Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Anger is about the funniest thing there is.  At least when you are out of it.  When you are in it, then it makes perfect sense.

Today, when I was trying to get onto a busy highway, I was so conscious of trying to work my way into a lane of traffic filled with cars that I didn't see the car approaching in the turning lane I had to default to when I pulled out.  Boy, did she let me have it.  She laid on her horn.  When I looked into my rear view mirror, I could see her outraged face yelling at me, mouth and jaws all stretched, brows bunched downward, arms raising off the steering wheel, her passenger nodding his assent to her assault on me.  It didn't touch me much.  I passive-aggressively slowed down, shrugged my shoulders, and worked my way into the lane of traffic I could now maneuver, waving to thank the driver who let me in.  And went on my way without so much as the slightest spike in my adrenalin.

Of course, I have been her.  In her position, I have been known to stay on the horn 45 seconds or more, trying to provoke what response I don't know.  I have been known to use the C-word, the D-word, the F-word, the G-word, and the J-word, both in and out of alphabetical order.

Most of my students will tell you that they have never seen me get angry.  That's true.  But still, it's a situation that needs parsing.  Does that mean that I don't get angry?  That students can't get to me?  Or does it mean that I am the ultimate master of self-control, channelling my negative impulses to serve the forces of goodness and maturity?

Of course not.  What it means (I think) is that I don't know how to use anger as an effective weapon.  I don't trust it because it doesn't call on me very often and because I have enough of those moments of seeing the mute face screaming from the windshield behind me to know what I will become if that anger rises.  But even more than that, I have never understood what the positive step beyond anger is.  In other words, once unleashed, where do I go after that.  As Steve Miller reminds me in another context, "I heat up, I can't cool down."

So, I have learned for a long time not to go there if at all possible.  It isn't self-control; it's that I simply took anger out of my bag of tricks.  it is not even an option.  Once you lose your cool, it is pretty hard to find it again.  

There are those people--sports coaches and drill instructors, etc.--who think they can turn anger on or off at will to suit their purposes, especially to take charge of a situation.  I don't believe them.  Nor do I admire that approach.  While I certainly acknowledge the value of extreme emotion to inspire a group, I don't think that anger is the extreme emotion that one should go for.  Fighting for a common purpose?  Yes.  Needing to rely on each other? Yes. Anger?  No. And the results it tries to claim, compliance and renewed focus, are driven only by shame or fear.  And no one with decent self-esteem will change behavior for either of those reasons for very long.  Eventually, the shamed and afraid will settle on disgust and subversion, if not externally, then on the inside.  

I think anger works more like fire; no matter how many times one may think he or she has it under control, eventually, it will burn the person wielding it.  Things that are said in anger are very, very difficult to take back, and even the person who received that anger allows you to withdraw it, the chances that he or she can forget it so easily are slim.  Anger is usually hurtful and hard to get past, as is the misplaced (or intentionally placed) aggression that often accompanies it. 

My problem is that I've never really figured out a satisfactory replacement.  Sarcasm?  Irony? passive-aggressive "punishments"?  I've been all of those places far more often than I've wanted to be.  Knowing full well that anger could change behavior in students in the short term, but knowing equally well that in a relationship anger only leads to isolation, I probably don't get out of students what I could when they are not doing what I want them to do.  

I suppose that means I'm modeling something for them, something very adult and mature, but at the same time, it can feel pretty impotent.  My default, when I'm intentional about it, seems to be that I try to change behavior one student at a time.  In or out of class, if I can talk to one person about the group, I can sometimes build a loose alliance.

But anger isn't about school; it's far bigger than that.  My standard response these days when someone tells me that he or she has had an argument, before I even know much of what it was about, is to ask, "Who won?"  It's off putting, it's somewhat rude when someone is starting out trying to win me to his or her side, but it also reminds, at least me, that arguments spiral downward into anger and there never is a winner.  It's my way of trying to make that the point.  Of course, they always tell me about how heated things got anyway.  And they want me on their side.  They want me to share their anger.


Kathleen said...

Totally, Dad. I heard something recently that made a lot of sense to me; that rage is "anger decontextualized" but it doesn't sound like you see much of a context for anger anyways! I agree, it's not constructive, if you can avoid it.

Billy said...

I love this entry. I don't agree with every word and every point, but I love it nonetheless. Having just begun my first Jack Reacher novel in no small part thanks to you, I guess I would merely suggest that, if anger prevents passivity, it might on occasion be important if not vital.

goofytakemyhand said...

"Most of my students will tell you that they have never seen me get angry."

Well there was the blow-up doll incident.