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The Myth of the Normal Family: Impulse Control

Joan and I begin every morning eating breakfast and reading the newspaper. We’ve come close, several times in our 34 years together, to quitting the newspaper, most recently when they gave some wackadoodle his own weekly column. We tried not reading it, but it’s like driving past a car wreck, how can you not look? So we read it, and Joan said, “That’s it. I’m done. Call the paper today and cancel our subscription.”

And I said, “I agree. This is ridiculous. I’m calling them today.”

Then I began doing something else, forgot to call, and the next time Joan got mad at the paper, she said, “I thought you were going to cancel it?”

I said, “Really?  I thought you were going to.”

This week I’m glad we didn’t, because the funniest cartoon came out in the comic strip Pearls Before Swine.

Goat, the smart character, and Rat, the evil character, are talking, and Rat said to Goat, “I think I’m reaching a new level of maturity.”

Goat said, “How so?”

Rat said, “I no longer care what people say about me. I don’t think about it afterwards. I don’t stay upset.

Goat said, “Great! What’s the key to achieving that level of peace?”

Rat said, “I punch them in the face.”

Goat said, “How peaceful.”

And Rat said, “Then I just move on.”

This might be indicative of a cultural trend. I was at the library the other day and saw a book titled, “People I Want to Punch In the Throat.” Isn’t that a great title?  I’m only sorry I didn’t think of it first.

We’ve been thinking about the myth of the normal family, more specifically about dysfunctional families, which are comprised of dysfunctional people, and that includes all of us to some degree or another. This dysfunction is rooted in immaturity, so our lives must be a quest for maturity, for wholeness and growth. We’ve thought about what maturity looks like. People who are mature make friends, not enemies. They accept responsibility and avoid blaming others. Mature people commit themselves to self-awareness. They seek out and face the truth about themselves. Mature people are spiritually malleable, permitting their experiences to shape and re-shape their lives, moving away from theological and philosophical rigidity, allowing them to navigate the changes they face as they age. Last week, Laura Jay-Ballinger said mature don’t flee from their pain, but lean into it, letting their pain teach them.

Today, I want to add to our list by saying mature people don’t punch other people in the throat. More accurately, mature people aren’t ruled by their impulses, especially when those impulses harm others. They know the importance of restraint and prudence. They do not act on every thought, every whim or impulse. They consider the consequences and then act mindfully, thoughtfully.

Do you remember the story of the mob coming to harass and arrest Jesus?  One of Jesus’s followers pulled out his sword and lopped off an ear of the chief priest’s slave.  (You know, just a side observation here, it’s always the slaves, the powerless, who suffer. The rich men start the wars, the poor men get their ears lopped off.)  Jesus said to the ear lopper, “Put down your sword. Don’t you know that people who live by the sword, die by the sword.”

This is a warning about the perils of impulsiveness.  If we live by the sword, that is, if we act impulsively, with little thought of the consequences, we create an environment of recklessness. Impulsivity breeds impulsivity. Reckless behavior generates more reckless behavior. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.

We know this is true because we’ve all been to Wal-Mart on Friday nights and have seen those parents, the ones wearing t-shirts advertising beer, yelling at their children, then have watched those same children knock over a display of Mountain Dew, crushing to death a nice little old Quaker lady who was there buying food for the meeting’s food pantry. Impulsivity breeds impulsivity.

Mature people know this, so think before acting; speaking and behaving with careful consideration of the consequences. They don’t pull out their swords and start lopping off ears.

I went to pick up Madeline at her other grandparent’s house the other day. They watch Madeline, and her two little cousins, Abby and Logan, who are roughly Madeline’s age. They’re all right there together, right around three and four years-old. When I entered the home, I could tell something had happened because Madeline and Abby were teary.

I asked what had happened and was told Madeline and Abby had been coloring and Abby had grabbed Madeline’s crayon while Madeline was using it, so Madeline jumped on Abby, took her crayon back, then for good measure body-slammed her like they do on championship wrestling on Saturday morning TV.

Now, you know how guys are.  My first thought was, “Body slammed her, eh?  That’s my granddaughter!”

It was a terrible thing to think, and I was immediately ashamed of myself.

Madeline’s other grandmother said, “I sat them both down and talked to them about the importance of being nice to one another.”

I hated the idea of ratting out my granddaughter, but I thought her parents ought to know what happened, so I told them later that night. I was looking at Spencer when I told them and I could tell he was thinking, “Body slammed her, eh? That’s my girl!”

I told him he should be ashamed of himself.

Jessica, ever the sensible mother, said, “Madeline, is this true?  Did you tackle Abby?”

And Madeline, fully appreciating the protective convenience of a well-crafted lie, said, “I don’t remember it that way.”

Of course, we didn’t dare laugh out loud. Some things, when done by three-year-olds, can be a stitch, but when done by a thirty year-old can be deeply troubling.  So you can’t laugh, because you want your children and grandchildren to learn impulse control, because you don’t want them to go through life doing the first thing that comes to mind, acting on every whim and urge, with no thought at all of the consequences.  There’s no end to the trouble such recklessness can lead to—difficulty in school, crushing old ladies under cases of Mountain Dew, then jail, and perhaps even the Presidency.

Mature people think before they act. They know that to live by the sword is to die by the sword, that living recklessly will subject them and others to further recklessness.  Thus did Jesus teach his followers, “Put away your sword. It will not get you where you want to go, nor make you who you want to be.”