Beth and I were enjoying a fall morning breakfast at a neighborhood cafe. It was a beautiful, cool morning, the air was fresh, and the anticipation of a new day was upon us. But our peace was shattered by the blare of a car horn right beside us. It was not the kind of horn that toots sharply and then goes away, but rather the kind that goes on and on and on; the kind that fades into the distance as the driver carries their anger with them; the kind that leaves deep disturbance in its wake.
This incident got me thinking about anger. There is so much of it around us – and it seems to be growing. Anger shows up most obviously in politics, and around the social, environmental and economic issues that have been politicized, but it also shows up in the most mundane places, like grocery store lines, shopping malls, school sports games. I believe this is something we need to look at; I believe it is something that each of us needs to take responsibility for in our own lives. This post explores anger and concludes with five concrete steps each of us can take to manage the anger in our own lives and to positively influence the anger in our environment.
Driving and Road Rage
Something funny happens to us when we drive. I’ve felt it myself: have you? Do you do things when you’re behind the wheel of a car that you would never dream of doing in a shopping mall? Like barge in front of others; pull along to the front of a line and cut in; or express outrage, shout, and hit the steering wheel when someone does something that you feel is just wrong? Do you feel a greater tendency to call people “stupid”, “idiot”, “moron”?
Something funny happens to us when we drive. I suspect it has always been thus. I am reminded of Toad of Toad Hall, a character in A.A. Milne’s children’s classic “Wind in the Willows”, first published over a century ago in 1908 when cars were still fairly new. Toad, affluent and flighty, takes up driving and causes mayhem. He drives too fast, disregards other road users, and pays no attention to the laws. Behind the wheel of the car he enters his own world and becomes oblivious to others and to their humanity.
Maybe it’s because when we drive we are in a cocoon. Maybe it’s because our movements are hampered and restricted and unnatural. Maybe it’s because we feel invulnerable and beyond the physical reach of those we malign. Maybe it’s because we feel powerful, in charge of the machine. Whatever the reason, the tendency to escalating indignation behind the wheel of a car is real. It is worse for some of us than for others, and can rise to real road rage. A friend of my father, in his seventies, decided shortly after his wife passed away to stop driving. The reason? He found himself getting violently angry when he drove and, while he didn’t like this, he couldn’t control it. He decided the only way to recover his humanity was to stop.
A Culture of Anger
I suspect it’s always been thus, but equally I suspect that in some ways it has gotten worse. I’ve written before about our current climate of fear, and this gives rise naturally to defensive instincts. Of course we will have our guard up and be on the lookout for threats when we’re scared. And when those threats are perceived, there will of course be a strong emotional response, out of which it is easy for anger to rise.
In the early 1990’s the phrase “going postal” arose (its first recorded usage was in the St Petersburg Times in 1993), initially to describe the spate of 11 US Post Office shootings in a decade, but later coming to describe a broader phenomenon of the expression of extreme anger and frustration in the workplace. Since then workplace shootings have continued, and the incidence of violent, often murderous expression of anger in our culture has grown.
There are probably deep-seated social reasons for this. Maybe it all arises from frustrated child-hood dreams. Maybe it is influenced by the particular pressures of modernity, or from a feeling of alienation and separation; perhaps it is a result of a breakdown in community. Maybe video games really are to blame! It is a complex problem for sure, and likely one without a single answer.
But we do seem to be in an environment that intentionally cultivates anger. Think of talk radio: most obviously Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh come to mind. But the Republican right don’t have a monopoly on this thinking or behavior: the contempt shown by Bill Maher is equally toxic, and it shows up everywhere. We have, as a society, seem to have bought into a culture in which it’s okay to have unexamined beliefs and hold those who don’t think like us in contempt as lesser beings -not just as idiots, but as dangerous. Why would we not get angry at them if they are a real threat? The stump speeches of many of our politicians are increasingly built on this kind of rhetoric. I know many people who can barely think or talk about politics without being overcome with rage, and I’m sure you do too.
Anger As A Team Sport
Perhaps the broader reach of anger in our society is also enabled by a dehumanization of the other and a feeling of safety in the team. Do you ever feel yourself caught up in this? Finding yourself getting angry at a group of people you don’t know: for example saying, “It’s the Democrats who are ruining our country!”
Of course you could equally blame the Republicans, or the police, or big business, or any number of other categories. What matters is that on the one hand you self-identify with and feel yourself part of a group of right-minded believers who both give you self-confidence and serve as your car, your armor, your machine of power; and on the other hand you identify a faceless, nameless group of people who are to blame for what is wrong. A group of people who are not your neighbors or your friends or people to whom you have any loyalty or duty of care.
Certainly this is a harsh and sketch, and maybe it over-characterizes the situation, but it gives a sense of how opinions accompanied by dehumanizing the other can lead to polarization, lack of conversation and understanding, and to anger. It illustrates how picking sides and dehumanizing the other along boundaries of faith, politics, race or socio-economics can lead to a culture of blame and contempt, such that when anger does arise we don’t feel the need to check it, but can rather let it run its course.
Does It Need To Be This Way?
On our recent trip to India I was struck by road etiquette in Delhi. The flow of traffic incomprehensible. People wove in and out, cut in front of each other, drove up sidewalks to get to places faster, but the whole demeanor was mild. No one seemed to get angry. On one occasion a car bumped into our bus, and our driver shook his head with momentary disgust, and then just got out to see if there was any damage bus – no doubt because it was not his vehicle! After a quick walk up and down the bus, he got back in, drove on, and the incident was over. On another occasion a motorbike rider, distracted by waving and smiling at us tourists, bumped into another motorbike. The two exchanged a few sharp words, but it in moments they just drove off; again, the incident was over.
Anger happens, but like the drivers we encountered in India, we don’t need to get caught up in it. Rather we can let it go and move on.
Five Things We Can Do
It doesn’t have to be this way, and we will individually and collectively be much happier and healthier if we don’t so easily succumb to anger. Here are five things you can to move along that path. These are all actions and decisions that will reduce your own tendency to get angry and will also work positively on your environment, helping other people calm down. It will even help you be in a place out of which increasingly anger – yours or that of another person – does not arise in the first place.
- Breathe: anyone who has taken a yoga or a mindfulness class, or learned to play a musical instrument or dance, knows this rule, but it is easy to forget. The very act of taking a slow breath calms us and helps us see the situation in a clearer light. Beyond that, taking a breath takes time, and so taking a breath slows things down and creates more space in a situation. It allows room for us to look at our instinctive reaction and decide if this is what we really want to do. It allows us to look at what we’d most like to accomplish in the situation, which is probably not to create or to escalate tensions.
- Forgive: if someone gets angry at you, forgive them. You don’t know what pressures they are under, where they are rushing off to, or why. And even if they are in no particular need, but just got short with you, haven’t you done the same before? Is this not a very ordinary human clumsiness? Also if you find yourself getting angry, forgive yourself. Recognize that you just reacted in a way of which you are not especially proud, but that this doesn’t define you and you don’t need to do the same again. Rather than thinking of this as forgiveness of yourself and of others, perhaps you can think of it as a response of compassion or of love.
- Meditate: meditation cultivates the presence of a spacious approach to life. It cultivates a sense of connectedness with others out of which anger is less likely to stick, either when it arises within us or when it is projected at us by others. If you have a steady meditation practice, it is much more likely that you will simply be a calming influence in a situation, though you may not even be aware that is the case!
- Smile: You can decide every moment to be happy, and over time you will change to be a happier person. The act of smiling has profound and positive biological effects on the body and on your emotional state. The act of smiling actually makes you happy, and it affects the mood of everyone you encounter. Smiling literally makes the world a happier place, both in its effect on your own outlook, and in its impact on those you encounter.
- Make a Decision: Say to yourself, “I’m not going to get angry”. Recognize that getting angry might make you feel justified and strong, but that it doesn’t make you happy. Recognize that getting angry has a long and negative after-effect. So just decide that you are not an angry person, and that you are neither going to get angry, nor respond negatively when someone around you gets angry. Of course you will mess up, but that’s okay; as suggested above, forgive yourself and try to do better next time.