A traffic jam when you’re already late,
A no smoking sign on your cigarette break.
Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife
What do these have in common? That’s right, none of them are even remotely “ironic” – merely unfortunate (please note, Alanis). But yesterday I came a little closer to a genuinely “ironic” predicament: I parked in a restricted area in order to get the permit that would allow me to park there. I know what you’re thinking: What a delicious irony! Oh how you must have been chortling to yourself in that council office queue.
Well no, I was agitated. I was nervously peering out the window every 30 seconds checking for traffic wardens. After all, I thought, this was their habitat, their nest, the very source of their power. In my mind’s eye I saw swarms of wardens waiting for my back to turn so they could scuttle across the road, enveloping my car in their tickets, clamps and a foul-smelling, white mucus.
As I waited, I found that my anxiety quickly turned to anger. It only took a few seconds, but the stages along that route are worth articulating because I see them playing out in my heart in far broader ways. You see, as I feared the punishment of a parking ticket, guilt began to take hold. Of course I didn’t feel guilty enough to quit the queue and re-park legally 10 minutes’ walk away. No, that would be… um… unfair. That’s right. Unfair! (Aha, now I’d hit on a feeling strong enough to drown out the guilties: self-righteousness). Why should I be expected to park outside the zone? The zone in which I lived for goodness sakes?! No! Ridiculous! The very idea! In fact… by now I was really cooking with gall… I’d like to see a traffic warden try to give me a ticket. Yeah! At this stage I’m actually fantasizing about this potential confrontation. In my mind, I begin to dehumanize the wardens, likening them to insects in a William S Burroughs book. Then I rehearse in my head the devastating polemic I would unleash on them, scorching them with my righteous fury…
“Next… ” said the smiling council worker.
I snap out of my fantasy tirade and smile back. “Um, yes, could I apply for a permit?”
“Certainly” she says, her helpfulness burning like sulfur in the pit of my stomach.
I pay the charge, walk quickly outside to the car… no parking ticket, well I’d like to have seen them try… I place the permit in its holder and drive off with heavied heart and fizzied blood.
What had happened? Almost nothing at all. But internally, everything had happened. It was Genesis 3 all over again.
From that feeling of guilt and shame I wanted to cover myself. I reached for the fig-leaves of self-righteousness but I knew that they weren’t a convincing covering. Then the presence of others (the wardens) exposed me. So I lashed out, playing the blame game – if only mentally. Eventually I left the scene, defeated and deflated.
So from anxiety to shame to self-righteousness I’d arrived at anger in no time. And it could have ruined my day, if I hadn’t stopped to laugh at the ridiculous nature of it all. How stupid to feel so self-righteous! How ugly to feel such scorn! How frightening to see my heart like this!
If you struggle with anger maybe you could pray with me…
when I feel guilty, help me to put right whatever can be put right
and to trust you with what can’t,
when I feel ashamed, may I know that your Son fully covers me,
when I am anxious, remind me that you work all things for my good,
when self-righteousness rises, show me again that I am just a child in Jesus’ arms,
when I get angry, deflate my pride and let me trust your just and loving purposes.
And when I fail in all these ways, reveal again your mercy and your grace,
through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord,