argument2I‘ve already confessed to two of my personal failings: a lack of courage, and a proclivity to procrastinate (or cowardice and laziness, if you prefer). A recent article by Feith Stuart has led me to recognize a third — my periodically bad temper. Feith writes:

Here’s a truth I know:  Every time I am rude or thoughtless, every time I am careless with someone’s feelings, every time I call someone a name during a fight, every time I act in a way I know to be harmful as a way to feel relief from what I’m feeling (because that’s the only reason we lash out at others — to make ourselves feel better) I know I’m destroying my credibility as a loving human being.

I handle adversity badly. When things go wrong, I invariably overreact. When I was younger, that usually meant an outburst (and still does, occasionally). As I get older I am more likely to become taciturn, clam up and disengage, and/or just get depressed. Whenever I have lashed out, I have always regretted it. I have learned, at least intellectually, that displaying one’s temper is a handicap to achieving one’s life goals. When you blow up, you always look bad, no matter how justified the outburst is.

Consider how bad Cheney looked when he swore at Leahy — his snarl made him look ridiculous, childish, vindictive, out of control, untrustworthy. Consider how Howard Dean’s outburst probably cost him the Democratic nomination. Think about temper tantrums you have witnessed, and how they reflect badly on, and hurt the credibility of, the ones that throw them. Even sneering, snorting, snickering and rolling of eyes and other subtler indications of anger and disdain are considered to be anti-social behaviours, unseemly, inappropriate and reprehensible even as a response to someone else’s ludicrous or antagonistic behaviour. And think about how instances of great restraint in the face of provocation are seen not as cowardice, but as signs of great moral, intellectual, and emotional strength.

I think Democrats were secretly hoping that, during the debates, either Bush or Cheney would lose their temper. Both men are notorious for their bad tempers, but the machine has been expert at keeping them from public view, most remarkably by making this pair the least visible  in press conferences and other stressful public appearances of any administration in decades. Bush has looked doped up in most of his public appearances when he wasn’t strictly reading a script, maybe because his backers would rather he be seen babbling incoherently than venting his spleen.

What about rants? We all love a good rant, complete with expletives, a venting of anger against injustice or stupidity or callousness or meanness or other morally repugnant behaviour. What’s different about rants is that they are controlled anger, clever and articulate and rehearsed and measured.

Violent anger in the movies and on television is glorified, but again, ‘good guy’ anger is always controlled, and either slightly excessive (in which case it always ends up being punished), or ridiculously justified (a purely emotional response to the kind of absurdly extreme bad-guy straw man caricatures with no redeeming human qualities who only exist in fiction). They’re both examples of poor writing, designed to manipulate the emotions of unthinking viewers. Most of us realize that Jason, Aliens, Wile E. Coyote and the swarthy terrorists of vigilante films don’t exist in the real world, and that guns-a’blazin’ knee-jerk acting out of violence, anger and rage doesn’t solve problems in the real world — it only makes things worse, hurts innocent bystanders, and discredits everyone involved.

But if you just walk away, and take no action against deplorable behaviour, it can just eat you up inside — and flare up quickly again the next time you meet the perpetrator, or even think about the incident in question.

So what is the appropriate behaviour, the right response, in the face of (a) provocation, (b) unfair, unreasonable or immoral behaviour, and (c) adversity? We’ve all heard the old saying “Don’t get mad, get even”, but sometimes getting even is not possible. Let’s look at a specific example of each:

(a) Somebody beats you at something — a game, a bet, an election — and then rubs your face in it.
(b) You learn that a neighbour is guilty of something — tax evasion, animal cruelty, spousal abuse — but has never been prosecuted for it, and actually seems kind of proud of his behaviour, and you have no proof.
(c) You’re up for a job, or a promotion, that you really want, and someone else with lesser qualifications gets it — for sucking up, or using personal connections, or because s/he fits the corporate mold better, and now your opportunities for getting a job or getting ahead are seriously blocked.

If you’re like me, just thinking about these situations gets your blood pressure rising. There is absolutely no point, no benefit in getting angry, or violent, or indignant, or otherwise stressed out about these situations. But that doesn’t stop you. We are brought up, and brainwashed, to believe that if you fight back hard enough against injustice and cruelty, you will ultimately win, accompanied by fireworks and the adulation of millions. And when god is on your side, so how can you lose?

Back to reality. The good guy doesn’t always win, bad behaviour doesn’t always get punished, and anger rarely accomplishes anything positive. So what should we do in these situations. My answer falls in the “don’t do what I do, do what I say” category: I need to learn to practice what I preach here:

  • Stay cool. Realize that anger doesn’t help you, and could make you sick. Don’t do anything immediately.
  • Be graceful. You can teach people more by providing a positive example than through any kind of violent behaviour, physical or emotional or psychological. Violence begets violence.
  • If you’re having trouble controlling your temper, force yourself to walk away.
  • Think carefully about your possible motivations for being a whistle-blower, and if they’re sound motivations, blow the whistle. “Sound motivations” means that the consequent actions of the government, the police, the IRS, the wronged partner, will be both just and productive. Blowing the whistle means telling just the facts to those in a position to act on them — no rumours, no innuendo, no exaggerations, and definitely no lies.
  • Ask yourself whether, five years from now, the action that has you so upset will really matter.
  • Recognize that the person who has committed the wrong probably knows s/he has done it, and probably feels a bit guilty about it. Put yourself in their position – wouldn’t you?
  • Talk it out with someone you trust who can be objective about it — especially if you can’t seem to let go of your anger after a prolonged period, or if there are constant reminders of it. Don’t bottle it up and let your anger fester. A rant is a form of venting, and it can be useful when the person or people you’re ranting to are sympathetic. It’s rarely useful when the person or people you’re ranting to were the perpetrators.
  • Sort out your emotions and figure out how to deal with each of them. In extreme cases, anger can be mixed with extraordinary grief, fear, or other powerful emotions. If the event has left you overwhelmed with grief or fear, the resolution will be more complex than just dealing with anger — and will need help from others.
  • Don’t badmouth the perpetrator behind their back. That’s really petty, and it’s a cowardly form of violence.

