyes at the floor, sad and upset that her dad was so angry. After all, all she wanted to do was share her exciting art, but all I wanted was a moment alone. She left and my victory was fleeting. The preceding moment of calm was gone, never to be recaptured, replaced by guilt, anger and sadness. Quite an emotional rollercoaster for a trip to the bathroom.

I’m always in awe of people who have seemingly mastered their emotions. As a history nerd, I think of the story of FDR who barely flinched when he learned the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; here I am erupting over an interrupted bathroom visit. But we all have those moments, at least that’s what I tell myself, when we’re overwhelmed by the persistent force of life. Sometimes this wear forces us to snap at someone we love. I don’t hit my children but I’ve certainly clenched our child’s hand knowing it hurts, forcing her back in line, watching her eyes fill with fear. I know at that moment I’ve lost control again and my subtle grip is trying to hide my lashing out, not so much from the child. It’s shameful when I think about it.

But like I said in last week’s email, I wanted to think about triggers. Moments where Moderation escapes me and I loose emotional control.

  • Electronics: When I am interrupted on my phone or computer, there is a noticeable rise in anger that otherwise would not be present; and let me emphasize, it is very noticeable. Next time you get angry at your kids, or anyone for that matter, look at your hand and see if it’s clutching a phone or typing on a keyboard.
  • Exhaustion: If sleep the night before (or week before) was a poor, I am terrible and quick to spark. We’re currently in a trend where my daughter will not sleep in her room. In the beginning, with every night interrupted, I would be furious, and being furious in the middle of the night is one way to ensure the next morning sucks. It took a long time to allow her to sleep in a blow-up bed in our room. We essentially admitted defeat in order to win a victory.
  • Hitting: Somehow my kids are amazing at hitting me in the tenders. Always by accident, yet targeted perfectly: hits to the groin, eye, nose and any other sore appendage raises a deep rooted, mammalian anger. Often, I have to leave the room or I sit there seething in pain, calming the muscles waiting to respond, waiting for the moment to pass.
  • Screaming: There is something about high pitched screaming, particularly if it’s directed immediately in one’s ear, that creates a visceral response. When I was in the military, we spent a few evenings locked in a dog cage for survival training. It sounds bad but it didn’t bother me, until they started blasting the recording of children screaming for hours upon hours. There’s no quick fix here. Have to just realize it’s a trigger and walk away. 

There’s a million other examples that will do: trying to feed my child, only to have the food thrown on the floor; trying to change the child’s diaper while she squirms and spreads poop all over her hands. Like I said, children are relentless, but so is life. You don’t have to have kids to cause these triggers, just look at your day-to-day: a crowded commute, a particularly rude grown-up, a terrible driver, a relentless co-worker, all of them break down the notion of emotional control. You snap, you’re angry at everyone, your life is consumed by rage; what can you do about it?

I’ve come to realize you need to embrace a long-term project to re-wire your brain. For me, the list is long: I’ve put down the phones when my kids are around, work on a daily gratitude journal, found a physical outlet through martial arts, say to myself “maybe that driver is in a hurry because he has an emergency,” choose to not have an opinion, work on Bens13, and force myself to explore my triggers. These are just a few steps and I’ve come to realize I will not achieve emotional control over night, but I’m getting better.

I realize my child is at her purest stage in life and I have to do my best to encourage her and not let the weariness of adulthood punish her innocence. Clearly I’ve stumbled and had set backs but I’m getting better, and you can too. We just have to remember, we allow many of the events and people around us to define us. Why do that? Why let them make you angry? All I can say is, next time the cheerio crushes underfoot and the scintillating fire creeps up our neck, it’s just easier to grab the broom and move on. Allow the moment to pass.