Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Difficulties of Anger

Mark Twain once said, "When angry, count to four.  When very angry, swear."

As I watch the austerity protests sweep across Europe and listen to the rhetoric of the Tea Party and other (in many cases, justifiably) disgruntled groups here in America, I've been thinking a lot about the phenomenon of anger.  As I look to other writers and thinkers for advice and inspiration, I'm particularly struck by the fact that many of them express serious doubts about the value and efficacy of anger, even as they acknowledge the prominence of this very troublesome and all-too-common human emotion.

For instance, Albert Einstein cautions, "Anger dwells only in the bosom of fools."  Benjamin Franklin admits, "Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one," and as a result, "Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame."  Likewise, Seneca, the Roman philosopher and tragedian, observes, "Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful than the injury that provokes it."

Philosophers seem particularly concerned with remaining calm.  Not surprisingly, the Greek Stoic Epictetus tells us, “When you are offended at any man's fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger.”  (He doesn't mention, of course, that we'll forget our anger because we've now made ourselves majorly depressed.)

Others seem more goal-oriented.  Plato argues, "There are two things a person should never be angry at, what they can help, and what they cannot."  So, really, if you can do something about it, do it, and if you can't, you can't.  In effect, Plato seems to suggest that anger is simply a waste of time: it's either a pointless substitute for action or an emotional response to helplessness that won't change the fact of our powerlessness.

Aristotle offers food for further thought.  He notes, "Anyone can become angry--that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way--that is not easy."  How to tap into useful, productive, well-directed anger, that is the question.  How can we know when the time is right for anger? We usually know it only after the fact, because we're already angry-- and at that point, the urge to justify ourselves by whatever means possible is nearly overpowering.

The idea that there are various ways of being angry is worth considering.  I think we tend to think of anger or rage as a blanket-emotion.  It usually covers a multitude of situations and sensations, but if we force ourselves to be precise about the nature and cause of our anger, a funny thing happens.  We calm down.  We get clear--very, very clear--about what exactly it is that's bothering us and why, and we can even sometimes begin to let people know what they need to do to stop ticking us off.

I think what concerns me about the many angry people and political movements that I see is their almost complete lack of clarity, precision and--in the most extreme cases--coherence.  People are angry about anything and everything.  Mention something annoying, and it's quickly added to a list of grievances, with no time for thought or reflection.  We're just mad, damn it.

I think crowds can be useful manifestations of anger, but too often they come to represent forces of unthinking rage--something that's often dangerous and usually unproductive.  There is strength in numbers, but there is also chaos in crowds.  They are easily led by emotion and rarely follow a logical train of thought to its many and multifarious conclusions. 

When we're angry, we stop asking questions.  We yell, insist and assert.  And we almost never listen.

One of my favorite quotations about anger comes from the Greek playwright Euripides.  In his play, The Medea, Euripides dramatizes the nearly-nuclear fallout that comes when the Greek hero Jason decides to leave his witchy-wife Medea and their two children and marry--of course--a much-younger princess.  As Jason and Medea angrily accuse one another of being the one who screwed everything up, the Chorus comments, "It is a strange form of anger, difficult to cure/ When two friends turn upon each other in hatred."

I think this is the difference between "objective" anger and "personal" anger.  When some idiot cuts us off on the highway, we feel angry, but the anger is somehow detached from us.  It isn't personal, it's just a guy--or girl--doing something annoying that can create really serious consequences that we'll have to deal with.

When we're angry at a friend, though, we feel betrayed.  When we feel this way, getting clarity is much, much more difficult than it might be in a case of objective anger.  We find it much harder to be precise about the cause of our anger, and articulating a solution is often nearly impossible.  We're just hurt-- really, really freakin' hurt-- and we can't believe that this one person of all people is the one who has caused our pain. 

I think that in some way, this is what is lurking behind the anger of the crowds and political movements awash on the American and European landscapes lately.  A strange form of anger, difficult to cure.  A collective sense of betrayal at something or someone we trusted. 

But have we earned that sense of betrayal?  When all of the banks and governments were doing what they were all doing for a decade or more, we weren't angry.  We weren't even paying all that much attention, because hey, it wasn't our problem if no one knew where the money was, so long as the stock market was up.  It wasn't up to us to keep tabs on it all, to make people and institutions accountable, if we weren't feeling the consequences of their actions.

But as it turns out, it was up to us and it still is--and unfortunately, it will be for months to come.  So which is it: are we angry because of something we couldn't do anything about, or are we angry about something we could have done something about, but chose not to?  Were we helpless all those years, or did we just choose not to act? 

I think if we all consider and answer these questions, we can begin to move from anger as a personal outlet to an anger that can be used at the right time, for the right purposes and in the right way.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."