Saturday, November 11, 2006

Responsible Rage?

“If you do not wish to be prone to anger, do not feed the habit. Give it nothing, which may tend to its increase.” (Epictetus, Stoic Philosopher)

I find anger the most straightforward and practical of emotions. Consider the following three points: (1) The capacity to feel anger is natural; built into our biology and important for moderating our physical and emotional levels ;(2) Anger is a signal that something is amiss, though it could be in perception only. Long-term suppression of these signals may be emotionally and socially harmful. Anger may also serve as a survival mechanism, a last ditch attempt at living; (3) Anger warns others to be careful. Anger serves as one of many "cues" that indicate tension and even danger. Anger, like love, is a chemical reaction triggered by our thoughts.

Ahh. If it were only that simple!

Love, Anger, & Process

Many, who normally exhibit great difficulty when it comes to expressing love, find it relatively easy to show anger. Anger could be called ‘emotional masturbation’ because one can always do it alone. One does not require assistance to get mad though, should anyone decide to lecture me on the ‘evils’ of anger, it tends to make me even madder. Love, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated because, although we can thoroughly internalize it, we must integrate our emotional interests with those of others once we decide to use it. In displaying love, we become subject to and limited by any number of preexisting societal norms that govern relationships. Therefore, as a singular experience and in the absence of this complication, anger appears, at first glance, to be about as simple as it gets.

Ask anyone for the ‘meaning of love’ and they will probably be hard-pressed to pinpoint any exact definition. They may offer any number of ways in which love expresses itself, what sort of things they feel, or how a moral code based on fellowship love shapes human conduct and social justice for the better. Many even speak of love in the third person (I just did in the previous sentence), as a personification or transcendent moral absolute. Most people will, however, admit to having no idea what exactly love is, and that confused majority, in spite of this inability, still have nothing but wonderful things to say on love’s behalf. No one who wishes to be declared sane by his peers dares question the moral or ethical value of the Biblical admonition to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” So much for love. Everyone loves a lover.

Now ask those same individuals to, similarly, define anger. It should come as no surprise that we would find ourselves, once again, mired in innumerable descriptions of how it appears and how it feels without getting to the core of what anger really is. Anger expresses in any number of ways; some subtle and others, well, not so subtle. Love, as an event or ideal, is ‘processed’ in as many variant ways as there are lovers who process that emotion, and the same principle should apply to anger. Everyone I know angers (and loves) in a different way with different effects and for different reasons. Love and anger both share the apparent ability to escape definition. So if they share this fundamental mystery, why did love become the stuff of song and anger a curse to be damned? Notice that few ever personify or animate anger as they do feeling of love.

(The simple answer is that love just plain feels better. After all, who in their right mind dreams about being in anger? Alternately, anger is easier than love because it doesn’t appear carry any particular responsibility to another maintain it, unless you are that sort who becomes consumed or obsessed with that anger.)

Now when I use the term ‘processed’, I mean to say that when we experience love or anger, we filter the information gathered from the event through our own preconceived notions of said emotions. This is a result of both genetics and socialization; in other words, ‘processing’ is how we are trained to think of things. The problems in ‘processing’ occur when we project conclusions that result from our own unique set of descriptions onto the actions of another. I know what makes me mad, and if I witness another not becoming angered over the same event, I begin to wonder if that person is blind, crazy, or both. My ‘processing’ tells me, unconsciously in most cases, that anger over such-and-such is appropriate, but his does not. As an example, I will use my own unique brand of anger to demonstrate how this unconscious ‘processing’ can lead to misunderstandings and disaster. As they say, “Looks can be deceiving.” I have found that emotions, too, when not put into their proper context can be equally perplexing.

The ‘Volcano’

My nickname in school was ‘Volcano’, and though I hated it at first, I came to realize that the moniker was well-earned and a highly accurate description of my emotional self. Leave it to one’s rambunctious classmates to perform the perfect diagnosis! I tend to anger without warning. Predicting when I get angry is like prognosticating the eruption of a yet-to-be-discovered volcano. Even with all types of special instruments, observers, and indicators; no matter how much you watch and wait, it will erupt when it is damned good and ready. There are times one would expect an eruption and it does not occur, and others, whereupon it blindsides humanity with its speed and hot volatility. It is who I am. It isn’t always pretty.

Like our unpredictable volcano, I remain dormant for extended periods and then, for no apparent rhyme or reason, suddenly quake and forcefully erupt. On the plus side, however, as quickly as I may be prone to explode, I am equally able to calm down as if nothing ever occurred. Sometimes, I am fully cognizant of changes to my own biochemistry and act to mitigate the effect of those internal signals. That is how my anger operates. If there is a reason to be angry, I can quickly get right down to the business of solving the problem or, even better, realize that said problem was rooted in my fertile imagination and therefore requires no further emotional or mental effort on my part.. It’s not that I deliberately turn my emotions on and off as with a switch, rather when my tantrum is over, it is finished and I have no desire to be angry any longer. As General Colin Powell once said, “Get mad. Get over it. Move on.”

Witness Protection?

Now all this self-awareness of my own anger and how it plays out is all fine and good until, or course, there are witnesses to the cataclysm who do not ‘process’ the event in the same manner that I do. A possible misinterpretation of the event would lead onlookers to believe something about my angered state and its effects that, in my mind, are preposterous assumptions about my own emotional person. If a person who tends to remain angrier for longer periods watches me get angry, he will assume, even after the fireworks cease, that I am still furious, because he is ‘processing’ my anger through his own and perhaps drawing some very incorrect conclusions.

Now you may be thinking that I shouldn’t give a damn what anybody else thinks about my anger. I disagree. If this person misinterprets my anger, in either volatility or duration, then the resolution for the problem or the relationship between that observer and I becomes altered by this misperception. Rather than approaching me and discussing the issue sooner, the observer might choose to assume that I am still angry and thus avoid closure. Similarly, if the observer believes that I am angrier than I really am, he or she may wrongly assume that I am unjustified in my anger and never seek resolution. As it turns out, my perception of his perception is vital, not only in terms of understanding the reality of the event, but as to how those participants or observers will be affected. It all comes down to ‘processing’. We are all participants and observers simultaneously.

This recognition is most useful when it comes to managing my own anger. I know ahead of time that there are those who interpret my actions differently than I intend them to be understood. To resolve this problem, I tell those around me more about my angry states and what goes on inside me when mad. I also inform them as to how to deal with it and sometimes diffuse it. That level of communication means that there is no more guesswork involved in handling my outbursts. People then know how long, how far, and how fast it will go. The goal of such communication is to allow others and myself around me the freedom to be the emotional people they wish to be at any given time without having to worry that others will misread their actions. It is not just about being able to admit to being angry, but that one can be ‘safely’ angry, knowing that the consequences of misinterpretation will not cause the individual to dangerously suppress his or her emotions. In turn, they share with me their emotional ‘modus operandi’, and everyone is better off when operating out in the open.

In truth, anger, like love, comes with a reflexive responsibility on both the part of the one who is angry and those who observe his fit. Anger, as it turns out, if to be handled responsibly, becomes a shared event and thus diffused somewhat among the safety of other’s understanding. Like love, we must express it and bear witness to it responsibly; with open eyes and clear understanding.

“Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.” (Aristotle, 384 BC - 322 BC)

“Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.” (Lyman Abbott)

Kol Tuv

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