I saw it all play out in front of me. The narrow parking lot was one-way, wrapping around the building in the shape of a “U.” Both the entrance and exit linked to a busy city street with a stream of cars moving bumper to bumper in both directions. Pedestrians passed on the sidewalk which cut across the parking lot. With people on the sidewalk and cars in the street, one car began to back-out of the entrance of the parking lot rather than drive around the “U” to the exit. Of course, another car was attempting to pull into the entrance as this car began to try to back out. It happened in an instant. Horns blared, pedestrians yelled, fingers were pointed, and traffic screeched to a stop. Anger flared in every direction.
During the weekly meeting, one of the staff members shared a recurring problem that was happening in the company. Someone wasn’t following a safety procedure. In addition to the risk involved by not following the procedure, the company could face a serious fine. The staff member suggested that perhaps the procedure was not understood and more training was needed. As the problem was discussed, everyone in the group deflected responsibility. As each person claimed, “Oh, no! I wouldn’t make THAT mistake!” the staff member who raised the problem became more and more tense. After the meeting, doors were slammed as the staff member left the building in disgust. Perhaps it was an expression of righteous anger, but anger clearly got the best of this person.
I was at my desk with more work in front of me than I thought I could complete by the deadline.. But it all needs to be done today. As I attempted to keep focused and work efficiently, my cell phone rang. I checked the caller ID. It was a local number that I didn’t recognize. I decided to answer. I’ve received this same call several times before but did not recognize the number. “Sir, the warranty protection for the product you bought expired over six months ago. Perhaps you didn’t receive the mail we sent inviting you to extend the warranty. I’m calling today to provide you with an opportunity to renew the warranty at a low price.” I was annoyed. I responded, “I know you’re doing your job. But I’ve received at least half a dozen offers by mail from your company as well as several phone calls. I’m not interested in renewing. How can I stop you from contacting me?” The voice on the other end of the conversation continues, “Sir, you may not understand what could happen if you don’t renew the warranty.” As she continues the hard sell, I become more and more angry. Finally, I respond, “Miss, you may not understand what I’m trying to communicate to you. I’d rather have the appliance blow up in my face than give your company any money because you’ve been so intrusive. I want to speak to a manager.” As soon as those words were out of my mouth, she hung up. I was left with my anger. It took me some time to refocus on my work.
Of the areas for personal growth that have been a challenge for me throughout my life, anger has been the most insidious. There are times when my anger flares and seems to take over who I am. I’ve also experienced attempting to not respond to the anger when I don’t want to express the anger to a particular person. When I make that choice, I feel my body quiver and my head begin to ache. It’s a part of me that I really don’t like. While I’ve mellowed with age, my anger continues to be a concern both because of its toll on me and the impact I can have on others.
I began to analyze my anger about thirty-five years ago. At that time, the writing of feminist author May Sarton was very helpful. In addition to her book, Anger, she also published a wonderful journal from a year in her life called, Journal of a Solitude. In both books, she explored the landscape of anger in her own life.
Anger often strikes us when we experience something as wrong. The car should not have been attempting to back out of an entrance, blocking the entrance, cutting off pedestrians, and stopping traffic. There was a sudden and quick reaction to what people experienced as being wrong. The co-workers should have taken some responsibility for the safety problem in the work place. Passing it off as someone else’s problem was wrong. And the sales call I received: shouldn’t the company know that if I’m not responding then I’m not interested? Do they actually think that by becoming annoying that they’ll get my business? Don’t they know I have better things to do with my time and that they are just wasting it?!? (Oopps! There it is! The anger!)
Most often, we become angry when something happens in life to prevent us from having the ordered life we think we should have. It sounds so simplistic, but essentially anger flares when we’re not getting our way. We’re doing whatever it is that we’re doing and have the expectation that it should flow smoothly as we think it should. Then something happens to interrupt that flow.
Because many of us live stress-filled lives with far too many demands on us, the fuse to light our anger is often very short. But in the moment of some unexpected disruption, our experience may be that something important to us just got ruined. Yet, the reality is that in the grand scheme of life someone backing out of a parking lot the wrong way isn’t the end of the world; that someone not willing to take responsibility for a workplace error in public isn’t particularly surprising; and that the only job many people can find is service related work that requires them to do things they’d rather not do – like annoying others with telephone marketing tactics. In many cases, the problem of anger has to do with our own expectations for things to be somehow different from the way they are. When events don’t go the way we expect, the response is often one of anger. Depending on our overall level of stress, that anger may be disproportionate to the actual event. After all, we’re just trying to manage everything that’s happening in life and it often feels as though we’re barely able to do it all.
Addressing our tendencies to respond to unexpected events with anger can be a difficult process for some of us. Being told things like, “Don’t be angry,” just adds fuel to the fire. Instead, I’ve found that the fundamental solutions have to do with learning to live in the present moment. By learning to live in the moment, allowing the flow of events to simply happen, our expectations for things to occur in a certain way fade from us. With a focus on the present, it’s much easier to roll with whatever comes our way. Perhaps the best way to learn to live in the present moment is with regular spiritual practice. Meditation and yoga require us to spend time in the present moment, to let go of other distractions, and to simply be. The more regularly one engages in spiritual practices like meditation or yoga, the more one is able to go with life’s flow. In doing so, while one may not be rid of the angry response, it’s much less likely to roar as a blazing fire.
Let’s face it: drivers often do dumb things — and sometimes we’re the drivers who do them; people generally find it embarrassing to admit in public that they’ve not done something properly; and tele-marketers will continue to call. No matter how annoying the particular events may be, we can take steps toward not allowing anger to get the best of us. For me, it’s still a process. But over time, I’m happy to say that I am getting better at living with the things that sometimes lead me to respond with anger.
© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.