The sources of our discontent

by Chaplain Lt. Benjamin Warner, USN
August 30, 2012

One of my favorite authors is a British writer named Terry Pratchett. Years ago he wrote a book in which there are numerous demons discussing their successes in tempting people into bad behavior. There are two demons that I’ll call “classic.” They discuss their endeavors to get individuals to lust, hate, etc. Then there’s a “modern” demon. He’s very proud because when he talks about what he did, he mentions tying up traffic and putting static on phone lines. The other demons can’t quite wrap their heads around why this is a positive event. The reader realizes that tying up traffic doesn’t just result in individual frustration, but in mass frustration. It puts some measure of efficiency into the demon’s tempting efforts.

Now, I am not sanctioning this particular view of how demons work. I think Scripture has a lot less to tell us than we like to imagine when it comes to angels, demons, and other supernatural forces. What I do like about this story is how oblivious we are to what are the actual sources of temptation in our lives—really how blind we are to our own inner workings. The smallest events can spur character traits that we ourselves would normally reject. Traffic, technology, housework, even minor events with our spouses, children, and other loved ones can result in feelings and actions we didn’t even know about. Why is this? Part of it is that we don’t realize what’s in our own hearts. Jesus said it this way: For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart (Matthew 12:34). Most people will self-identify as a “good person,” not realizing that even 99% good leaves room for darkness in the heart.

Another reason the seemingly small events of life have a capability to set us off is because we haven’t investigated what’s really at stake when we do have a reaction. Imagine someone comes home, sees dirty dishes on the counter, and blows up at their family about how no one ever does anything around the house. Imagine it however you need to—wife, husband, kids—the details don’t matter as much as the situation. Now, do you think that was honestly about dishes? Obviously not! When I see dirty dishes it just look like a good excuse to not cook dinner and eat out. Yet, there are occurrences in life for all of us that go below the actual issue at hand. Dirty dishes, an unmade bed, a careless word spoken—all of these can tap into our hidden issues. Do I believe I am loved and accepted? Do I trust that my relationships are strong? Do I know that the people I care about care about me? Is there any real security in my life?

These are questions we generally don’t ask ourselves—at least out loud. But they are questions that form part of who we are—whether we’re aware of it or not. Then, when the seemingly trivial causes a disproportionate reaction in our lives, we know we’ve tapped into a question that hasn’t been answered. Sometimes we’re okay without an answer—but when we’re not, our life will let us know. The work we must do is to have the awareness to interrupt ourselves when we’re set off by the small things. I have to take time and ask myself—what is this really about? Only then can the trivial frustrations of life remain small frustrations instead of turning into big problems.