Watching Winter Sparrows: Anger as a Necessary Teacher

Friday, November 1, 2019

 This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture, 
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
The Guest House - rumi
My family moved into our first ever house in January. After living in Phoenix for five years, I was completely unprepared for certain aspects of a northern Utah winter. My physical needs for warmth and comfort were met perfectly. What I wasn't prepared for was the quietness of the earth; and with that quietness, a great loneliness.
In January, the Great Basin Desert is asleep under a blanket of snow. Its impossible to identify dead plants. The first half of my first year in Utah was lonely for a very subtle reason: I was unable to orient myself. I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to feel like I was home without knowing the plants around me.
 
My tie to the earth in this time came in the smallest form. There is a small family of house sparrows that lives in the tangle of vines along the north side of our property. I can see them clearly from my kitchen and dining room windows. They are an active and joyful little bunch, constantly flittering from branch to branch gathering food and staying warm by nestling in my honeysuckle vine. They have a distinct chirp chatter that kept me company during the day, and I learned to orient time by their songs. I became quite attached to these birds, going out in the cold to shoo away the magpies that harassed them.
As the weather warmed and the trees and vines began to blossom, I saw less and less of the sparrows. One late spring afternoon I remembered to listen for the sparrow's songs. I sat quiet and ready to hear their chicory chirp, chicory chirp
but the air remained quiet. I realized then I had not heard the sparrow song for quiet some time. I was devastated. They had moved on, moved away.
 
You abandoned me.
I said this 
first to the sparrows,
then to the Earth,
and finally, to God.

I was angry to be left alone in a foreign land.
My hand that had been open all winter
to offer seed to the sparrows
closed into a tight fist.

I became an angry person,
which is strange because
I am afraid of anger.

It has a volatile nature, like fire,
with a tendency to spark and send ashes miles away
to light ghost fires that become their own problems.
But that is not why I am afraid.

Anger, in its truest and most holy form
is a catalyst for change.

Holy anger is a teacher. When anger shows up in our body, we do not need to be afraid. Instead, we need to listen. The heat, the licking flames have a message. 
Ask
What boundaries have been crossed?
What needs have been neglected?
What sacred trust has been lost or broken?
 
Anger always has an answer. And like a real fire, it would be incredibly irresponsible to just let anger continue to burn hot and uncontrolled. Say a fire you were burning in a pit in your backyard grew bigger than expected and became out of control. Would you sit back in a folding lawn chair wait for someone to bring a bucket of water or a hose? Would you just wait for your neighbors to call 911? I hope you'd take initiative and grab a hose and call the fire department. 
Anger is the same. It is your holy anger. It is your teacher, no one else's. You must care for it. You are its keeper. Holy anger is a gift. Who cares who gives it to you! It arrives to your doorstep as a guest. With wise and careful treatment it will warm your hearth. If you ignore it and stuff it away in a forgotten room, it will burn your house down. Trust me - I've tried it.
When your needs have been neglected, it is a blessed kind of love to honor and meet them yourself. When your boundaries have been crossed, it is a kindness to yourself to create, communicate, and enforce them. When sacred trust has been broken, you have the power to adapt the relationship appropriately. While you wait for someone to take responsibility, to fix what they have broken, to apologize, your fire still burns. Holy anger waits for no one. Justice must be wise and swift. Anything else is not mercy.
 
When we embrace our anger as a necessary teacher, we understand the importance of sitting with it instead of brushing it aside. In a "good vibes only" culture, we often forget that intense emotions can be a valuable asset to growth and understanding. Fire and anger are scary, yet I was shocked to learn a few years ago that deciduous forests that burn to the ground once in a while are actually healthier than those that don't. Some tree seeds need heat from a fire to catalyze their germination. Nutrients from ash are absorbed into the soil and boost the health of the earth in burned areas. Naturally occurring fire is a normal and necessary part of the cycle of growth and death. In the same way, anger serves as "dead end" sign that is impossible to ignore. It says: This continues no further. Sometimes that means we leave relationships, careers, and religions behind. More often than not, what must be let go of is our own pride, our ego.

The stretching open of a fist is a letting go,
a surrender to the teacher.

The softening says,
I am here.
I am listening.
I will do what is required.

It is the humble mastery of the self.
This is its own tender mercy - 
to see our human experiences as lessons 
rather than defects in character.

It is strange to me that as I lean in to my holy anger, small miracles occur. Saying sorry is easier. My heavy reliance and expectations on others diminish. There is a lot of weeping, which is a blessing when feeling anything felt like a dream just months ago.
And the sparrows have returned to their winter abode
in the tangled brush in my backyard.

chicory chirp they greet me
as if they haven't been gone for half the year.
But all is forgiven
at the sound of their song.

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