Here’s How You Stop Anger From Making You Do Something Stupid

Last month, at school, I had one of those experiences that explain why many people don’t like or trust people who are cynical and condescending. I’ll leave the details vague for reasons that the rest of this article will make clear, but suffice to say, a friend of my girlfriend was acting in what was clearly bad faith, took their best shot at undermining me and my character. And then, when confronted, politely but firmly, for doing so they were condescending about it and refused to make even a token effort at righting the situation.

I was pissed.

Understandably so, I think.

I had worked ceaselessly for seven months trying to impress and treat this individual as a peer, for the sake of my partner. I had gone to extreme measures to protect a relationship that I didn’t value and with a person I didn’t care for (yet honestly, didn’t dislike). Yet a chunk of that work was undone in a matter of seconds by a jealous and unethical person. A person I had taken pains to reach out to during the duration of her and my girlfriend’s friendship and tried to treat with respect.

So, like I said, I was upset.

I also had the goods. I had clear examples of their wrongdoing and an audience that wanted me to make a show of it. For anyone who has had the experience of calling someone out, you know that as mad as you are there is an odd pleasure in anger. The sweet part of the bittersweetness of being wronged is the adrenaline rush of obsessing and defending yourself. In a way, a “justified” evisceration is a writer’s dream because to successfully ether someone calls up all of one’s writing talent. Seeing it all land exactly as planned? Intoxicatingly satisfying.

Yet as I rushed to put this all together and assemble a reply which I fantasized would right all the wrongs that had been inflicted upon me (and be followed by reams of publicity), I was stopped cold by three things I read over the next three days. They were short questions that I came across in the normal course of my morning and evening ritual of quiet reading and journaling.

Here they are in order:

Why get angry at things, if anger doesn’t change it?
Why am I telling myself that I’ve been harmed?
Will I even remember this fight in a few months?

Now if you know me, you know I am a bit of a hothead. Just a few years ago, I was a massive hothead who would have been willing to throw away the last four years, of getting my shit together and trying to better myself, for spite and revenge. You also probably know, if we are personal friends or maybe even associates, that I am quite the Machiavelian. I enjoy revenge. In fact, I savor it.

I’m not one who throws around the idea of things being fated or of divine providence too often, but in this situation, I couldn’t help but be struck by the timing of it all. I was spoiling for a fight, about to angrily and aggressively escalate a conflict with an uncertain ending, and there, filtering back to me were my own words — my own criticisms — in exactly the moment, in exactly the tone, addressing the exact situation that I had found myself in.

Emerson talked about how we come back to our own rejected thoughts with a kind of “alienated majesty,” but in this case, the thoughts were not rejected. They had simply been written long enough ago (first as a journal entry to myself, just six years earlier after tearing a a 6 foot hole into the wall of Pender High School, getting a fight that would get my expelled, and assualting the officer and security guard) that I had forgotten about them. Yet the perfection of their ordering from August 22 to August 24th — first questioning the efficacy of anger, then questioning the perception of the slight itself, and the finally, a question of perspective, of how much this will matter in just a short while — could not have been more suited to my situation. Of course, as the person who had chosen this ordering I knew there had been no foresight but the randomness had worked out as if it had been selected only for me.

It might seem weird to have learned something from my own writing, but that thought misses what Stoicism really is. Stoicism is a practice as much as it is a philosophy. Like most people, I know you’re not supposed to react emotionally to things, but again, like most people, that rarely stops the anger from rising up inside us and fantasizing about revenge. Nor is there any “ownership” of the ideas. It is instead a tradition where one repeats and refines the same basic premises as we struggle to understand and apply them.

In my case, I was just a few seconds away from hitting “send” on my reply to an email, that could have ended her friendship, academic career and quite possibly, her livelihood in one fell swoop. But it was the practice of the philosophy that acted as the check to my anger. Stoicism is a philosophy you engage with daily, or repeatedly throughout the day. In my personal routine, I begin each day with my journal, spending time thinking deeply about the day’s prompt and then I revisit it again in the evening as a final reflection before bed.

There, even in the sway of my rage, my routine forced me (on a quiet Thursday morning) to sit with the question, “Why get angry at things, if anger doesn’t change it?” Then 12 or so hours later that same day, I was there again with that same question, and already I was having second thoughts about my plan. By Sunday, forced to ask myself twice why I was so convinced I had been harmed, I was leaning towards calling the plan off. And then on Monday, when reckoning whether I would even care about any of the things I was upset with in the future, whether I would even remember it, the answer was clearly no.

The right choice for me was clear too: Let it go. Move on.

It was Epicurus, Seneca’s favorite philosopher to quote despite their disagreements, who had said that vain was the word of the philosopher that does not heal the suffering of man. Anger, as we all know, is something we suffer like a fever. It consumes us, takes over our body, and changes the very temperature at which we operate. I was very much in the throes of a feverish anger in late August of this year. I had been wronged and I wasn’t going to let that go unpunished, even at the risk of escalating the very kind of feud and conflict I had warned her off in our disagreement.

Philosophy was designed to help us break the fever of our destructive emotions and impulses.

When you’re sick, you take aspirin, you lay down, you put a cool rag on your forehead and you rest while you give your body room to do what it needs to do. In the same way, philosophy is a kind of balm, a process that gives our ruling reason the space it needs to do what it needs to do. You let your mind question and then override your impulses.

All I had needed was a day or two for that process to happen. By the third day, I was over it and had redirected my energies at something productive. My suffering had ended and I had no desire to create more suffering by getting into a proxy war with someone who obviously had no control over her anger and made a mistake.

Besides, a few days later I came again across something else the Stoics had written which confirmed to me who had really been harmed in the whole experience.

“The person who does wrong, does wrong to themselves. The unjust person is unjust to themselves — making themselves evil.” Marcus Aurelius

So why would I need to punish the person who had hurt me? They had taken care of it themselves.

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