I don’t usually think of myself as an irritable old codger -of course it’s what others think of me that actually counts… well, my age peers, anyway; they’re probably going through the same thing: the youth tend to regard us as biologically cranky. But I wonder if it’s more our impatience with their impatience that starts the snowball rolling down the hill. We elders have been through a lot, and have had time to accommodate, time to relabel our feelings, and time to channel them more into facial expressions than physical events. And anyway, it takes our thoughts longer to percolate through the pipes than it used to.
But, perhaps it might be helpful to differentiate anger -the frustration and rage we might feel at something we really didn’t like, from aggression -acting on that frustration and rage. I have learned do anger quietly, without provoking a response and getting beaten up. As you get older, you realize that the young have muscles, the old only have wrinkles.
And yet, maybe it’s something else entirely. I read an article one day by Ryan Martin, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (https://psyche.co/guides/anger-is-a-potent-beneficial-force-if-used-in-the-right-way) which suggested that ‘People often attribute their anger directly to external events: ‘I got mad because of the traffic’… In fact, a better explanation is that anger emerges from three interacting factors: a provocation, the person’s interpretation of the provocation, and their mood at the time.’
I like that, because these all seem to suggest that the presence of anger is dependent on the way an event or a circumstance is perceived. If I’m not in the mood, I won’t be provoked, and so there’s actually nothing to interpret, nothing to blame. We all know people who are often able to absent themselves from the emotional component of an action and see it in a different light. Did they learn it by example, or after being beaten up? An enlightened sense of self-preservation suggests I should vote for the former.
But, it may also stem from old and confused neurons redirecting signals down an alternative pathway. For example, I remember a recent occasion when I was hit by a bicycle while wandering down a neighbourhood sidewalk early one summer morning. It knocked me into a little picket fence which I broke when I fell over it and into a tiny flower garden.
The kid on the bike promptly sped away after a brief and desultory apology, leaving me to pick the roses off my face and disentangle the thorns from my shirt. Perhaps I should have been angry, but I was so overwhelmed with the scent I really couldn’t concentrate on anything else. I mean, what a place to have an accident!
Then, I became aware of an angry voice shouting at me from the porch of the little wooden house that owned the garden.
“You’re in my garden, mister.” It was her first concern, I suppose, but when she had a closer look at me, she quickly added “And you’re holding one of my roses… Have you been drinking…?” Perhaps it was a feeble attempt to moderate between compassion and accusation, but the empathy was dressed up more like an indictment.
I don’t tend to wear my best clothes for my morning walks through the neighbourhood; that day I was actually just taking a short cut to a 7-Eleven convenience store for some milk, and was wearing a day’s grizzle on my cheeks, a pair of now-dusty grey sweat pants, and a blue Grateful Dead sweat shirt. It could have been worse, I suppose -I was going to wear some old jeans with a torn leg, but it enlarged even further as I tried to put them on.
The woman was no threat, especially since she was dressed in a wrinkled blue bathrobe and hadn’t yet properly dried her steel-grey hair. She was only a skeletal little thing, probably in her eighties, and yet there she was, shouting and waving her arms at me like an outraged teacher. She seemed really angry. “You know you’ve wrecked my rosebush, eh?”
Actually, it was only one of them, but I suppose she had a point.
I decided to be honest with her. “I was heading to the store for some milk, when kid on a bike knocked me over your fence… Sorry about the roses…” The apology was a nice touch, I thought.
Anyway, it had an immediate effect on her, and she hurried down the dodgy wooden steps from the porch and onto the tiny lawn towards me.
“Your face is all scratched,” she said when she arrived. Her tone became soft. Sympathetic. “Are you all right…?” she added as her eyes quickly assessed my condition and corroborated it with a too-obvious sniff for any alcohol in the air.
I had to smile at the earnestness of her expression, and lifted the rose still in my hand to my nose. “I was just thinking that it was a wonderful place to have an accident.”
She chuckled at that, although I noticed her eyes wandering quickly over the damage to her rosebush.
“Do you often walk this way?” she asked, still obviously curious about my presence in her yard.
“Only when I discover I’ve run out of milk for my coffee this time of the morning. Not much is open yet…” I got up onto my knees and brushed off my sweatshirt. “I’m G, by the way,” I added and extended my hand.
She stared at me suspiciously for a moment, wondering how much she should trust the words of a stranger who had just fallen into her yard. Then she slowly turned her head towards the porch and a little table sitting on one corner of it and I could see a big smile on her face when she looked at me again. “My name’s Liz,” she said, extending a bony hand to shake and then help me to my feet. “I was just going to have my morning coffee out on the porch…” Her eyes sparkled as they fought their way through the wrinkles on her face. “And I’ve got milk,” she added. “Would you like to join me… if I let you bring the rose?”
Sometimes there is just no space for anger…