Most of us think we are better than average. We believe others are getting even angrier than we are: “Some 84 percent of people surveyed said Americans are angrier today compared with a generation ago.”
No wonder some popular politicians speak like they are in a perpetual rage. For many, their success depends upon attracting angry voters.
And it’s not just in the political arena that anger rules the day. Harvard University law professor Ronald Sullivan, forced to step down as a faculty dean, wrote of “angry demands” on college campuses:
“Unchecked emotion has replaced thoughtful reasoning on campus. Feelings are no longer subjected to evidence, analysis or empirical defense. Angry demands, rather than rigorous arguments, now appear to guide university policy.”
In his “Meditations,” Marcus Aurelius observed: “It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners.”
Stop Feeding Your Anger
A few months ago, my wife and I missed our highway exit. When we exited to retrace our steps, we found ourselves backed up at a traffic light. Each time the light turned green, only five cars could make it through before it turned red again. My thinking riffed on getting to our destination on time. As I railed against reality and behaved boorishly, my wife sat, well, stoically.
At that moment, I was sure my anger was coming from the traffic light. I didn’t sign up for a poorly controlled intersection and a delayed trip. Take the issue away, and I would be calm again. Wrong. Anger starts with an internal decision to be angry. If we want to be angry, we will find things to be angry about.
My momentary agitation was made of the same stuff as full-blown road rage. I had given the world, in the form of a traffic light, power over my peace of mind. “You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all,” Marcus Aurelius counseled.
The moment I stopped feeding my anger with more thinking, the anger was gone. In their book “The Daily Stoic,” Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman write:
“The first rule of holes, goes the adage, is that ‘if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.’ This might be the most violated piece of common sense wisdom in the world. Because what most of us do when something happens, goes wrong, or is inflicted on us is make it worse—first, by getting angry or feeling aggrieved, and next, by flailing around before we have much in the way of a plan.”
Life often won’t meet our expectations. The traffic light will only let five cars through when you have to get somewhere. But do you have to allow your thinking to make the situation even worse? If you keep pinching your arm, don’t be surprised if you get bruised.