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Philosophy Psychology Stoicism

The Futility Of Anger

Lately, I have had a lot of conversations with people about anger and frustration. It is always an interesting conversation to have with someone because I think anger is, on some level, the hardest emotion to let go of. We all would like to get away from anxiety, stress, sadness, jealousy, obsession, but anger seems to be the aberration. Whilst we may not like being angry (though some unfortunate souls do) we feel like we need it. Anger is justifiable. Anger proves our rightness and the offending parties wrongness. If you were to ask me what the biggest problem facing people in an attempt for better mental…wellbeing, I would say anger is the danger. We have, largely, legitimised anger. If you don’t agree with me, think about this: Amazon is having to patch Alexa to apologise to people if it detects frustration in their voices if this amazing piece of technology get a music request wrong. That can only happen in a world where people feel their anger is justified.

I believe it is time to redress this point.

Let’s have a look at what makes anger. Anger is a primary emotion that has, traditionally held use for triggering a fight or flight response. It allows us to use violence to improve our immediate situation. It can be beneficial to recognise we are angry as it is a clear indicator, like anxiety and sadness, that something is wrong. Anger almost always involves two parts, the intense emotional arousal, and the need to correct the problem. The need to strike back.

The need for vengeance.

Dramatic language, I know. I can almost hear you rolling your eyes. But stick with me and see where it goes. Maybe vengeance is too harsh a word, but the need and desire to correct is something you could almost certainly agree with. When someone or something makes us angry there is a need to show them that they were wrong to do that. If someone barges into you at the wrong moment how easy is it to turn and passively aggressively say ‘Excuse Me!’ whilst looking at them in disgust. What about if you are driving along and someone steps in front of your car whilst texting. You might swerve them, loudly beep your horn and start swearing profusely as you, in a half terrified, half outraged state try to let them know how stupid they have been. Or when someone says something to you that you find unpleasant or untrue and explode in a fit of rage to let them know just how wrong they are, because you are actually a very fun person and don’t have to get drunk in order to have a laugh unlike some people we know.

Nobody who has ever achieved vengeance is happy. People set off with the idea of ‘an eye for an eye’ in their head thinking it makes a lot of sense and sounds fair. However, how likely is it that the individual whom you subject to your righteous vengeance accepts it in good grace. I think of a time at school when, like many young boys do when playing there was an accidental coming together and one boy accidentally got hit. Naturally, Boy A was a bit upset and insisted it was only fair that he got to hit the person who harmed him, Boy B (these weren’t their actual names).

An eye for an eye.

Needless to say we all agreed, we were young, and so injured party became the injurer. The rest of us thought we could get on with the game, but Boy B decided that he had been hit harder than he had hit Boy A, and because that was an accident it wasn’t fair he had been hit this hard. He wanted a go back.

A tooth for a tooth.

You can imagine how this continued. This comes from the code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest example of codified laws, and whilst it appeals to our red hot, angry, righteous and vengeful selves, it will never end well. Setting out with the code of Hammurabi in ones minds, we should also pay attention to paragraph 21 of that same code:

If a man make a breach in a house, they shall put him to death in front of that breach and they shall thrust him therein

Eventually it stops and the vengeful force is spent leaving one feeling a little bit ashamed of how far removed they were willing to be from the image of who they would like to be. I assume most of us like to think of ourselves as kind and reasonable and fair, but how many kind people are vengeful?

Anger occurs because a belief or expectation we have about ourselves or the world has been violated. Our plans have been frustrated. To be angry is to forget a core truth, we only have control over ourselves and everything else is not up to us. So what can we do about it?

Remember that anger requires maintenance. Whilst we may not be able to control the initial flush of anger which arises due to an unconscious judgement about what something means about us or for us, we can decide what to do afterwards. If we find ourselves becoming angry we must resist the temptation to maintain the cycle.

When someone wrongs us, we add to the story. We say things like ‘they are always like thisand often keep adding and interpreting what they meant until we can’t stand it anymore. The problem with this comes when we inevitably strike back. We strike back too hard and then find ourselves with a vague sense of horror at just how unkind we are able to be.

Correction may be required, reasonable and justified. If someone has wronged us, we should tell them so. But in the appropriate manner, and anger does not have ‘appropriate’ in its dictionary. The best thing we can do is wait until we cool off before deciding what kind of correction is reasonable and, importantly, if we had committed such a violation (which we almost certainly will have done at some point in our lives), how would we like to be dealt with.

Seneca has two fantastic little quotes on this. The first allows us to realise just how skewed our thinking can be, and help us redress our expectations:

“Do you ask, what is your greatest fault? It is, that you keep your accounts wrongly: you set a high value upon what you give, and a low one upon what you receive.”

Seneca, Of Anger (III)

The second is some sage wisdom on how and why to prevent anger:

The best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger, to resist its very beginnings, and to take care not to be betrayed into it: for if once it begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition, because reason goes for nothing when once passion has been admitted to the mind, and has by our own free will been given a certain authority, it will for the future do as much as it chooses, not only as much as you will allow it. The enemy, I repeat, must be met and driven back at the outermost frontier-line: for when he has once entered the city and passed its gates, he will not allow his prisoners to set bounds to his victory. The mind does not stand apart and view its passions from without, so as not to permit them to advance further than they ought, but it is itself changed into a passion, and is therefore unable to check what once was useful and wholesome strength, now that it has become degenerate and misapplied

Seneca, Of Anger (I)

What Seneca has correctly written about here is that emotion and decision making occupy the same region in the brain and interfere with each other. It is hard to accurately make decisions and judgements when we are highly emotional. If we allow anger in, we do not think clearly and become quickly swept away with it, often until we have ‘vented’ and are left spent and ashamed.

The enemy must be resisted from the first. Not so we can forget the transgression, but so we can better judge what to do. If we can remove ourselves from the situation, ask ourselves what really got us so angry and what response is appropriate, we will be acting in a manner we can be proud of. We will learn something useful (such as what we actually think about ourselves) and act in a kinder manner.

Kindness is, to me, one of the most important and valuable traits an individual can have. Don’t expect to be perfect and never get angry, but when you do…

Try and be kind.

As always, please leave a comment and share this around!

Alex