Thinking through anger, the impulse for revenge and erring on the side of peace
As a middle aged man, I’ve had numerous opportunities to think through anger. I’ve been miffed, offended, hurt and deceived. I have experienced all of those states of mind, yet I am here to say that I have been able to forgive everyone.
Long ago, someone told me that resentment is like drinking poison while waiting for the other person to die. Yes, I did this many times in my life. From mental obsessions to planning revenge, I think I’ve run the course in my mind. But decades of experience have taught me that it is not possible to hurt someone else without hurting yourself. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work. Well, maybe in the movies that works, but not here, in the flesh. Let’s take a walk through some examples, shall we?
I’m in the car, driving to work. Someone ahead of me with poor lane discipline changes lanes in front of me with no signal. I curse him. I want to get around him, and eventually, I find an opening and do that. But to make that pass, I had to blow a half mile of gasoline, when I could have just followed, and I’d still get to my destination in one piece.
And while I’m thinking about the driver in front of me, I can hardly be present for the moment due to all the mental effort and attention spent on scheming, planning, waiting, fuming. I’ve done this and more.
Middle age tends to bring out the mortality in me. At this point in time, I’d rather live longer, and anger doesn’t help me in that regard. Sure, I might have wanted to punish our errant driver, but did I succeed in doing so by passing him? I could see him in the mirror enjoying his music. Was I enjoying mine? I could see her doing her makeup, completely oblivious to my state of mind. Does she even know how I feel?
This is the thing with driving in anger. The other drivers have literally no clue about me. They’re thinking about their own lives, troubles and what have you. I’m the least of their problems and I prefer to remain that way.
Another example is when I am the recipient of angry criticism. I could respond in kind and have thought about that many times. I’m not organized, I forgot to do something important, or I did something that I should not have done.
Whatever the “crime”, I have learned not to bite back. I know I can leave the other person in tears or anger, but that can only lead to escalation and it only gets worse from there. So I acknowledge my mistake and do my best to fix it, quietly. I apologize for my mistakes immediately. I keep my side of the street clean.
But I also take notice that when I am the recipient of criticism, that the person dishing on me is in pain or discomfort. Humans have a tendency to distribute their pain, as if somehow, that will make them feel better. I guess its an apparent shortcut to empathy, but it never really works out that way.
And then there is the child who indiscriminately destroys a prized possession. Here we have a power imbalance to add for good measure. Do we punish the child? Did the child even know what he or she was doing? Do we suffer our tears for the loss and let the child get away with it?
I always strive to err on the assumption of ignorance before malice, especially with kids. I’m not perfect at this, but time has been a diligent teacher for me. Yes, it’s only a thing that was lost and people can never be replaced. Not the memories, not the personality, not even the good faith between us. None of that can ever be replace.
I’ve had a few things destroyed by other kids when I was a kid. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen my friends break or destroy something important to me. I learned early on that if I want to keep a prized possession, I maintain possession. Ownership is 9/10th’s possession, anyway.
So when one of my kids breaks something that was important to me, I let it go. It was my fault for letting it happen. I assume that they didn’t know better and move on. It is not worth the drama or emotional pain to inflict punishment for something done in ignorance.
If I want to keep a prized possession intact, I keep it out of reach of the kids. I set clear boundaries that do not require the kids to change. I make it hard for the kids to get to things I want to preserve and take full responsibility for those things. I don’t allow temptation to overtake them by placing anything I don’t want them to touch within their reach.
In my experience, most conflicts are avoidable and preventable. Even escalation is preventable. People are a reflection of me. If I’m angry, they’re angry. If I’m happy, they tend to be happy around me. If I’m sad, well, it’s only downhill from there. The reason people reflect me is that humans are purpose built to learn through imitation.
If I choose to punish someone over something they did, they will reflect that back at me. If I choose to forgive, and maybe not forget, but just forgive, then I’m erring on the side of peace. When I err on the side of peace, people around me reflect that action back to me.
Forgiveness is not to be mistaken for enabling or supporting unpleasant behavior. Forgiveness is just a way for me to accept what happened, avoid making any effort to change the other person, and for me to focus on me and what I can change for myself. In that respect, forgiveness is easy.
I used to attend improvisation classes on a weekly basis. I just enjoyed getting on stage and making people laugh with no plans to make a career out of it. But there was a lesson I learned there, and that lesson is still with me to this day. The facilitator of the improv class said this:
Don’t worry about making a mistake on stage. No one will remember it next week.
My life is like that. I make a mistake, I fix it as best as I can, learn what I can and I forget about the rest. That is how I treat myself. That is how I treat other people. That is how I want to be treated.
People who criticize are a pain to be around. But I also know that they’re their own worst critic. If someone criticizes me, I know that they have a voice in their head criticizing them. I don’t have to punish anyone who criticizes me because they’re already flailing themselves in their own mind. I don’t have to add to their pain.
For all of these reasons, I err on the side of peace. I’ve tried so many other ways, but in the end, it just comes down to whether or not I want peace in my own mind. I never want to have to look over my shoulder in fear. I don’t need personal adversaries. I wan to lay my head on my pillow knowing I did the right thing, every single night.
I know how I want to be remembered. I know how I want to be treated. And I know that the easiest path to how I want to be remembered and how I want to be treated is to err on the side of peace.