Tag Archives: self awareness

Anger and Self Control

VolcanoAfter a recent experience in a place with abysmal customer service, I have found it healthy to re-evaluate my relationship with anger. Fortunately, I did not succumb to it, and many of the thoughts that flashed through my mind remained as fantasies, well behind the borders of imagination land. I was acutely aware throughout the whole episode how every thought I had as a response to somebody acting badly towards me was right and just. This in turn terrified me, because in these moments, life seems to become so clear, the required behavior so obvious, and there is a burning drive to act. The only problem is that anger induced responses are intimately linked to aggression; verbal, emotional, and physical, and even if you don’t express it immediately, these can manifest in passive aggressiveness or fostering a plan for vengeance.

Personally, I think these feelings are primitive survival instincts that do not have a place within contemporary standards of morality. There are very few circumstances where being aggressive against others is a permissible behavior. I would only defend physical aggression against others if you or your friends and family are being physically assaulted (or in the boxing ring, octagon, or on the mats). The obvious reason that aggression is never okay against others is because it can be seriously damaging and leave the victim forever changed with long lasting depression and misery.

I realize that there are degrees of aggression. Yelling at someone for cutting you off, making a sarcastic response, or even just refusing to talk to somebody are hardly in the same league as punching somebody in the face (although, in the times I’ve had people go behind my back, I would’ve preferred being punched in the face. Maybe there’s an important difference between honest aggression and cowardly aggression?) Still, if there’s one thing we know about aggression, is that it can quickly escalate. Remarks in passing when the other party leaves earshot or personal space can become viscerally incendiary if it turns into confrontation.

There are a number of philosophical directions you can take anger. We’re sometimes frustrated by the lack of action over particular issues, and anger leads one to act. Confrontation, although uncomfortable, can lead to closure, and despite the negativity, you at least know how the other party feels about you (honest aggression?); is this ‘healthier’ than angry remarks in passing with people you never see again? And finally, is it ever okay to defend one’s actions by stating that they were done out of anger?

What I have really taken away from my recent experience is that I don’t like feeling angry. If there’s anything I know about the world, it’s ridiculously complicated, and even the asshole that nearly sideswipes you, is somebody’s son/husband/father. If you’re experiencing a moment when the only conceivable right thing to do is to pick up a vase and smash it over somebody’s head, you are the one with the problem, and you are the one that has departed from reality. I wouldn’t mind betting that those who seem to strive on anger have become addicted to the sense of righteousness and power that comes with it. To somebody who suffers low esteem, these feelings could nourish them into a raging beast (bullied children gravitating towards careers of authority?)

During times of anger, especially in the absence of threat, it’s probably better to turn your attention on yourself, and do what is needed to come back down to earth. With all that is amazing in life, who has time to be angry? I’ll take blissful confusion any day.

Closed Mindedness

This is perhaps one of the most common insults we have for those we tend to disagree with, particularly in regards to politics and religion. We’ve probably all found ourselves after watching a politician on TV, holding our hands up to the ceiling and lamenting, “Why?! Why can’t they see that what they’re doing is harmful? Why do they refuse to listen  to reason? Why can’t they just open their minds?”

Of course, when we ask people to open their minds, it’s usually so that they will accept our ideas and views about the world at the expense of overthrowing their own ideas. If the same criticism was leveled at you, you’d probably find it preposterous at the very least. As a society we do recognize that some ideas are better than others and sometimes changing our minds could be beneficial, but as we’ve just seen, it is a delicate process.

The trouble is, being closed minded is perfectly natural.

Regardless of intelligence, most humans spend a great deal of time thinking about their place in the world and develop their own ways of understanding it. I know it doesn’t seem like most people are actually thoughtful individuals, but regardless of the content and the quality of the thoughts, everyone spends a good deal of time thinking. I am convinced that the more time you spend thinking about your views and ideas, the harder it becomes to change them. The act of thinking reinforces and validates beliefs in a way that promotes identity and confidence, and these are things that people will fight to protect. If you’ve held an idea for twenty years, and you still believe it’s right, it is highly unlikely that you’ll change it – not in the least because you’ve had 20 years of thinking to come up with other ideas that support it. On top of this, you might be convinced that this idea has ‘worked’ for you for 20 years, and so therefore it just can’t be wrong. This line of reasoning is fine with the idea that “1+1=2”, but not with, “…but that’s how we’ve always treated women.”

Thinking is also hard work. Everybody knows this!

Revisiting your views on various issues in a manner that requires you to pull them apart and factor in new information is hard work. And not only that, if you do decide that an idea you’ve held about something is wrong, it could have the cataclysmic effect of undermining numerous other cherished beliefs about the world. This kind of instability is terrifying, and another reason people like to avoid thinking and… close their mind.

If what I’ve said about time is true, then we might expect college professors to be some of the most closed minded people on the planet. While I’m tempted to agree that a handful are, most of them are not, precisely because they do revisit their views over and over again. In fact, the art of being a scholar is being able to hold many many ideas in your head, but to keep them fragmented. The more you “tie” your ideas together, to build your stable world view, the harder it becomes to untie them. You know when a college professor has mastered the art of keeping fragmented thoughts because you’ll hear them say, “Well, yes if it’s like this and you’re taking into account this, but no if it’s like this…” They might even lose ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers in favor of talking about things that seem to work, but only in certain contexts. As frustrating as this can be, it’s at least honest. But I digress…

So, if closed mindedness is inevitable, and sometimes for ‘good’ reasons, what can we do about it?

This is where I cop out. I am not a therapist. I just know that there are good and bad times for thinking, just as there are good and bad times for running. Don’t be afraid or surprised to find out that your ideas about the world don’t hold up like you thought they would, and finally, what works for you doesn’t necessarily work for everyone.