‘Anger marks the limit of a man’
(Delivered at the Bombay Gymkhana Sep 2020)
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I must admit that I am relatively new to Mumbai, I have spent exactly one year in this amazing city and what a pleasure for me to be amongst such wonderful people today. Before I proceed further, I must go through my philosophical moment of the day. As I clean my glasses, it always reinforces my belief that externally there is probably nothing wrong with the world, it is just that my own lenses which are clouded.
The two most researched and explored emotions in the world are ‘Love’ and ‘Anger’; in a way the anti-thesis of each other. I am pretty sure that all of you must have experienced both these emotions at some point of life and in some cases, even many times a day.
Well, in today’s world, there are tens of news items you come across everyday which are linked to anger: Waiter killed for serving pizza slightly late, road rage kills five because someone overtook someone, wife/husband killed spouse in a fit of rage. These may be extreme examples but we all personally encounter various versions and degrees of anger in our day to day life. Child refusing to eat, refusing to go to school, failed in chemistry while I the father was a topper, domestic help dropping a vase, wife banging the car on her first solo trip, pesky call centre ringing up at the wrong moment, impatience at traffic lights…. the list is endless and many a times dependent on the equations, moods and personalities of the protagonists.
You also hear a lot of ‘sorries’ as a bout of temper is invariably followed by regret or remorse at a later time. Maybe, I could have handled it better or differently. But then, that son of a gun made me angry. Actually, I mean well for my children and want them to excel in life. Ok, I will say sorry when I meet him tomorrow. What the hell, I got to move on in life. I have to get the work done as well. These idiots don’t know the pressure that I work with. It is I who has to face the boss’s wrath in the morning.
The majority of these people are actually very good and well intended people. They are somehow not able to comprehend where this anger came from and how to deal with it. However, a fairly universal realization is that anger is not good. So, we turn to anger management specialists, psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, religious gurus with a desire to be a better person tomorrow. Anger therefore makes good business!
Yes, indeed! If you were never to get angry, or should we say in an utopian world where anger does not exist, all these wonderful anger management (AM) experts and counsellors would go out of business, loose their livelihood and start looking for alternative professions. As I research this subject more and more, the common strain that I find is that anger is considered a perfectly natural, normal, usually healthy human emotion and an almost acceptable one provided you do not cross a certain threshold.
An Anger Management professional says: Remember, you can’t eliminate anger—and it wouldn’t be a good idea if you could. Inspite of all your efforts, things will happen that will cause you anger; and sometimes it will be justifiable anger”. So, what they are saying out there is that it’s really okay to lose anger once in a while but don’t go beyond a limit that it becomes self-destructive and starts having a major impact on your relationships. But at the same time, it is also suggestive that you should not go to the other limit that you don’t ever get angry at all because that will make you a sort of abnormal human being. No one, incidentally defines these limits or thresholds.
Quoting once again from an AM expert- “Anger is a natural, adaptive response to threats; it inspires powerful, often aggressive, feelings and behaviours, which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we are attacked. A certain amount of anger, therefore, is necessary to our survival”. Well, a number of animals do demonstrate this primal instinct as a natural corollary to fear. So, the underlying theme is that not only will anger elimination make you kind of a weird personality but it will also put your very survival at stake. In effect, to be able to survive, you need to get angry and aggressive when the situation so demands.
I suggest you ask these AM specialists whether they ever got angry themselves. I am pretty sure you will get replies indicating how they did and how they learnt to manage the whole show reasonably well. The entire emphasis is on the treatment or management part but seldom at the underlying generation of the emotion per se.
Many people term anger as an emotion. I personally would term it as a response. Or should we make everyone happy by saying that it is an emotional response! Simply put, why do people get angry? Is it because they are not able to accept the differential between reality and expectation? Or, it’s probably a reaction to some other emotion such as hurt, jealousy, worry, rejection, embarrassment or even fear. In effect, if someone you know is acting like they’re pissed off at you, they want you to know something is not right for them. Of course, the final expression of anger could manifest in many myriad ways ranging from mild sulking to a maddening uncontrolled outburst of rage which could put the Hiroshima nuclear disaster to shame.
Seldom do we realize that by getting angry, we lose control over ourselves while the intent is exactly the opposite. In any argument or interaction, the person who maintains calm is likely to remain logical and rational and inevitably in control. And at the same time, people who make us angry can control us. So, why should I give someone else such power over my life?”
