Tantrums go by many names, with many connotations. Toddlers have “temper tantrums,” expressing outrage over their inability to achieve what they want. Older children and adults have “meltdowns,” suggesting that frustrations have built past their ability to cope and hold off their impulses. The term “overload” can be equally applied to those whose sensory processing systems are hit with too many urgent needs at once, triggering outbursts of behavior which often take onlookers by surprise.
It seems that terminology shifts based on the expectations of others. The word “tantrum” becomes prickly when applied to older children and adults, and even more pejorative when aimed toward autistic people who genuinely experience sensory overload through no fault of their own.
Why in the world would we use that term here?
We chose that word precisely because of the sense of shame it evokes. Babies may be excused for not yet having the skills to cope under pressure, but older children and adults are held to higher standards. Even though everyone loses their composure from time to time, habitual outbursts are looked down upon as poor coping skills. Worse, meltdowns are not very polite in mixed company. Onlookers feel highly uncomfortable when someone rages. Screams intuitively signal danger deep within each of us. Nothing provokes soldiers like the roar of a drill sergeant, and nothing incites a riot like a battle cry. There is no pause for compassion or understanding when rage catches us off guard, whether our own or that of someone nearby. And then, there is the unspoken sense that older people are aware enough of their own actions to “know better,” to stop themselves before they lose control of their emotions.
Yes, we deliberately chose the most uncomfortable word for this week’s thought. No couching, no mitigating; just out with it, like the word itself implies: tantrum.
How can we encounter God in anything associated so plainly with rage and shame?
Simply, by looking at the truth of who God is.
The very idea of bringing God into a tantrum only seems to taunt us with impossible maxims. Love your neighbor. Honor your mother and father. Turn the other cheek. Peace be with you.
When we are overwhelmed enough to lose composure, the last thing we want to think about is God and the ideals we’ve just blown to bits. The last thing we want is anyone to remind us how wretched we are.
Except: God is there. Unavoidably. Right there, present with us, as we rage.
God does not flinch. God does not shrink.
God, the Creator of all things, whose universe produces lightning and storms and seismic upheavals and volcanic eruptions, does not require quiet to be with us.
God, who knows our hearts and minds, who sees what leads to our outrage, who cringes when we are slighted, when our plans go awry, when friends betray us, when strangers insult us, when hunger overtakes us, when fear unravels us… that same God is always with us.
If we have been taught how to recover from a meltdown by acknowledging our behavior and how it has affected the people around us, apologizing where we need to and asking forgiveness, and by being welcomed back into the circle with love and compassion, we learn to control our impulses, ask for help, and eventually recognize signs of building tension before our behavior alienates us from others.
If we have been conditioned to expect punishment, mockery and alienation following an episode of emotional overload, we either learn to avoid others when we feel upset or we accept that we will be rejected as we flail and fail and wait for the storm to pass.
So, where does God stand while we tantrum? Far back, waiting for us to calm down? Shaking His head in disappointment? Removing Himself until we apologize?
No. God stands with us. Our God is not a shaming God. Nowhere in any recorded Scripture does God mock, shame or alienate anyone.
How do we encounter God in the tantrums we have, or the tantrums we witness? By acknowledging His presence. By not flinching. By not shrinking. By realizing that, on whichever side of the tantrum we stand, God is standing with us, embracing and accepting us in our weakness. For, what is a tantrum but supreme weakness? Composure means we’ve got it together, we’re coping with whatever life is dishing out at us. Lost composure means we’ve been swept under a tidal wave so strong that we no longer have control over our most basic ability to reach out to another person.
What God would watch us drown? Not ours. Not from spite, not from apathy, and certainly not from abandonment.
The next time we hit overload and lose our composure, remember this: God loves us before, during and afterward. A meltdown can no more strip us of the dignity of being God’s child than the screaming toddler in the grocery store is discarded by the parent pushing the cart.
The next time someone nearby hits overload and loses composure, remember this: God loves them before, during and afterward. If they are having a hard time seeing God, we can always be His reflection standing by, recalling that person’s dignity as a beloved child of God.
Let us be clear: Unchecked rage is not healthy. In no way should we celebrate meltdowns or the damage they cause. As anywhere else, when people or things get hurt, repairs have to be made. Messes have to be cleaned up. Circumstances have to be examined. We are all accountable for what we do, even when we have passed our limits. But, if we can assess the damage and approach the aftermath with a deliberate plea to be shown how to rebuild with love, we are very likely to encounter God. It is the one prayer He can never refuse.
Pray: God, hear our plea: Show us how to rebuild with love after composure has been lost!
Contemplate: When have we ever imagined God standing by during a meltdown? How would doing that change the situation?
Relate: The time to practice this week’s missionary skill is now, not when a meltdown is in progress. Practice by imagining how we would reflect God during someone else’s meltdown, and practice by imagining God ready to embrace us when we feel ourselves losing control. Practice this enough times to be ready when overload hits.
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak