Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Sound and Fury

I am always somewhat amused when someone behaves poorly and then tries to excuse it with, “well, I was angry,” especially when it happens often. So? Do you think that you are the only person who has ever been angry? Do you lose all control whenever you have a surplus of some other emotion, or just this one? Should we treat you like a werewolf and lock you in a specially prepared room until the fit passes? Hide your children and small animals! Angry person coming through!

Anger might be an explanation sometimes, perhaps even a small portion of mitigating circumstances, but it is hardly ever a real excuse. You are still you - angry, happy, or otherwise - and your actions still belong to you as well. It is just as much up to you what you do with your anger as it is with anything else. You can control you, or you can let anger control you. The choice is yours.

It is not an easy choice, though. I understand that. Believe me, I do. I know a thing or two about being angry.

When I was a child, I was small, awkward, and painfully shy (none of which has really changed at all, aside from not being nearly as small as I get older). I was also usually too smart for my own good and had a temper that stayed just under the boiling point. Combine those ingredients and simmer in adolescent hormones. The resulting concoction is not recommended for human consumption. It’s not recommended for much of anything human, to be honest.

I’ve mentioned previously that I was something of a bully magnet, and this temper issue only made things worse. One of the popular games was to surround me chanting, “Temper, temper, temper,” until I exploded. Yes, it seems extremely childish now but … No, it was extremely childish, but we were children. Doing extremely childish things is part of the definition.

At the same time, though, I could see people in my life who were not children, but were still displaying the same troubling behavior. Being too smart for my own good often got me in trouble, but it did occasionally have benefits as well. I’ve always been a people watcher, and sometimes I even had the sense to connect the dots. I watched the adults around me who were struggling with anger issues and realized that wasn’t who I wanted to be. Even a child of ten or eleven can recognize damage as damage if it is overt enough, and I did have some fairly overt examples to drive home the point.

(Please bear with me while we take a small detour to address an important point of clarification. This is one of the areas where I disagree with some of the prevailing theories, and it will probably matter often in the long run, so I want to be perfectly clear before we go any further. My story is mine to tell, in all of its tragedies and triumphs, and I will tell that story in the manner I believe appropriate to the subject at hand. Sometimes that will require crossing over into stories that belong to other people in ways that are not flattering to anyone involved. The stories are what they are, but people are people, and people make mistakes. I am trying to help people, not harm them, and so I will intentionally avoid revealing identifying information whenever I believe that doing so could harm another person in my story. Whether or not they harmed me in the past is not relevant, regardless of some contrary beliefs in the field. I will certainly adjust my expectations based on observed behavior, but I will not brand anyone with a scarlet letter that can only hamper their journey forward. Thank you for understanding.)

While it would be many years and many additional decisions later before things would truly begin to take the shape they now have, that was the beginning. That was the first time that I took some part of my life that I didn’t like and said, “No more. I won’t be this way.” It was also good practice because, as it happened, this turned out to be one of the easier changes I have made.

It began with a decision: “That is not who I am going to be.” This, of course, was quickly followed by repeated failures. No matter what anyone might tell you, there is no easy way to change patterns of habit (which is even more true if you are a … pattern-oriented person, as many of us working on these issues tend to be, so good luck). You start, you stumble, you trip, you probably cuss and fume a bit while making many mistakes, and you keep going. Eventually you notice that you’re not struggling so much anymore. Even more eventually you may stop noticing completely. Ta-da! You just created a new behavior pattern.

For me, the first step was trying to ignore what was making me angry. In case you haven’t noticed by now, ignoring something almost never works, but it can sometimes be a useful starting point. If you ignore something for a while, you might come to realize that what you were ignoring didn’t matter all that much in the first place. This certainly will not always be true (and different situations will require different solutions) but when it is true, this realization can lead you to something better than ignoring. Ignoring is an active decision. Ignoring is something you have to actually do. When you realize there was nothing worth ignoring in the first place, you won’t move on to doing something else. You just won’t be angry. You will have entirely freed up emotional time and energy that can be put to better use.

That is all easy to say on paper, but please keep in mind that it took me years to go from one point to the other. There were many bumps along the way. To tell the truth, I am still on my way. I certainly haven’t reached a point where I don’t get angry, and I doubt I ever will, but I have found a place on the road where anger is less easy to come by and more easy to let go of, and where I, not my anger, am almost always the driving force behind my behavior.

Somewhere along the way I also learned something pretty amazing: Anger was never really the problem. Anger is natural. Anger happens. Like a thunderstorm, anger comes and then it goes and, like that storm, it can leave renewal in its wake. It can also sometimes leave destruction, so you do have to be careful, but most of the time, if you are careful, it’s no big deal. It is sound and fury, signifying nothing. Anger is usually only a problem when it is unnatural, when it is too quick, too hot, or held for too long.

Don’t be afraid of anger, but don’t let it be your master either. Learn from it, let it serve its purpose, and then let it go.

I know a bit about anger. Even today, after spending more than half of my life learning to not have a temper problem, I am still often angry. These days that anger usually comes because someone was cruel, destructive, or willfully ignorant, and then I try to put that anger to good use. I channel it into learning, into teaching, into being a better person, and into helping others find ways to be better. Then I let it pass. The world being what it is right now, that is a more common occurrence than I might like, but it is what it is. We do what we can with what we have. The rest is like a storm, and it will pass.

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