Incidentally, when I did a quick net search, I landed up with 75 synonyms of anger like rage, fury, wrath, vexation ; I am sure there are probably far more residing somewhere in our hidden thoughts. However, for the purpose of today’s conversation I will put forward a baseline definition of anger:
A strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, hostility or a similar emotion which leads to expressions or actions where the protagonist loses temporary control over his faculties.
This definition is rather politely worded. In fact, at places, some people simply define it as temporary madness.
The key word in this statement is of course ‘control’. The anger gurus will lead you to many anger control techniques, including the favourite ‘counting upto ten’ before you blurt out your expletives. The question to ask is: How does ‘controlled anger’ make sense when anger by definition itself is an uncontrolled state of mind? So in essence, what is being sought is that a wild animal ‘let loose and in rage’ should bridle himself! Some expectation, I must say.
Essentially, the differential between the expectation and the outcome leads to frustration which invariably finds expression as anger as a means to influence the outcome. In situating the cause of anger in provocation, anger most often comes from a breakdown in communication, paradigm differences and clash in perspectives. For instance, the poor child being abused was probably dyslexic or autistic or the delay in serving was beyond the waiter’s control as the chef had a stroke in the kitchen or it was not the lady driver’s fault that the opposing truck had a brake failure and she was in fact, lucky to survive.
Many leaders or bosses, who have run out of plain-speaking friends, mentors and counsellors often find themselves getting angry when affairs do not proceed as per expectations. Well, this sort of a thing happens at home also. Others use anger as a management tool and aggressiveness as an occupational requirement: You see these guys don’t work unless I shout is a common refrain. I am just acting; actually, I am not at all angry.
Well it is a no-brainer that you become what you practice. I am a fighter pilot and all my life my basic job has been to either drop bombs on others or shoot down aircraft in the air. While doing so, I often have to yell and abuse and feign anger and aggressiveness to increase my g tolerance and get my adrenalin going in a reactive environment. I can tell you I had a very hard time doing that. You feign ten times, the eleventh occasion it becomes a part of you.
An angry boss or let’s say someone holding some sort of positional power, invariably invokes fear. So, the message gets passed down up to the lowest level in the hierarchy is that if the boss’s expectations are not met, he will get mad. But instead of getting angry, it may be a good idea to reflect whether you have communicated your expectations and goals unambiguously to your team? Have you provided them the skills and resources to achieve these goals? Have you created robust processes of such a kind that the organization can run not because of you but in-spite of you? Have you created an environment of trust, mutual belief and confidence where people at all levels feel loved and empowered to act in alignment with organizational goals without fear?
What does this kind of behaviour result in the leader’s sphere of influence or even in the family? The first casualty is invariably initiative and lower level decision-making. Subordinates and children lose their sense of empowerment and go into a minimum performance ‘safe’ mode. They start viewing you as an unstable entity subject to mood swings and start losing trust in your methods, decision-making and policies. Information flow deteriorates rapidly without you realizing it because your subordinates are afraid to approach you and voice disagreements. The organization steadily moves away from a paradigm of ‘What is right’ to ‘Who is right’? Changes in organizational climate start becoming noticeable wherein people start discussing ‘you’ more than your vision and your contributions. The organization ultimately loses its balance and becomes vulnerable. The root cause was of course, the top man’s angst.
Anger has been studied by many scholars but Buddhism looks at it with probably a slightly different lens. We tend to think that anger is caused by something outside ourselves, such as other people or frustrating events. Buddhism recognizes that anger is something created only by yourself. “No one makes you angry. You make yourself angry.” The entire external world is a continuous source of stimuli which will continue to behave and function as it would. Any response to this stimulus is absolutely our choice, anger being one such choice. Further, there is no such thing as ‘righteous’ or ‘justifiable’ anger. Anger is just anger and all anger is a fetter to realization and cause of imbalance and conflict.
A lot of people advocate that you should not bottle up your anger as it can be extremely self-destructive. The philosophy here is about venting it out as if such an approach will rid the body of all negative emotions like venting removes the foul smell in a room. In fact, some popular psychologists who have written self-help books tell us to pound our fists into pillows or to scream at the walls to “work out” our anger. “When you express your anger you think that you are getting anger out of your system, but that’s not true. When you express your anger, either verbally or with physical violence, you are watering the seed of anger, and it becomes stronger in you. Only understanding and compassion can neutralize anger”.
