People today have a lot to be angry about. Politics, cars, news, work, construction, bicycles – there are a lot of things that piss us off. What’s weird is that some people seem to actually enjoy being angry. A few years ago, I realized that I was becoming one of those people, and it scared me. I think we’re all that person sometimes. We’ve all clicked on a negative review of a movie we liked just to see “what this jerk is talking about,” or confronted someone about a topic we know will get them riled up, even when we know we should just let it slide.
It really occurred to me that I was embracing my inner dark side while I was riding my bike to school. I was pissed off about something – someone was biking too slow, or a car almost hit me – and I got angry. I didn’t grow huge muscles and turn green and yell “HULK MAD!! HULK SMASH!” But I probably peddled off furiously and muttered something scathing under my breath. Great. The kicker is, I sort of liked it. Being angry felt like some kind of revenge, and I felt secure in the knowledge than next time… next time I would say something or throw a glare, or do something to show the person that I was really mad. And then we’d be even… but would we really?
At the time, I recognized that this wasn’t helpful. After all, the only person with any negative emotion about that encounter was me. The other person went on being their jack-ass self, not caring about the world around them. Maybe it would get them in trouble some day, or maybe not. Either way, in my little world, the only person who was angry was me. A more immediate concern, however, was that I knew I had accidentally been a jack-ass a few times. Sometimes you lose your head, and you cut someone off. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it just means you made a mistake. So how can you be so sure that the person who just cut you off is a jerk, and that they didn’t make a mistake?
So I tried to change. If someone was going to be a jerk, I would deal with the situation dispassionately, secure in the knowledge that they were a douche-canoe, and they had to live with themselves. If they decided to do something stupid, good for them.
I ran into a story on Reddit a while ago that really changed my feelings about anger. I might not retell it exactly correctly, but the gist is there:
The Buddha was walking in a market one day. A man on the street noticed him, and started cursing him, insulting him, and jeering at him. He threw horrible insults at the Buddha. The Buddha looked at him with a peaceful smile, and walked on. The next day as the Buddha walked through the market, the man saw him and again, he insulted him, insulted his family, and cursed his beliefs. Again, the Buddha smiled peacefully, and walked away. On the third day, the man did the same, but before the Buddha walked away, he stopped and said, “I have stood here insulting you for three days. I have said horrible things to you, and all you do is smile and walk away. Aren’t you offended? Aren’t you mad?” The Buddha looked at the man and said, “If I were to give you a gift, would you accept it?” “No!”, said the man,”I would never accept a gift from someone like you!” “Then to whom would the gift belong?”, asked the Buddha “Well, you would still own it.” “Exactly,” said the Buddha, “and if I don’t accept your anger? To whom does it belong?” (paraphrased from a Reddit comment thread here.)
My effort over the past two years or so is to let other people hang on to their anger, rather than taking it on myself. An extension of this is that if someone is being inconsiderate or selfish, I try to let them wallow in it, rather than letting it make me upset. I let them shoulder the burden of their own dickishness. And if they just made a mistake, then I won’t blow up at them for no reason. It’s tough to do sometimes, but I feel a lot better about myself for it.
A good example of this happened a little while ago. I was walking home (having just bought Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood, I might add,) when I was almost hit by a pickup truck, driven by a man who was clearly not paying attention. “Jesus!” I yelled instinctively, as I turned around and glared at the man. “Excuse-moi! Excuse-moi!” he shouted back to me (he was francophone; he wasn’t being cheeky). I turned around and walked away, slightly shaken, but not angry at all. In fact, I was struck by how little anger I felt. The thought occurred to me that maybe I should turn around and yell at him, curse him out, and tell him to watch where he’s going. But something else occurred to me that was even better:
What I did was worse for him than getting angry. If I had gotten angry at him, I would be angry, and he would have cause to be angry at me for not being understanding of his mistake. It would have given him the slightest excuse to deflect his anger at himself toward me. But I didn’t leave him room for that. The only options I left open to him were to forget about the incident, and to be angry at himself. If he forgets about it, then he wasn’t going to listen to my swearing anyway. And if he’s angry at himself, he might just be more careful next time. But either way, I felt fine, and I went home to play my new video game, completely unfazed.
It might sound like I’m peddling some kind of weird hippy crap that makes no sense. You might assume that you would eventually blow up at someone, releasing all kinds of pent-up anger that you had been storing for years. But I really believe that – like the Buddha said in the story above – the anger stays with the person who created it. When you open yourself to the possibility that 1) the person might have simply made a mistake, or 2) that becoming angry will only make you feel worse, you start to catch yourself becoming angry, and you start to let it go. It’s not about letting anger go completely – sometimes anger can be a useful emotion – it’s about not getting angry destructively. It’s about only getting angry when it counts, and letting yourself enjoy the rest of the time.
I may write more about this subject, since it’s an important part of my life. If you have comments, suggestions, questions (although I don’t pretend to be an expert on this,) or anger deflection stories of your own, please do leave them in the comments.