April 20, 2012
Yet whenever there is the slightest irritation, a whiff of change, or an unfavorable condition, why is it that we hand over our peace of mind so easily? Isn’t peace of mind our most valuable possession?
The topic is anger. We all experience it, but do we really understand it?
Spewing up like a red-hot volcano, anger is a primitive, biological response to perceived danger. A lava of adrenalin rumbles the heart rate, heats up the oxygen intake, trembles the muscles to either fight or flight. In addition, there is psychological smoke and dust, which cloud the mind to all our manners, our critical thinking, our wisdom. It allows the mind to fight or flight, which served our ancestors just fine on the plains of the Serengeti, running from a pride of lions. But at the office or on a downtown street, not so much. Without our reasoning and problem solving skills, there are regrettable consequences.
So is there a way out of our genetic destiny? I believe there is. It requires that we investigate and understand the whole mechanics of the psychology that leads to anger outbursts.
The trigger behind each outburst is always an unfulfilled need. The stronger the need the more violent the rage. The more there is at stake, the more fierce the vengeance. For example, if I feel like having strawberry ice cream and the clerk tells me he is sold out of that particular flavor, I may feel peeved, but I won’t say or do anything violent. If, on the other hand, my child has been assaulted by a stranger, I am going to be livid. Then the answer seems simple, find the trigger and solve it or avoid it.
But some triggers are unavoidable, external not under our control (like death and taxes). Some needs are so intertwined with many other needs that untangling the triggers is complicated. Yesterday I had an early morning medical appointment that was important for me to be on time. I had calculated that I needed to catch the 7.45 a.m. bus to make my appointment. That morning my alarm failed and I woke ten minutes later than I had intended. The elevator stopped a few floors down where a woman with three babies and a cellphone held open the door for her tardy husband. I could see the bus from across the street at 7.44. The traffic lights were against me. Just a I reached the bus, it drove off without me. I was angry, but whom to blame? The faulty alarm clock? The slow woman on the elevator? The mistimed traffic lights? The minute-too-early bus driver? And had the driver been familiar, it was tempting to take it personally. If the same thing had happened with the same driver recently, I am certain I would been very angry at him. Independently each trigger is a small annoyance, but by connecting the dots, it can grow into real rage.
Left alone, anger by itself is fragile. Ignore it and the adrenalin will subside, the mind will restore its composure, that is unless we justify the anger. Usually that happens so quickly we do not notice it. We act out of anger, say or do something(perhaps shout or bang our fist) and then we justify our behavior. It is easy to invent blame, to weave political and historical narratives on a personal insult. This kind of woven rage fuels revenge and retribution, even war.
It is not our fault that we are wired that way. Remember, during anger our wisdom is deprived from us. If we can suppress the anger for a few second before reacting, we may be able to restore the reigns to our wisdom. Strong will-power can help. Though there a couple of qualities about will-power we need to understand. Will-power is a kind of mental muscle. I gets weak when it is tired from overuse. Thus it is unreliable. But like any muscle, it can be trained to have more stamina. Compassion is also a muscle that can be trained. Once bulked-up it can overcome any primitive anger reflex. Best of all, compassion and forgiveness can be trained to respond automatically, without having to think about them.
To effect such a change, one has to cultivate awareness. Awareness of the triggers, awareness of our physical onset of anger. Awareness of our mental warnings before the anger. By the time we have questioned the anger and its motives, it evaporates. It is fragile. If we are mindful as we move through our daily routine, mindful of both our own responses and those of others, compassion floods through our being like a cold river. It is generous enough to quench the demands of our needs. The lesser our personal needs, the fewer our triggers. Altruistic needs, on the other hand, can lead to righteous anger which can affect social change. Think of Rosa Parks or Mahatma Gandhi. Or even John Walsh who channelled his rage at the murder of his son by heading America’s Most Wanted.
There is no denying this transformation will not happen overnight, and certainly not without effort and vigilance. But it will happen. Be patient. Taming anger is a process. You will fail from time to time, though the frequency and intensity will diminish. Trust me, I speak from experience.