A wise man once said: Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I agree that repressed anger can be emotionally taxing and potentially explosive when it can no longer contain itself. “What we resist, persists.” The key therefore lies in preventing the generation of anger rather than suppressing it.
Henry Drummond, a very well known evangelist of the 19th century also terms anger as the ‘vice of the virtuous and often the one blot on an otherwise noble character’. Indeed, people in their endeavour to acquire greater knowledge and virtue forget the greatest virtue of all- ‘love’, which is the single most powerful factor which binds humanity.
Talking about good temper as one of the most important ingredients of love, he says “Love is not provoked. We are inclined to look upon bad temper as a very harmless weakness. We speak of it as a mere infirmity of nature, a family failing, a matter of temperament, not a thing to take into very serious account in estimating a man’s character. And yet here, no form of vice, not worldliness, not greed of gold, not drunkenness itself, does more for embittering life, for breaking up communities, for destroying the most sacred relationships, for devastating homes, for withering up men and women, for taking the bloom of childhood, for sheer misery-producing power, than evil temper.”
Of all the seven deadly sins, pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth, it is wrath or anger which is the most dangerous because no apology in the world however heartfelt it may be, can undo the damage caused by evil temper.
Most of us would tend to believe that not getting angry at all is not a realistic option. This is where I would like to share a personal experience on the subject. Well, it is kind of difficult for me to forget the date 03 Jan 2014, a little more than five and a half years back. Driving on a busy Delhi road late evening, the driver ahead in an SUV braked and halted extremely suddenly and I veered sharply to the right to save my car and all its occupants. Fortunately, the car in the right lane also reacted promptly and a major accident was averted. It sure had been a very narrow miss! And all for what?
The innocent SUV driver in front had suddenly felt the urge to answer a minor call from nature and he had probably never heard about a contraption called the rear view mirror. ‘Yours truly’ shocked, miffed and anguished (but actually relieved at the near miss) felt that this was the right and justified moment to let out a flurry of expletives on the poor hapless gent who was in no state to even turn around. My better half literally pushed me to forget the whole issue and resume the journey without delay as tolerance thresholds levels in the city were known to be pretty low and for all you know, you might be swearing at an armed goon perfectly capable of causing disproportionate harm to you or your loved ones.
The hush and quiet in the car was palpable for quite some time for some unknown reason. Finally, my elder son broke the silence and questioned my explosion rather diplomatically and pointed out that there was clearly a difference in my preaching and actions with respect to dealing with such situations. Neither had my anger on the spot averted the accident nor would have caused any change in the chief protagonist’s views of easing himself in the Diplomatic Enclave of the capital! Without anyone saying so, in so many words, I somehow appeared to be the villain in the entire episode. All that I had achieved was undoubtedly a general thermal rise in the inner environs of the car and a parallel one in my own Blood pressure readings.
Although difficult to accept such remonstration from your own progeny, it immediately struck me that the lad was not wrong at all. A little more rumination with the steering wheel in my hands and I had arrived at a rather obvious conclusion and a more radical decision. The conclusion was simple that I had never gained anything except regret on losing my temper. Not that I was a la Amitabh type angry young man, but nevertheless prone to the occasional outburst like it is considered normal for any human being. The decision or resolution if I may say was equally simple; I will never lose my temper in this lifetime. Kind of a digital 0-1 decision you may say.
Frankly speaking, I did not know what I was bargaining for, when I entered into this ‘selfie’ contract. All I knew was that it felt the right thing to do at that moment and I could not think of anything adverse about the whole decent proposal. Well, I must admit that I did feel a sense of anticipatory mystery as to how it was finally going to play out. One thing was however clear- the hat had indeed been thrown across the river. There was no going back and there would be no half measures like ‘I will try to control my temper’. The analogy with a smoker is perhaps appropriate. I have always maintained that either you are a smoker or a non-smoker. There is no such thing as ‘I am trying to leave smoking’.
Similarly, I had concluded that either you are capable of losing anger and will do so at some point depending on the context and the individual boiling point or you can exercise the option of permanently getting devoid of this infirmity.
