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Type A Behavior and the Answer of Poets and Ascetics

December 18, 2013

In addition to the practical steps I outlined in the previous post, it is often helpful to select appropriate quotes for repeating to oneself or keeping in mind in order to stay on the right track.  These may serve as a reminder in terms of orienting one’s thoughts toward positive change.  In their work “Reducing Type A Behavior,” authors Bracke and Thoresen provide a couple of short passages that are helpful in re-directing attitudes that have a profound effect on behavior.  The first offered by these clinicians is from the American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson: “For every minute you are angry, you lose 60 seconds of happiness.”  While Emerson doesn’t state it explicitly, he does imply that anger is a choice that one can decide to adopt or reject.  All too often we believe that an event or a person “made” me angry.  It is helpful to recognize and appreciate that anger, like so many other feelings and attitudes requires a choice on our part.  We choose to be angry or resentful when it is much more beneficial to choose the opposite.

Another quote from an anonymous author recommended by Bracke and Thoresen is a short reflection on contempt for others, a particularly nettlesome characteristic of Type A personality: “contempt for others is a weed that can flourish in only one special kind of soil, that composed of self-contempt.”  In other words, contempt for others usually surfaces as a manifestation of low self-esteem and self-value. Respecting others is a way of respecting oneself.

These modern, cognitive techniques actually have clear ancient, Christian precedent. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note that “Evagrius even wrote an entire treatise preserved in Syriac that consists of a long list of possible scriptural responses for variations on each of the eight bad thoughts.” The scriptural verses—which the ancient ascetic in the Egyptian desert would use to keep at bay thoughts of anger—can surely be used by the modern go-getter in the jungle of the corporate world. After all, the problem with irritability and contempt for others begin in the human mind and the human condition that continues to follow the same contours in terms of the passions and the virtues. From the Greek retroversion of Evagrius Ponticus’s Antirrhetikos, there is an abundance of passages that someone desiring to change Type A behavior can learn and keep in mind throughout the day.

For those with a tendency to be impatient and get angry, Evagrius advises repeating the passage from the psalms: “Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: do not trouble yourself in any way to do evil, for evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth…But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace” (Psalm 37:8-11). For those who think they are smart and know best how to get everything done, the ascetic could counsel them to mull over the passage from Ecclesiastes: “Be not hasty in your spirit to be angry: for anger rests in the bosom of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9). For those with Type A reactions, but who desire to be Christians, Evagrius could suggest reflecting on the passage from the letter of James: “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man works not the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).

Knowing full well that a negative approach of “thou-shalt-not” scriptures are not always effective for all people, Evagrius also offers other texts with a more positive focus, describing how the Christian would like to be. Thus, he suggests reflecting on Galatians 6:2: “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” or the example provided in Second Timothy “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves.” (2:24-25). Above all the many passages on love can be used to shift one’s thought about what matters most. From the Old Testament, Evagrius advises those who feel like they are drowning in problems that frustrate them to think on the passage from the Song of Songs, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it” (8:7). Above all he suggests that in whatever work one is doing or would like to do, one keep in mind the new commandment of Christ’s love: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:34-35).

There are many helpful passages that can also be culled from patristic literature, both ancient and modern. In my previous post, I mentioned Elder Paisios’ advice to nuns whose thoughts may have focused on the negative.  It is worth mentioning it again here:  “Is everything really the way it appears to you? Always put a question mark after every thought, since you usually look at things with a negative slant…If you put two question marks it is better. If you put three, it is better still.”

Memorizing these passages and thinking about them throughout the day will increase the likelihood that they will be available when the temptation to react with destructive Type A behaviors arises. If they are recalled in time, individuals struggling with irritation and impatience will see that they have a choice. They will look beyond the details of a particular problem and see that a frustration and setback is also a choice between agitation and peace, anger and forgiveness, momentary hatred and everlasting love. And if the right choice is made consistently, the destructive aspects of Type A Behavior can be set aside, allowing the positive, directional, goal-oriented aspects of this style to remain, now set at the service of the most important goal in life, to become a flourishing human being in the image and likeness of God.

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