Did you find yourself angry today? This week? Even in the last month? How often are you angry at someone else or something else?
We often think of anger as instinctual. This might be true except for two things. First, instinctual anger is what we can experience when we feel threatened by someone else, and I mean existentially threatened. In the vast majority of circumstances in what passes for “civilization”, when we become angry, we are not threatened with our lives. Most times, that anger is provoked by slights and inconvenience.
That brings me to the second reason why we get angry. We make a choice to be angry. Humans have a large cortex to think with. Humans can, and often do, transcend instinctual urges for something better. That makes anger a choice for most of us, most of the time.
Consider a few scenarios. You rise in the morning and your wife doesn’t smile at you and say, “good morning”. You think something is wrong. You think you did something wrong, but your wife isn’t talking. Do you get angry at her and express anger at her? If so, you made a choice to get angry.
You’re driving on your way to yet another errand. This time, you have have a deadline and you need to be there on time. While approaching an intersection, someone cuts you off and taps the breaks just as the light turns yellow. You brake and come to a fuming stop. Do you get angry and curse the driver ahead of you, happily speeding away? If so, you made a choice to get angry.
You’re reading the news and everyone’s favorite punching bag, President Donald J. Trump, declares a national emergency to get his wall built. You think it’s his wall, like, “not in my name.” You call your senator and leave a voicemail expressing your rage at the insult to your intelligence that Trump would have the gall to build that wall. Did you make a choice to get angry, or did Trump “make” you angry?
OK, last one. You’re stopping in at Starbucks after a long day at work. You got your butt kicked by irate customers unhappy with your employers products. You drive around, hunting for a parking spot, and you see one closer to the entrance than the large expanse of empty spots by the road. But before you can get to that spot someone else snakes it. Fuming, you find a spot farther away and trudge in the show to get a coffee. You walk in, see that there is line, and just before you can join the line, someone else slips in. He’s the panhandler that you see every day on the way to work. When he finally gets to the front of the line, he pays for his Super Venti Flat White, with pennies. Are we angry yet?
In each of the examples above, we have made a choice to be angry. We’re not talking about existential threats here. Our responses can range from sarcasm, passive aggression, and insults to physical combat resulting in serious injury or death. I’ve read the articles about people going “postal”. Anger can, in some cases be fatal.
You might recall the famous legal battles of Apple vs. Google. Steve Jobs provided the inspiration for the iPhone. After years of development work, Apple had created a world class product, a smart phone like no other. Then Google introduced Android. And word from Cupertino was that Steve Jobs saw Android as a stolen product, violating Apple patents up and down, left and right. Jobs was absolutely furious for years after that, until his untimely death at the age of 56 years old.
Steve Jobs was a man who at one time, lived a simple life, ate simple meals and practiced meditation. With his immense wealth, he could have settled into a very peaceful life doing service for others, for work is better when you don’t need the money. But Jobs made a choice to be angry over Android and had even vowed to destroy it. I believe that Jobs paid for that anger with his life.
Every day is the same in a relative way. We get to decide what to do with it. I am presented with countless opportunities to be angry. A slight here, an inconvenience there, and a disappointment over there. All I have to do is notice them and then react.
As a mature, middle aged ape, I can choose to react, or respond. When one of my kids has a meltdown, I sit there and talk with them, at their eye level. I give them a speech that goes something like this:
I see that you’re angry. You’re angry because you didn’t get what you wanted. I want you to know that just because you’re angry, doesn’t mean I have to get angry, too. I can make a choice to be angry or not, and I choose not to be angry. I also want you to know that I may not be able to give you want you want, but I can give you a hug. You can always ask for a hug at any time, for any reason, or no reason at all. Just ask.
This is what I’m teaching my kids. And as I talk with my kids, I’m modeling calm, peace, and forgiveness. Did I say “forgiveness”? I wasn’t think of it that way when I was sitting there talking with my kids, but as I look back, I forgave them, for they know not what they do. Children do not always have the skills to decide whether or not to be angry. They must learn that skill from us. They teach us the rest.
Throughout my life, I have tried the way of anger and found it wanting. Even after being angry, I found that I still didn’t get what I wanted. The other person was still happy whether I was angry or not. And I found that I still had to see my part in it. Anger prevents us from seeing our part in why we feel the way we do.
So I let myself feel the anger when it comes. And then I wait to let it pass. The brain has a tendency to wander, and I use that with my kids. I keep talking with them until their mind wanders again. I do that with myself, too. I’ve even done that talking past the anger with my wife.
Talking past the anger, through an upset works because anger is very taxing on the body, and it drains the energy from the body. Anger makes me tired. So instead of acting on the anger, I let it pass. I avoid adding anger to an already angry circumstance. I de-escalate because I never want to know how far people are willing to go to prove that they’re right, when they’re angry.
Relationships are systems, just like the body is a system, just like your computer is a system, just like the planet is a system. And systems are always seeking equilibrium, a state of balance. If we put anger into a system, we will get anger out. If we let the anger pass, we can choose to put something else into the system around us. At that point, I choose peace.
I am fallible, and I’m going to make mistakes when I resolve my conflicts. So as long as I’m going to make a mistake, and I can’t please everyone, I choose to err on the side of peace. That is what I do with my anger. I turn it into peace.