I recently published a children’s book for ages 7-9 about how our behavior can affect our relationships, and a question about anger came up from my brother after he read it.
The basic story is about the friendship between a grouchy bear (Ben) and a friendly mouse (Max), whose positive influence on the bear has turned him into a forest favorite. All the animals love listening to the bear tell stories. A sly fox (is there any other kind?) named Sylvester comes to the forest and wants to be the center of attention. To do so, he decides he has to get rid of the bear.
The fox hatches a plan to drive a wedge between the mouse and bear, so the bear reverts to his old grouchy self. Sylvester lies to Ben, telling him that the mouse doesn’t really like the bear and has been making fun of how honey dribbles down his chin. Instead of going directly to the mouse, the bear convinces himself that the fox is telling the truth, and begins to work himself up more and more. In this riled up state, the bear goes to confront the mouse. The bear yells and screams and hollers at the mouse, and then:
Then, there was a moment, just a moment, when Ben stopped yelling. He saw how scared Max was. He saw little mouse tears running down his face.
For just a second, Ben wondered again if Max really had said all those mean things about him. But he never asked Max if they were true. “Why should I ask him?” Ben thought, “Sylvester said that if I asked Max, he would just lie and tell me he didn’t say any of those awful things.”
But still, in that moment, Ben knew that there were many other things that he could do. He could have put Max down, and gone away, and stayed away until he wasn’t angry any more. He could have cried and cried until he got all the sadness out. He could have talked to one of the other animals about how he was feeling. He could have found a big, old rock and thrown it at a tree or shouted as loud as he could in the forest or run until he was so tired that he just had to go to sleep.
But then, his head started hurting again and all his rage and sadness came back. Ben became so angry that he didn’t remember that nobody stays angry forever.
And then, instead of doing any of the other things he could have done, Ben did the worst thing he could possibly do.
And the story continues from there.
Does Anger Last Forever?
The line my brother took exception with was, “Ben became so angry that he didn’t remember that nobody stays angry forever.” And that was because my father and his wife made staying angry forever their life’s work. They got angry at my brother somewhere around 1985 (over a misunderstanding about money which spiraled out of control). My father died in 2012, still so angry at my brother that he even wrote in his will, “I leave nothing to my son and he knows why.” Of course, he left nothing to me or my son either, but that’s another story altogether.
I thought about changing the line to say, “Ben became so angry that he didn’t remember that nobody stays angry forever … unless they choose to do so.” And then I spoke with my son’s girlfriend, an elementary school teacher, who suggested I leave it alone because we want to teach children compassion and forgiveness, not give them the idea that it’s ok to hold on to anger.
But what really convinced me was speaking with my sponsor about this. She said that anger doesn’t last forever. It’s a temporary state that is a reaction to a real or perceived wrong. It’s true that nobody can stay angry forever. Eventually, the heat dies down and you focus on other things.
Resentment is a Choice
On the other hand, we can choose to stoke the flames over and over, to work ourselves up long after the damage was done. And that is resentment. Anger is unbidden. Resentment is a choice.
The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines anger and resentment as:
Anger: a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism
Resentment: a feeling of indignant displeasure or persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or injury
For me, it’s the word “persistent” that makes the difference. Nobody, and I mean nobody, can live in that heightened state 24/7/365. We eat, we watch a funny movie, a crisis hits, we get involved in our work, a friend needs our help, etc. And then, we remember. And re-enact the event. And reopen the wound.
We can calm ourselves and watch our breath. And then remind ourselves that this was in the past and, like a dream, has no reality now. We can look around. We can touch something solid to remind ourselves that all is well in this moment. And maybe, we can think more objectively about what occurred to begin with to see where we may have been at fault or where there may have been a misunderstanding. It may be that, like Ben the bear in the story, we simply need to talk to the person we believe harmed us directly, to check out if our perception is even accurate and to clear the air either way.
The Power of Prayer
The Big Book gives us the option to use prayer to free ourselves from resentment. No, we don’t ask to stop feeling resentful. Instead, we are advised to pray for the other person or people or institutions we feel harmed us. Here is a relevant passage from the Big Book in the “Freedom from Bondage” story:
If you have a resentment you want to be free of, if you will pray for the person or the thing that you resent, you will be free If you will ask in prayer for everything you want for yourself to be given to them, you will be free.
Ask for their health, their prosperity, their happiness, and you will be free.
Even when you don’t really want it for them, and your prayers are only words and you don’t mean it, go ahead and do it anyway.
Do it every day for two weeks and you will find you have come to mean it and to want it for them, and you will realize that where you used to feel bitterness and resentment and hatred, you now feel compassionate understanding and love.
My personal experience is that it can take years of persistent prayer, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. Having the poison of resentment lifted is a worthy goal no matter how long it takes.
So, in the end, I left the story as it is. I hope that children will grow up knowing that anger can strike, but we can be sure that it will pass eventually.
More about “Ben and Max: An Unlikely Friendship”
If you are interested in learning more about the book, “Ben and Max: An Unlikely Friendship,” go to BenandMaxBooks.com. (Note: I wrote it using a pseudonym of “Susan B.”)