What lights you up?

Lightning rods or conductors don’t often draw our attention. They sit on top of every building and even on some trees marked for preservation at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. They are a protective device that seeks to channel the huge heat and electrical energy surge of a lightning strike to the ground safely.


Nowhere is this more needed than in Singapore which CNN named a “lightning capital”, experiencing lightning on 186 days of every year1 . That same article advises visitors not to wear jewellery or take baths during tropical thunderstorms. I thought it should have also assured readers that our buildings do have lightning conductors.


The topic of lightning conductors came up recently in my counselling session with a man in his 40s. He was troubled by the number of times he found himself flaring up with rage. In his teens and 20s, he had a quick temper but with maturity and turning his life over to God, he brought it under control. However, over the last year, his rage boiled to a point where he almost got into fistfights with his colleagues. He also found himself thinking of ways he could harm and kill them.


Some of us with problems controlling our anger would have experienced this when we are overly sensitive in interacting with others. Truth be told, my client looked like a very affable and calm individual. He does not have a history of angry confrontations. Yet, why did he feel so incensed by his colleagues? I thought the clue came from the nature of his relationship with these individuals and a word that he kept repeating through our meeting: “unfair”.


Probing into his past helped me to understand why fairness and justice were of such importance to him. His early family life was a sad tale. His parents divorced before he was eight and he and his two younger siblings were farmed off from one relative to another although custody was with his father.


Eventually, his father remarried and this led to more years of physical abuse, this time from the hands of their step-mother as well as their father. The second marriage did not last long and again my client and his siblings did their rounds of staying with relatives. A third and also short-lived marriage followed, but by then my client was old enough to enlist and made the Navy his home for a few years.


Throughout these years, my client constantly busied himself with two themes. The first was that as the eldest, he took it upon himself to look after his younger siblings. So as soon as he could afford to rent his own room, he invited them to stay with him. He became their surrogate parent. To this day, he still plays this role.


The second theme that dominated his life was his hope that somehow his father would change and for once be a responsible individual. He harboured this wish despite being disappointed by him several times. This hope made him vulnerable to the hurt that came with disappointment.


I shared with him that his belief that people should somehow treat each other fairly and not take advantage of others was like having a lightning rod that went straight to his heart. Though no one likes to be taken advantage of, for him, the hurt of the disappointment was magnified as it reminded him of his past.


In most instances, people are generally civil and trustworthy, but he had a greater sensitivity and fear that he would be taken advantage of. It was as if his lightning rod picked up signals of imminent lightning strikes even when the skies were clear. This increased sensitivity coupled with his anticipation of being mistreated would cause him to misinterpret his encounters with others, resulting in escalation in some instances.


Each of us may have a number of “lightning rods” of our own, depending on our life history and circumstances. Some of them involve certain weaknesses of character such as being easily taken in by praise from others or the need for status and importance. Others may have come from experiences like failed relationships. What are yours?


It is good to remember that these “lightning conductors” can serve a protective function. If we can identify them, then we can be more on guard and not be so quickly overwhelmed by them nor give in to misconceptions caused by our own sensitivity to situations. It is key to remain calm and assess all angles before jumping to any conclusion.


1 “Crackkk! Singapore is a lightning capital”, published 22 Nov 2011 at http://travel.cnn. com/singapore/visit/crackkk-singaporelightning-capital-582258
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Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.