Losing One's Temper
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1854
I was sitting in my room one morning, feeling all "out of sorts" about something or other, when an orphan child, whom I had taken to raise, came in with a broken tumbler in her hand, and said, while her young face was pale, and her little lip quivered —
"See, Mrs. Graham! I went to take this tumbler from the dresser to get Anna a drink of water, and I dropped it."
I was in a fretful humor before the child came in, and her appearance, with the broken tumbler in her hand, did not tend to help me to a better state of mind. She was suffering a good deal of pain in consequence of the accident, and needed a kind word to quiet the disturbed beatings of her heart. But she had come to me in an unfortunate moment.
"You are a careless little girl!" said I, severely, taking the fragments of glass from her trembling hands. "A very careless little girl, and I am displeased with you!"
I said no more; but my countenance expressed even stronger rebuke than my words. The child lingered near me for a few moments, and then shrunk away from the room. I was sorry, in a moment, that I had permitted myself to speak unkindly to the little girl; for there was no need of my doing so; and, moreover, she had taken my words, as I could see, deeply to heart. I had made her unhappy without a cause. The breaking of the tumbler was an accident likely to happen to any one, and the child evidently felt bad enough about what had occurred, without having my displeasure added thereto.
If I was unhappy before Jane entered my room — I was still more unhappy after she retired. I blamed myself, and pitied the child; but this did not in the least mend the matter.
In about half an hour, Jane came up very quietly with Willy, my dear little, curly-haired, angel-face boy, in her arms. He had fallen asleep, and she had, with her utmost strength, carried him upstairs. She did not lift her eyes to mine as she entered, but went, with her burden, to the low bed that was in the room, where she laid him tenderly, and then sat down with her face turned partly away from me, and with a fan kept off the flies and cooled his moist skin.
Enough of Jane's countenance was visible to enable me to perceive that its expression was sad. And it was an unkind word from my lips that had brought this cloud over her young face!
"So much for permitting myself to fall into a fretful mood," said I, mentally. "In future I must be more watchful over my state of mind. I have no right to make others suffer from my own unhappy temper."
Jane continued to sit by Willy and fan him; and every now and then I could hear a very low sigh come up, as if involuntarily, from her bosom. As faint as the sound was, it smote upon my ear, and added to my uncomfortable frame of mind.
A friend called, and I went down into the parlor, and sat conversing there for an hour. But all the while there was a weight upon my feelings. I tried, but in vain, to be cheerful. I was too distinctly aware of the fact, that a motherless little girl — was unhappy through my unkindness; and the consciousness was like a heavy hand upon my bosom.
"This is all a weakness," I said to myself, after my friend had left, making an effort to throw off the uncomfortable feeling. But it was of no avail. Even if the new train of thought, awakened by conversation with my friend, had lifted me above the state of mind in which I was when she came, the sight of Jane's sober face, as she passed me on the stairs, would have depressed my feelings again.
In order both to relieve my own and the child's feelings, I thought I would refer to the broken tumbler, and tell her not to grieve herself about it, as its loss was of no consequence whatever. But this would have been to have made an acknowledgment to her that I had been in the wrong — and instinctive feeling of pride remonstrated against that.
"Ah me!" I sighed. "Why did I permit myself to speak so unguardedly? How small are the cause that sometimes destroy our peace! How much good or evil is there in a single word!"
Some who read this may think that I was very weak to let a hastily uttered censure against a careless child trouble me. What are a child's feelings?
I have been a child; and, as a child, have been blamed severely by those whom I desired to please, and felt that unkind words fell heavier and more painfully, sometimes, than blows. I could, therefore, understand the nature of Jane's feelings, and sympathize with her to a certain extent.
All through the day, Jane moved about more quietly than usual. When I spoke to her about anything — which I did in a kinder voice than I ordinarily used — she would look into my face with an earnestness that rebuked me.
Toward evening, I sent her downstairs for a pitcher of cool water. She went quickly, and soon returned with the pitcher of water, and a tumbler, on a platter. She was coming towards me, evidently using more than ordinary caution, when her foot tripped against something, and she stumbled forward. It was in vain that she tried to save the pitcher. Its balance was lost, and it fell over and was broken to pieces at my feet, the water dashing upon the skirt of my dress.
The poor child became instantly as pale as ashes, and the frightened look she gave me I shall not soon forget. She tried to speak, and say that it was an accident, but her tongue was paralyzed for the moment, and she found no utterance.
The lesson I had received in the morning, served me for purposes of self-control now, and I said, instantly, in a mild, voice —
"Never mind, Jane; I know you couldn't help it. I must tack down that loose edge of the carpet. I came near tripping there myself today. Go and get a floor-cloth and wipe up the water as quickly as you can, while I gather up the broken pieces."
The color came back instantly to Jane's face. She gave me one grateful look, and then ran quickly away, to do as I had directed her. When she came back, she blamed herself for not having been more careful, expressed sorrow for the accident, and promised over and over again that she would be more guarded in future.
The contrast between both of our feelings now, and what they were in the morning — was very great. I felt happier for having acted justly and with due self-control; and my little girl, though troubled on account of the accident, had not the extra burden of my displeasure to bear.
"Better, far better," said I to myself, as I sat and reflected upon the incidents just related — "better, far better is it, in all our relations in life, to maintain a calm exterior, and on no account speak harshly to those who are below us. Angry words make double wounds. They hurt those whom they are addressed — while they leave a sting behind them. Above all, should we guard against a moody temper. Whenever we permit anything to fret our minds, we are not in a state to exercise due self-control — and if temptation comes, then we are sure to fall."