Anger has never been a large part of my life -irritation, yes; impatience, perhaps; maybe even a little pique -but not full-pulsed, throat-filled anger. And certainly not rage… Okay, nothing that lasts anyway: beyond a few seconds or so, I begin to feel embarrassed, or even laugh at myself -especially if I’ve done something silly, like drool, or bump into a lamp. It’s all too easy to lose control like that… or did I just give something away?
At any rate, anger -true anger- seems to involve a loss of something -restraint, of course, but something else as well: the ability to govern your reason, calibrate your words, and measure your reply. Far from being a positive reaction to a situation, it all too often provokes negative, retaliatory responses; it seldom solves the problem, and frequently has unintended consequences.
That’s what usually happened to me at recess when I was young. Being a small, bespectacled little boy armed only with braggadocial sesquipedalianisms did little to guarantee my safety in the large, mud-filled Winnipeg fields of the day. When you’re the smallest kid, you have to learn to control anger -not so much in yourself as in others. Only years later did I finally understand the advice my father gave me: whisper curses, but shout apologies -or was that my mother?
Anyway, now that I am tepid with age, and my short term memory is beginning to fray, I’d have to write down why I’m angry to put on a decent performance; it’s just not worth it anymore. So, it was with some relief that I discovered a delightful little essay on the madness of anger. It was written by Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York:
Pigliucci, it would seem, has been very much influenced by Stoics like Seneca who, back in the first century CE, thought that anger was a temporary madness, ‘and that even when justified, we should never act on the basis of it because… Its intensity is in no way regulated by its origin: for it rises to the greatest heights from the most trivial beginnings.’
It is perhaps easy enough to tell yourself that anger is counter-productive, but what does that accomplish -especially if someone has just insulted you? How might you counter the counter-productivity? One way was suggested by another Stoic philosopher, the second-century slave-turned-teacher Epictetus who taught his students to ‘Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves – that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?’
Maybe things were different in those days, because I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t work for me. I suppose it’s an interesting idea, though. But what about righteous anger -surely that’s both warranted and often effective? A controlled, angry response would convince people of your sincerity while not destroying any property, or whatever. And yet, Pigliucci thinks that Seneca would say that ‘to talk of moderate anger is to talk of flying pigs’ -a nice, but decidedly dated metaphor at best. But, ‘the Stoic take is that we are moved to action by positive emotions, such as a sense of indignation at having witnessed an injustice, or a desire to make the world a better place for everyone. Anger just isn’t necessary, and in fact it usually gets in the way.’ Indeed, another Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius in his book of Meditations, thought ‘that if people are doing wrong, what you need to do instead is to ‘teach them then, and show them without being angry’.
All well and good, but what to do when the beast awakens in your breast and you’re not ten years old on a playground with a good set of legs? Well, Pigliucci seems to have thought this through as well, and offers a ten step program like AA -or do they have twelve? I’ve never taken their course. Anyway, his program would probably be helpful in a lot of situations. Things like ‘Don’t engage in discussions when you are tired, you will be more prone to irritation, which can then escalate into anger… Don’t start discussions when you are thirsty or hungry, for the same reason.’ Makes sense, I suppose, but I think it would severely restrict a person’s social life -especially on a dinner date after a day at the office.
One suggestion I found particularly practical, though: cognitive distancing -delaying your response by going to the bathroom, or something. I mean your date could hardly argue with that. But let’s face it, sometimes you just have improvise.
I often see my friend John for coffee sitting in the same crowded little shop where the baristas smile a lot. I mention the smiling, because John usually isn’t. In fact, he told me his wife shoos him out of the house each morning so she’ll get a little break. Now that he’s retired, his constant presence upsets the familiar household regime to which she’s grown accustomed over the years.
“She wasn’t like this at the beginning,” he would usually lament, his eyes pleading for some answers. “Mona always said I brightened up a room…” Then he’d gulp his coffee to dilute the expression on his face.
One day, as I stood in line for a coffee and a bagel, I noticed him sitting in a dark corner of the shop, just staring at his coffee and looking more cheerful than usual.
“Hi John,” I said as I sat down at his table in the shadows. “You’re looking pretty chipper today…” I suppose it wasn’t the best conversation opener -I hate cliché descriptives- but the word just slipped out.
His eyes briefly acknowledged my presence, but he stayed silent for a moment longer. “I think I’ve solved her,” he said, enigmatically. It fit with the smile sitting on his face, however, so I raised my eyebrows to urge him to continue.
“’Why are you always trying to get rid of me, Mona?’ I asked her -I’d had enough of her dismissions, and I actually raised my voice.” He glanced at me to gauge my reaction.
“You never get angry, John; you must have been really upset.”
He nodded cheerfully. “I’d had enough of her kicking me out of the house every morning.”
“So did the two of you actually have a fight?” John was the meekest person I knew, so even the thought of him standing up to his wife was, well, unthinkable.
His smile grew and his eyes began to twinkle. I didn’t realize he even knew how to twink.
“She was surprised, alright,” he added, shrugging in proud recognition of his courage. “And then I yelled at her that I’d had enough of her bossing me around…” I must have looked surprised, because he chuckled at my reaction.
“What did she do then?” I asked, completely taken aback.
“She left the room…”
I was silent for a moment; I didn’t know what to say. Then I tried to smile and reassure him. “Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you here more often now, eh?”
He shrugged again, this time a little embarrassed, I thought. “Maybe…”
It was then that I noticed another cup at his table, and a partially eaten croissant hidden in the shadows near his chair. My eyebrows shot up -I couldn’t control them.
Can eyes laugh? His did when he noticed my glance. “She’s in the washroom,” he explained. “Never could hold her coffee…”
I think my mouth opened before I could stop it, but the only word that tumbled out was “Who…?”
His whole face dissolved into a smile. “Mona, of course.” When I continued to stare, he sighed. “She decided we should eat out more often…”
I don’t know about the Stoics, but I think anger is sometimes underrated.