Getting angry, ferociously angry, at someone can feel good, really good…for about eight seconds. I almost lost my cool today but just barely managed to control myself.
At today’s meeting of departmental chairs, one of our hospital’s deputy directors aimed some of his famously constructive criticism in my direction. Reviewing a largely successful project that I’d overseen, he managed to focus on one small issue that hadn’t worked out, and he deftly ignored the sea of accomplishment surrounding that small island of shortcoming. I marshaled an argument in my mind that would make him look imbalanced and ungrateful. But then, rethinking, I let the anger diffuse.
Earlier, last week, I hadn’t fared as well. Every four years, the hospital equips me with a new computer and smart phone. Because of all the prescribed firewalls and compulsive security features, when I exchange my old devices for new, the Division of Internet-Technology carries out a complex synchronization process. After the IT person accidentally deleted my entire phone book and calendar, I muttered f--k!
It wasn’t only the situation that had prompted my expletive. Having neglected to back up my data, I was angry at myself. "Oh," said the IT guy, "if you''re cursing me out, go deal with this yourself!" Realizing not only that he’d misread my anger but that I was totally dependent on his expertise, I tried to clarify for my colleague (an immigrant from Russia) the English-language subtlety of exclaiming "f--k" as opposed to "f--k you!" “You misunderstood my f--k,” I attempted a plea, but the explanation was too late. Forty-eight hours passed before one of his techie buddies broke ranks to put me back on line.
Anger management has become a cottage industry today. There is no shortage of courses designed to suppress the volatile emotion and prevent it from escalating into rage. If you notice, one can’t spell A-N-G-E-R without coming perilously close to D-A-N-G-E-R. There can be positive aspects to anger, but using them constructively requires that anger first be tamed by harnessing composure.
When I was thirteen, I set out to purchase a bicycle. I’d saved money from my bar-mitzvah and diligently studied two models of interest prior to entering the shop with my mom. Once inside, I asked multiple questions of the shopkeeper, contrasting the features of the Raleigh Chopper (high-rise handlebars and padded banana seat) and a sporty ten-speed Peugeot with ram handles (sleeker, albeit less sympathy for the tush). At about five minutes into my interrogation, the man apparently decided he’d had enough. He began to use abusive language and to rail against all the "rotten kids who needed to just keep their mouths shut."
Mom would have none of it. She seemed to think I was being a good consumer. Invoking her credentials as teacher and school principal, she gave the shopkeeper a calm, carefully measured piece of her mind, reminding him about the responsibility and privilege of trading with a clientele that consisted primarily of children. The shopkeeper listened attentively then apologized to both of us. (I, btw, rode proudly away on the Chopper. It was, after all, the 70s.)
Certainly there are abstract issues which engender anger, both on the macro level (like racism) and the micro level (like bullying). I''m not advocating a life of apathy or indifference and I''ve, in fact, previously given several examples of what I believe was justifiable outrage in my past. Most of the time, however, anger arises in the personal plane as a function of someone''s arrogance. When "entitled me" feels disrespected by "piddling you," I lose my temper. In the absence of popping a humility-pill, what can be done about this? I''ll offer two ideas.
First, we must have an awareness of the problem. My 3-year-old grandson is a master of such insight. When he recognizes a tantrum coming on, he often tells the grown-ups, "I''m feeling cranky." Thus, he effectively signals to us that he would like our help to prevent the volcano from erupting.
Second, there are the sublime Lincoln Letters. The sixteenth president recognized that he was easily irritated. After his death, a drawer full of scathing letters handwritten by him was discovered in his desk. The letters were addressed to various adversaries but never mailed. I realize that this has become a trite story, but I believe that Lincoln bequeathed an outstanding tool for channeling emotions and simply ventilating to avoid blowing up at another person. President Lincoln was emphasizing the importance of removing oneself from the acuteness of the anger. What today''s psychologists might call temporizing -- using time to deliberately draw out the process. During that time, we may reflect on the situation and determine what to do with our emotions. It is in that spirit -- using time to find an outlet -- that I have written this week''s post (fairly confident that the aforementioned deputy director of the hospital does not read my blog).
Until next Monday, Shalom.
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