Are you the bomb or the balm?

By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

When there’s a bomb threat or, God forbid, an explosion, we run away and report it so attackers can be arrested and punished.

But what if the “bomb” in your surroundings is a person? Someone with volatile reactions and weaponized emotions? What do you do then?

I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks after making a phone call to schedule a medical procedure for my mom. The sweet woman who answered the phone confirmed that they’d received the doctor’s referral, and then she told me the name of the person who would be scheduling it. I thanked her and said I’d follow up in a day or so.

“Oh, no. Don’t do that,” she whispered with alarm in her voice. “She has a strict way of doing things, so she will call you when she’s ready. You shouldn’t call her. I don’t want to get on her bad side. If you call her… well, I can tell you that it will not be appreciated.”

The receptionist’s nervous caution made me realize what she meant but couldn’t say. She has a co-worker who explodes like a bomb if things don’t go exactly how she wants. People have learned (probably the hard way) to tip-toe around her like a silent cat in a field of landmines.

Human “bombs” can be anywhere – workplaces, homes, schools, family reunions, roads, airplanes, and sometimes even churches. It’s scary and unnerving – to see what looks like a regular human suddenly explode with anger, sending emotional shrapnel far and wide. When we see someone “go off,” we often diffuse the situation by giving apologies that aren’t deserved or by retreating to a safer place.

Unfortunately, when we duck and cover or try to appease the bomb, it reinforces the idea that adult temper tantrums are effective. It’s mean and manipulative, but the bomb will do what works. They’ll pounce on any excuse to vent their rage.

People who work or live around human bombs balance on eggshells and dodge invisible hair triggers just to get through the day. These innocent bystanders who’ve seen and heard too much will say things like, “That’s just how she is,” or “He’s been through a lot and has a bad temper.”

Last time I checked, we all feel anger because it’s a basic human emotion. Some of us manage it, and some explode – loudly or passive-aggressively. But bombs of any kind don’t deserve a pass.

More and more, I’m learning that grown-ups and adults aren’t always the same thing. Grown-ups have done the work of growing up physically and emotionally, and it shows even during their difficult moments. But some adults are just toddlers with mortgages. We mostly avoid them. But when possible, we’ve got to stand against lousy behavior with truth and consequences.

Because the world is scattered with human bombs, the rest of us need to be a “balm” – the kind of person who makes someone feel better for no other reason than kindness and because they can. A balm who soothes the spirit and comforts old wounds.

Sometimes, even the smallest gesture can be a balm. A few days ago, I was in a McDonald’s drive-thru, and the young man who slid open the window to take my credit card said, “Good morning,” looked me in the eyes, and smiled in such a warm, genuine way that it felt like he was happy to see me – a tired, middle-aged, stressed-out lady in a wrinkled t-shirt who obviously hadn’t showered in days. That three-second exchange made the morning feel hopeful. It made me want to be a balm, too.

If emotions are contagious, and I do believe they are, I want to be a grown-up who spreads the good ones.

Are you the bomb or the balm? Who do you know who’s one or the other?

None of us are “how we are” with no capacity for change. It’s a choice we make from one moment to the next.

May we all make the right one.

Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at Her book is available on Amazon.