I was at a later date, pleasantly surprised to discover that Seneca, the famous Greek philosopher came to similar conclusions more than 2000 years back. It is easier to exclude harmful passions than to rule them, and to deny them admittance than, after they have been admitted, to control them; for when they have established themselves in possession, they are stronger than their ruler and do not permit themselves to be restrained or reduced. For when once the mind has been aroused and shaken, it becomes the slave of the disturbing agent.”
Seneca also answers a very commonly asked question which is often encountered by parents and administrators, “What then; “you say; “is not correction sometimes necessary? Should crooked arrows not be straightened? ” “Of course, they should be; but with discretion, not with anger. For then it will not hurt, but will heal under the guise of hurting.”All we need is to be aware that being rude and angry should not be complementary with being strict and firm.
Similarly, Aristotle also contemplated ‘Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy’.
Aristotle says that it is not easy, whereas I believe that it is not possible. Any man in a state of anger cannot ever exercise the fine judgment required to tread such a thin and fine line of reason and rightful action. The simple, easier and more pragmatic alternative is to go either/or in a digital sort of way. When the option to get angry goes away, you do not need to control it ever. Just like a person whose appendix has been taken away, can never suffer from appendicitis, a person who has rid himself of anger can never lose it or suffer from its consequences.
One may question me as to how have the last five years been? My reply is- the happiest ever, both on the professional and personal front. Associated thoughts and feelings like stress, pressure, tension, jealousy, frustration, selfishness, hatred and aggression are automatically melting away without any conscious effort. Ego has kind of taken a backseat and patience, compassion and forgiveness have crept in. Ambition and fear are tending to get replaced with courage. Also, no one gets angry with me anymore! I guess it is practically very difficult to get angry with someone you know is never going to get angry. I have become more predictable and there is an infectious effect on people I associate with.
Incidentally, I don’t regard this decision as a matter of pride or as an achievement. If I had only a single word to describe my state, I would choose ‘liberated’ like a tethered balloon being let off. There is a word in Hindi which best describes the act per se- Parityag i.e Abandonment or to give away forever. Sometimes I wonder why it took me so long to discover such an elementary fact of life, but I guess everything happens in good time.
Most of the people that I discuss this concept with are rather apprehensive, unsure and shaky. They almost invariably say that they are not too sure that they will be able to live up to such a resolution. Basically, they do not want to fall short by failing. There are some who say that they will try. The moment a person says that he will try, my response to that is that you will fail. When you say that you will try, you are leaving a window open for failure. What I am saying is that, giving away anger is a decision and not a resolve. When you give away something in charity, you don’t run after the beneficiary to claim it back. After that moment, it does not belong to you.
The decision is simple. You don’t need to go to the Himalayas or search for gurus or counsellors or shrinks or psychiatrists or indulge in long meditation sessions. Enforcement will however take place only if you were to treat violation as a taboo akin to drugs, smoking, infidelity, telling lies or whatever your personal taboo is. Just give it away by switching off the NEVER master switch.
The essence is that seeking band aid solutions or quick fixes for anger management are not going to be effective. If we are looking for true redemption, then we must reflect and go to the innermost origins of our thoughts. When you are losing weight and are on a diet, doctors tell you not to stop eating, they tell you to replace the oily and sugary stuff with high fibre and nutritional elements. Same way here, you have to replace negative and acid thoughts with love, compassion, patience, gratitude and thus rehabilitate your inner self. Then only the weed of anger is eliminated from the roots rather than just trimming the visible part.
Let us hypothetically say that all you empowered people sitting out here were to take a similar decision. Imagine the impact that it would have not only on you but on your families, sections, organisations and society, as a whole. The world would definitely be a much better place to live in.
Anger marks the limit of a man. Choose to be limitless. Anger elimination rather than anger management is probably what you were always looking for all these years. Its easier, more effective and will last as long as you will live…So, shed anger forever. You have nothing to lose, only to gain.
Four takeaways that I would love you to take away when you leave this venue:
1. Shedding away anger is a choice.
2. Anger management will not lead to anger elimination.
3. Anger Elimination for good is possible and not difficult.
4. Anger elimination is truly liberating and can be life-changing.
I rest my case.
Published at SEEKMEDIATION.COM ON 30/04/21