There’s one possible exception to this rule, and that’s when the parties involved are loving, equal partners. Some couples seem to be able to sort out differences and wrongs, real and perceived, by arguing, even shouting at each other. It’s never worked for me, but I know people who say a vehement argument with their personal or business partner is the quickest and best way to resolve an issue. I’m skeptical, since I can’t see how any such argument can be non-manipulative or end in anything other than the stronger person imposing their solution on the weaker. But in matters of the heart, I claim no expertise.

What do you think? How do you deal with situations which provoke your anger, and are there situations where the principles above don’t apply? Or is this just one more area where conservatives and liberals will never agree on the appropriate course of action?

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6 Responses to TEMPER, TEMPER

  1. Derek says:

    My children have taught me a lot about how to properly react. Even when smashed in the face with a toy, one should not get angry at one’s children. One should correct the behavior, but not with anger. It certainly wouldn’t be productive. If one can make that first leap, then applying to everyone is not that hard a second step.As for your examples, well, they just make me sad. Yes I like to win games (etc), but I also realize that the fun is in playing, not necessarily winning. Knowing someone that has gotten away with something, well, as you’ve said, their not a peace with themselves. And any business environment where people are promoted for anything other than their capabilities, I definitely would have no respect for those people, and would quickly move on or be booted out for continuously exposing the absurdity.The paradox is that the Good guy often looses, but has the better life. As you’ve pointed out before, is all how you frame it. Do we let the world frame the contest in terms of money earned, power abused, and resources squandered? Or do we frame success as peace with our past, confidence in our future, and integrity in every step? All through history, men of integrity have paid high costs for their decisions, sometimes even their lives (as most of the signers of the declaration of independence did), but they lived life on their terms. I can hope for no better.

  2. Who was it who said that heat, as well as light, is required? Does anger count as that heat? How much of our passion for change comes from anger at the way things are?The principles you outline should always be applied… even between partners. Although, isn’t ranting to sympathetic parties exactly the same as badmouthing the perpetrator? My problem is that I suffer far more from impersonal anger, at things like Bush’s tax policies, things I can do nothing about. Working for small local change doesn’t have any sort of cathartic release for that scale of anger, and as a result I just go around being a very angry person, a lot of the time. Ranting helps.

  3. Michael says:

    Recognizing your struggle with controlling your anger is half the battle in correcting and properly managing it. And as you have done in this post, analyzing those actions that cause you to become angry gives you an awareness that prepares you to better react to them when you are faced with them. I found that my anger stemmed from many things–unfair and/or uncommunicated expectations, a sense that I needed to control events and people, unfair judgements, etc. You have excellent thoughts and recommendations for overcoming anger. This is a highly noteworthy post. Good job, Dave.

  4. David Jones says:

    A +very+ long time ago I read a book that had a chapter titled “why I never yell at waitresses.” It affected me profoundly. And I never do. In fact I never yell at people who have zero control over the operation they work for. But I insist on retaining my right to complain – in letter, in e-mail, on USENET or in person when I see gross incompetence. In my view there is no excuse for sloppy management, sloppy service or sloppy thinking (though I’m guilty of the latter from time to time…..sigh).

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Derek: Just took a look through your blog and it immediately occurred to me from reading it that I missed a very important bullet in my list: Cultivating a good sense of humour. Your breezy blog is fun to read. But I’m curious, where do you live that you get monsoons?Renee: I’m trying to find the reference to a recent study that showed innovation decreases rather than increases in times of urgency, because people think analytically, rather than creatively, in times of stress. That might suggest that anger, rather than being a motivator for bringing about change, might actually detract from achieving it. Like you, I get angered at impersonal things as well as personal ones, especially the ones that seem so relentless and so impossible to change. I get apoplectic at factory farms, like the one that KFC continues to buy from even after the hired hands were secretly filmed stomping chickens to death just for kicks. There is nothing that can ease my fury over that. But the truth is, I’d have to drive at least an hour to find a factory farm from here, and since everything in those farms is hidden behind closed doors and barbed wire, what would I do when I got there? I know full well I couldn’t contain my anger, and that my rage would accomplish exactly nothing. And as you say, supporting local, small farms, or being a vegetarian, provides no catharsis.Michael: Thank you. And you’re right, except that my real problem is with the other half of the battle ;-)David: Good point. I think I have learned not to vent at those who ultimately aren’t responsible. And good liberal that I am, I’m also starting to remind myself that people are all born innocent and kind, and ask myself what events could have so curdled the soul of whoever caused my anger, to make them so callous, cruel, violent etc. I just keep saying to myself “Things are the way they are for a reason.” The last time someone rubbed my face in it after beating me at something, another observer told me a few days later that the perpetrator was insanely jealous of me, and this was just his way of trying to get over that. I was astonished — that explanation would never have occurred to me.

  6. feith says:

    Well said, Dave. I love when you quote me. It makes me feel pretty darned wonderful.Feith

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