”You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”
Anger is an energy – a physical, the bodily energy that expresses itself through body language and through verbal language. And, as you’ve probably experienced yourself, it can get away from you and cause you to make mistakes that will haunt you for years.
When anger takes over, your “choice” mechanism takes the back seat as anger follows its raging path, like flooding, churning river.
“Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy.
Anger – until interrupted and channelled – wreaks havoc. It swells its banks. It power-hoses our bodies with adrenaline for a fight, and for men especially, there is a jolt of joy in this ancient warrior energy.
“Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret”.
But while this physical joy is temporary, the blowback is often permanent.
That is why most wisdom traditions caution us that anger hurts us more than the external object of our anger. In the words of the Buddha, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned”.
The path of personal evolution, from destructive impulses into a life of awakened choices, is not a path of repression or shame or burying sometimes abusive emotions such as anger. But rather, it is the patient practice of transmuting them, through our heart and mind, into energies that serve our highest goals.
Both ancient wisdom traditions and modern psychology offer a number of simple actions you can take to ensure that the passing heat of anger doesn’t burn you forever.
“He is a fool who cannot be angry; but he is a wise man who will not.”— Benjamin Franklin
Ignorance is an empty cure for anger: You cannot be angry if you don’t understand the insult, never discover the betrayal, or simply aren’t aware of the social norm a person breached, but only because you are a fool. On the other hand, if you are well aware of a transgression, yet instead of becoming angry simply accept or fix it, forgive it, work around it, or merely find it amusing, surely you have the better part of wisdom. A mother who doesn’t notice her son stealing the extra cookie has been duped; if she sees nothing wrong with it, she is soft. The wise mother calmly turns the page of her newspaper, rolls her eyes, and says, “Put it back.”
“There are two things a person should never get angry at, what they can help and what they cannot.” — Plato
Perhaps Plato might have saved words if he had just said, “don’t get angry at anything,” but his serenity creed suggests a neat little decision tree: If what you’re angry about can be fixed, then fix it; if it cannot, then don’t waste energy on it. Ever the idealist, Plato exorcises the morality from anger, and reframes it as ineffectual problem-solving. This misses the point somewhat, from the angry person’s perspective: The angry truck driver knows that the existence of bad driving cannot be helped; he knows that the particular instance of bad driving he had to swerve around cannot be helped; but he will honk his horn just the same. He is protesting, not problem-solving. Plato’s aphorism shows this for what it is.
“How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.” — Marcus Aurelius
How many times do I hear the same thing from couples? “It started over the silliest thing.” The consequences of anger often so far outgrow their relatively humble origins that the original disagreement becomes almost a moot point. How many duels have been fought for the role of an eye, how many wars for an insult? “An eye for an eye,” believe it or not, was actually a humanitarian reform at the time, because the human universal is to return injury with interest (and then some). Anger is a biological doomsday machine and its consequences are designed to be more grievous than its causes. But so are the other guy’s. And therein lies the problem.
“It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.” — Ancient Chinese Proverb
A beautiful image. Doing some small thing, anything, is better than simply whining and complaining, and this idea is neatly conveyed. But the image also hints at the ignorance of the angry (who are “in the dark”); the futility of getting angry (cursing does not “illuminate” the situation); and the irrationality of anger (it makes no sense to reprimand the darkness). The candle image is a happy contrast, and brings to mind the old Buddhist saying, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle without diminishing its life: Happiness is not diminished by being shared.”
“Keep cool; anger is not an argument.” — Daniel Webster Au contraire. The “appeal to spite” is a logical fallacy with its own Wikipedia entry. Leonardo da Vinci remarked that “where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge.” The same applies today to the use of capitals and exclamation marks in text messages. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher, astutely observed that, “in any controversy, the instant we feel angry, we have already ceased striving for Truth, and begun striving for Ourselves.” The bottom line, according to Desmond Tutu: “Don’t raise your voice; improve your argument.”
“He who angers you conquers you.” — Elizabeth Kenny
This is nowhere better encapsulated than in Mohammad Ali’s famous rope-a-dope against George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” title fight. It is well known that he tired out his heavier opponent; it is less well known that he deliberately taunted him: “Is that all ya got? You have no punch. You can’t hit. You’re swinging like a sissy. You’re missing. Let me see ya box!” He was baiting the bear. Foreman, infuriated, continued to swing big taxing punches to the point of exhaustion and eventually became little more than a punching bag for the ever-ready Ali.
In my own life, at a smaller scale, I recall an incident in the 8th grade when we were shown a documentary on the planets during class. Breaking the monotonous narrative, a voice cried out, “Sir, is that Uranus?” I’m convinced that had the teacher merely rolled his eyes and said, “Very original…” or something of the sort, the boy would have felt embarrassed and piped down. But instead, the teacher fell into a rage, turning tomato red and dragging the boy out of the room by his collar. The teacher had been baited. Whatever punishment that kid received for his irreverence, it was surely worth it, for that teacher had revealed a weakness in our eyes that he would never quite live down.
“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” — George Carlin
Of course, the idiot in question thinks you’re the maniac, and the maniac thinks you’re the idiot. Man (or woman) is the measure of all things. Anger is self-righteous. Angry individuals think they know the right way to do everything and drive everyone else mad in the process. The cure for self-righteousness? A good dose of philosophy, anthropology, and travel.