Controlling our tempers

‘You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’  Matthew 5: 14-16  NIV

Sometimes we all lose our tempers.  It’s easy, in the press of modern medicine, to become frustrated.  The systems in which we work are often overwhelming.  In emergency medicine, there are always vast numbers of patients, endless demands, ringing phones, locked-up computers and patients’ family members who never seem to hear the answers we give.  There are recalcitrant and angry consultants, libraries of forms to fill out and the constant fear of error, hence lawsuits.

I know that other specialties have the same sort of frustrations; among them, of course, life-draining calls from annoying ER doctors, difficult discharges, utilization review boards, insurance battles and all the rest.

The point is, we work in an environment, day in and day out, that is full of potential annoyance and frustration.  So it’s easy, now and then, to unleash our anger on the world.  To slam down the phone, scream at the unfortunate nurse, make snide remarks to the patient or their family and then go home surly to our spouses and children, who are especially innocent of wrong-doing.

However, we need to reign it in.  Despite our frustrations, we are leaders.  And more than that, we set the tone for our work-places.  If we are screaming during the resuscitation, our co-workers will be more anxious.  If we are cursing in anger, we set everyone on edge.  We are each, in a sense, ‘captain of the ship.’  It is incumbent upon us to behave with reason, rationality and calm no matter what transpires around us.  We should be the eye of the storm, the fulcrum, the axle.  Not in the sense of our importance, but in the sense that all may be spinning wildly around us, but we must remain calm and centered.

That’s one reason we go to medical school and residency; that we may learn to function happy or sad, tired or rested.  Sadly, our instructors seldom spoke to us about the essential qualities of patience and self-control.  They were probably told it was too judgmental, or imposed values, or some other such nonsense.  In medical school, we should have learned equanimity, from the Latin aequanimitas, from aequo animo;  ‘with even mind.’  That imperturbable character that is calm as water; and from which Sir. William Osler derived the name of his classic book on medicine.

This type of character should be true of every physician.  But even more true for those of us who call ourselves Christians.  Yes, we may become annoyed and even angry.  Anger can be righteous and reasonable.  But it must always be anger within controlled boundaries and it must be purposeful, not selfish.

If, in our medical or personal trials, we lose control, if we scream profanities, if we debase others, if we demean the human beings for whom Jesus lived, died and lived again, then we are not honoring the Great Physician whom we are meant to emulate.

We are ‘the light of the world.’ Light illuminates.  Light makes things less frightening and helps men and women to do their work. If we are Christians (and I don’t mean in the vague, meaningless modern definition which is ‘nice people;’ rather in the very defined meaning of the word as a true believer and follower of Christ), then we must behave in a way that honors him.

That means no profane tirades at staff.  No comments about patients that compare them with rubbish, with excrement or with anything of the sort.  Our theology contains enough truth, enough hard truth, to help us define the people we face.  Our patients may be lost, sinful, even wicked.  They may have caused some of their own suffering.  And they may be beyond our ability to repair their lives.  (This is equally true of our co-workers and fellow physicians.)  But none of them, none of them, are trash.  And all of them are welcome in God’s kingdom if they choose to accept the invitation.

Likewise, none of the people with whom we work, or with whom we live and purport to love, deserve for us to curse them, scream at them, demean them or in any way make their lives more difficult or their days harder than life already makes them.

Please understand here that I am not standing in judgment.  I have had my share of tirades; angry, profane outbursts that I look back on with remorse and repentance; and even with a little unfortunate, dark humor.  But as I grow in my faith, I learn.  And as I repent, I change. Because repentence comes from the Greek word ‘metanoia,’ to change one’s mind.  I changed my mind along the way.  Rash angry outbursts and profanity accomplish nothing.  Peace and calm accomplish much.  They not only make us more enjoyable to work with, they make our minds clearer, our insights sharper and our hands steadier.

So let’s also remember these wise words, which might have been written directly to physicians:  ‘My dear brothers, take note of this:  Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.’  James 1: 19-20

Carry peace to work with you, and leave anger behind.  Eventually, you’ll forget where you left it and everyone will be that much happier.

God bless you!


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