One day a few weeks ago I was doing some cleaning around the house and took notice of a to-do project I had been putting off for a while. The door on the bedroom of my two sons had been slammed so many times that the doorjamb was almost completely off the frame, and it needed to be fixed. Grabbing my hammer, I headed to the end of the hallway where the damage awaited me. As my two little boys stood watching me pound it back into place, I saw their eyes move to the wall behind the door, where in a moment of frustration one of them had flung the door back so hard the doorknob had gone straight through the wall. As I stood there hammering, the broken door and baseball-sized hole seemed to taunt me.
I don’t know how to fix this, I thought to myself. I don’t know how to fix any of this.
Suddenly I caught my reflection in the mirror on the back of the door and noticed my expression. Angry eyes, lips pressed into a frown, and that darn wrinkle that appears between my eyebrows when I’m frustrated. It all reminded me of a painting I learned about way back in my high school days. The painting is of 16th century Russian tsar Ivan the IV, and is arguably the crankiest portrait ever conceived. My face looked just like that.
Whoa. When did I turn into Ivan the Terrible?
Ivan the IV’s early life was filled with loss and instability, and his reign, which officially began with him being named supreme and unquestionable “Tsar of all the Russias” at age 16, was marked by both good and heinous deeds. His father, mother, and his first wife are all suspected to have been poisoned, and six of his eight children died in early childhood. In a fit of rage, Ivan killed one of his two remaining sons, and paranoia and megalomania led to devastating circumstances for the Russian people throughout much of his reign. If ever a person deserved to look cranky, it was Ivan.
In comparison, my reasons for letting my less-than-pleasant expression hang around seem a little silly.
Wikipedia describes Ivan the Terrible as “intelligent and devout, yet given to rages and prone to episodic outbreaks of mental illness that increased with age, affecting his reign.” Hmm. That might be a little extreme, but still it sounds creepily familiar. In work and social settings I am generally a “go with the flow” person, but at home I can be a bit of a dictator. I really like things to go my way. And that face? My kids must see that expression at least 10 times a day.
As I stood with hammer in hand, a verse popped into my mind. It was Proverbs 15:30, which says, “A cheerful look brings joy to the heart” (NIV).
I love that this verse doesn’t specify whether this applies to the giver or receiver of the cheerful look because it goes both ways. Not only can our facial expressions be a powerful force in helping create a positive atmosphere for those around us, they can help us feel better too. Multiple studies have shown a connection between smiling into a mirror and a positive mood boost. When I take a closer look at Ivan’s portrait, underneath the anger and suspicion, his eyes begin to look incredibly sad. I don’t think he spent much time smiling into a mirror. I know I don’t feel good when I’m wearing the Ivan face either.
I don’t want my kids to remember me with my Ivan face on. I don’t want my husband to have to greet Ivan instead of his wife at the end of the day. I don’t want to lead my friends or coworkers with my Ivan face. Frustration is a part of life, but when we can deal with the little things and then let them go, everybody wins.
After smoothing out my angry forehead wrinkle (and banishing a fleeting wish for just a teeny bit of Botox), I finished pounding the doorjamb back into place and glanced again at the hole in the wall. I looked at my little boys, shook my head, and smiled just a little. They both grinned back at me.
So long, Ivan.