The Going Price Of Anger, Resentment, and Bitterness?
Loss of the capacity to listen to other points of view.
A few days ago, I published an article for the diehard Bernie Or Bust crowd. I did so upon the request of someone else on Twitter. He had seen the anguish in his friends upon the news of Bernie suspending his campaign and wanted to help. I wanted to help. So I did.
Today, I want to carry that thinking forward a bit more, but I want to change the context and reduce the matter to some very simple terms that are easy to understand. I want to reduce the problem of anger to very simple concepts that are easily applied to nearly any situation.
I have found that our anger is often unjustified. In the book, “The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous”, I read that many alcoholics drank in anger. They believed that their anger was justified and so was their drinking. They said in their book, that their anger is not only unjustified but that they were not even qualified to be angry. They said that they lacked the capacity to see the other side of their anger.
To see that statement, that our anger is unjustified, in a book written by a very large group of alcoholics, a group of people who were serious in their desire to stop drinking, well, that carries the force of a locomotive to me. These were people who were intimately familiar with rage, wrath, and anger. They were willing to surrender their anger for sobriety.
Now drinking was never my thing. But even I can see the wisdom of what they were saying. To reframe their statement, I believe that I lack the capacity to justify my anger at all times. Yes, I may still get angry, but I temper that anger with knowledge of a personal history littered with the damage that unjustified anger has left behind. And the person that I hurt the most in my anger, that was me.
In my young 20s, I had broken up with a girlfriend. I made the mistake of calling her back after some weeks, thinking that I had made a mistake. I found that she had found someone else and that my opportunity for a reunion was lost. I fell into a rage, and I spent a lot of time obsessing on her. I had even got to the point where I needed a release that would hurt no one.
So I bought a baseball bat with a mind to release some energy. At night, I went to the park, found a secluded spot and pounded sand, screaming at the top of my lungs. I pounded the sand until I was exhausted. I did this I think for a week or so, maybe more. I don’t remember exactly how long. But I did it long enough to expel the anger that was doing harm to me while doing harm to no one else. I might have surprised a few ants, it was dark, so I don't know for sure. But I am sure that no humans were hurt.
Since then I have learned to manage my anger. So when I do feel angry, I let the moment pass. I let the feeling pass. And when the feeling of anger passes, I can begin to think again. I can begin to think again about how I might better my circumstances rather than make my life worse than it is today. I have found a life of relative peace after repeating this process over and over again. I have learned how to err on the side of peace.
I’m not a religious man, but when it comes to the Bible, I can agree with a few things it says. One of the things that the Bible says is that wrath is a sin. Wrath is one of the 7 Deadly Sins, and anger is wrath. Everyone who has ever been murdered was murdered in anger. And that anger was believed to have been justified by the murderer.
Anger can also lead us to do incredibly harmful things short of murder. Anger can lose relationships, jobs, money and our sanity. We evolved with anger for self-defense against predators. Anger is not something we turn against our fellow man or even ourselves. I know this for I have never seen a positive outcome when anger is turned against a human.
Our anger can lead to blindness, a loss of hearing and as noted above, serious injury and loss of life. In our anger, we lose the capacity to think, and with it, the capacity to listen to others. I can look back on my life and recall any example of me acting in anger, and see that in those moments of rage, I had lost the capacity to think clearly. I had lost the capacity to see the opportunities laid bare to me in any setback. Opportunities are everywhere. Opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming. And I’ve missed many buses in anger.
Underneath our anger is fear. There is always fear under anger. The fear may be real or imagined. But under our rage, there is always fear. When confronted with a predator who thinks we might be his lunch, that fear is turned into anger for our self-defense. When confronted with an irritating person, that anger is unjustified. In anger, we assume malice before ignorance. And often, when we assume malice, we fear that one or more of our needs will not be met.
When we’re in fear, we lose the capacity to think because, in fear, we fall back on instinct. We fall back on the R-complex of our brain for survival. The R-complex is the oldest part of the human brain. Scientists say that the R-Complex is what we inherited from the reptiles from which we evolved. That part of our brain isn’t very smart, but it has a lot of experience. It got us this far.
The R-Complex is not very good at human relations. It’s not good at noticing nuances. You know, like, if your office mate interrupts your train of thought in an email you’re writing, you may feel a certain sense of irritation. Or if your significant other asks you to do some chores just as your about to settle into Netflix, you may feel irritation. Or if your child refuses your request to stop playing with the perfume. Left unsatisfied, the R-Complex is unable to assemble a nuanced response to other people acting on or expressing their own needs.
Anger is selfish. Anger is about getting ones needs met. But we live in a society with huge surpluses of food and water. Outside of a deadly infection, cancer or heart disease, most of us will survive today, next week, next month and beyond. Anger assumes an existential threat. An irritating person in the same room with you is not an existential threat.
Anger assumes that we had no part in the business that led up to our anger in the first place. I have never, ever seen an incident where I was angry, and I had nothing to do with it. If I look carefully, some of us call this “inventory”, I will almost always find my part in the events leading up to my own anger. With help from others, I will always find my part in it. It is easy for me to temper my anger when I see my part in it. And once I see my part in it, I can also see my way to resolution of that which made me angry faster than without such introspection. Some of us might call that an opportunity.
Resentments, have you? Resentment is like drinking poison waiting for the other person to die. Let go of the resentments for a few minutes at least to see if you had any part of it. Bitterness? Where were you before you were angry? Were you taking steps to prevent such bitterness? Or were you busy being angry, hoping that the other person would somehow change for you?
And so we’re back to Bernie Sanders and the suspension of his campaign. Some of us feel bitter that he suspended his campaign. Some of us are angry that he seems to have been defeated. Sanders is not the cause, he is a symptom, much like Trump is not the cause, he is also a symptom. Symptoms are not causes, they are signals of distress. Anger is a signal of distress, too.
We have been asleep at the wheel in America for a long, long time. If we feel angry about our circumstances we have only ourselves to blame. If we dwell on the blame, we will fall into anger, and in anger, we may miss many opportunities to right ourselves.
I have seen this cycle over and over again in my own life. I have spent the last three decades learning to surrender my anger for the opportunities before me. It is simple in concept, difficult in practice. I’m a pretty smart guy, but my putative little brain is simply no match for the universe. Experience has taught me to be very, very cautious with anger. Our anger is what got us here, it will not get us out of here.
So if you feel angry right about now because of everything that has happened you, consider the opportunities you might have missed in anger. Consider the possibility that you lack the capacity to use anger wisely. Consider the possibility that your anger is unjustified. And when you’re done doing all that, take note of any opportunities to make your life better, and act on them. Surrender your anger for opportunities and see if that suits you.
It worked for me.