August 17, 2015

Diary of a Former Mad-Woman (Or, Livid’s Not My Best Color, Anyway)

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays,Roadpeace USA — Tags: , , , , , — Ann @ 9:59 am

[Editor's Note: I just found this essay -- something I wrote back in the late 1990s. It's not a bad essay on anger so I'm adding it to my blog.]

I’m a recovering anger-embracer.

I first began to be aware of the habit-forming nature of what I call “knee-jerk” anger in early 1996, when I founded RoadPeace USA, my nonprofit movement to promote kindness on the roadways. With awareness and commitment, I mended my ways and have become a gentle motorist, encouraging others to follow suit.
However, recently, and quite suddenly, I realized that although I was being peaceful behind the wheel, offroad I was skidding out of control: anger was becoming my reaction to almost everything unpleasant. If the weather turned uncomfortably hot, if the grocery store was out of the cheap brand and I had to buy the expensive brand, if people stood too close to me at the check-out counter, I’d feel the flare. I realized that anger and its cousins — bitterness, resentment, outrage, and self-righteous indignation — were destroying my personality. And, most importantly, I realized that the anger I was feeling didn’t stem from some huge unresolved inner conflict: it was simply becoming a bad habit. I was becoming one of the Angry People. For there are people I greatly respect and admire, and they are the mellow ones. And there are those I don’t admire so much — the blazing-eyed types who huff impatiently while waiting in line, slam the elevator button five times, and pointedly frown at boisterous children. I, who aspired to mellowness, was developing a permanent glare and jutting chin.

I was even getting angry on behalf of other people. If friends and relatives didn’t feel their own anger, by gosh I’d gladly feel it for them. And, what’s worse, I was getting angry with my husband when he didn’t join me in my wrath-bath. Anger is a lonely emotion. Like heavy drinkers, habitual fumers want company. “What’s wrong…too good to get mad with me?”

In a way, it’s not all that surprising that I was turning into a knee-jerk mad-woman: We have become a nation of angry people. I don’t need to consult experts or do research to confirm this — we see it all around us. We see angry shoppers in malls, angry drivers on roadways. We hear angry callers on radio talk shows. We see it in the heavy sighing, the rolling of the eyes, the profanity, the aggressive driving. We’ve become a people not merely quick to anger, but downright eager to anger. “I dare you to cut in front of me, buddy; just try it.” Too many of us are walking around with huge chips on our shoulders. And we’re not content merely to feel the anger. We nurture it, groom it, invite it home to dinner, add a room onto the house for it. There are alternatives. Have we lost our creativity and imaginations to the point where we can think of no other reaction than anger to the frustrating encounters in our day-to-day lives?

Therapists and others talk of ways of “processing” anger. But I’m beginning to think we already give entirely too much respect and air-time to those ordinary, everyday mad attacks. I’m not talking about deep-seated angers stemming from early life traumas and other such tragedies. That type of emotion is a different matter, and needs to be tended to by professionals. What I’m talking about — garden-variety irritation — is simply a bad habit and we need to remember what our grandparents were taught: count to ten until it goes away. Get over it. A shrug and a wry smile can serve well. We don’t have to “process” every slight, every oversight, every insult, every hurt. Part of my recovery means giving up trying to direct, produce, and choreograph every single person and event in my life. Much of anger stems from control issues. I was often impatient with people when I didn’t understand and/or approve of their behavior. The opposite of anger is acceptance.

Since deciding I don’t want to be an angry person anymore, I’ve been dealing with it the way I quit smoking after 17 years: I’ve recognized that reactionary anger, like smoking cigarettes and other bad habits, is a waste of time, life, and energy, and I’ve declared it no longer an option. Put another way: I’ve symbolically crumpled up and tossed my hard-pack of huffiness, and I’ve ground out my last smoldering butt of self-indulgent fury.

That isn’t to say that my temper won’t flare. I’ll get angry with my husband, my father, my boss, certain politicians. But I’ll be rationing it from now on. For real anger to get my attention, it’s going to have to result from an event worthy of all that roiling passion. Once I’ve decided that anger is indeed the appropriate emotion to be feeling — that is, once I’ve run my feelings through the filter of my creativity and have decided that there is no better way to deal with the situation (such as the liberal application of humor) — then I can get angry. But unless I plan to do something with that anger, like talk it out or take action, I will immediately release it.

For I’ve also realized that, for all its storminess, anger is an impotent emotion unless it inspires constructive action. Even where anger is wholly justified — where people are being denied rights, where grave injustice is being carried out — just getting angry alone is a waste. Anger is only good, I’ve learned, if you use the energy created by it to take action and do something positive.

In the 70s and 80s, many experts told us that anger was good. We were encouraged to acknowledge it, express it, and own it. But habitual, knee-jerk anger hasn’t done anything for me except make me feel miserable, lose sleep, treat others badly, jeopardize relationships, churn my stomach, and make my head ache. One of my new mantras is: “Save it for the important stuff.”

Yesterday, at the grocery store, a boy of about eight or nine was acting out, yelling “No!” when I tried to pass his mom’s cart in the aisle. Up until recently, I would have fumed. But yesterday, I just looked at the boy in amusement. When I didn’t do anything but smile at him, there was a shift. Suddenly, he smiled and said excitedly, “I’m gonna be Batman for Halloween!” And so it goes. I change, and the world changes with me.

So far, my rehabilitation has been as simple as that — awareness, followed by choice. And walking among my planet-mates with a much less narrow view of what constitutes “acceptable” behavior. Because that has been an important step in the recovery process. Part of letting go of useless anger is allowing another more desirable emotion to fill and soothe the ragged soul. And, although he was referring to much larger issues than those I’ve written about here, Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this substitution technique when he said: “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

June 1, 2014


Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays,Rants!,The Healing Project — Tags: , , , , — Ann @ 11:44 am

Being Alive
I recently met a young woman who is one of those people born to be in the healing arts. Her very presence is a blessing. As is often the case with bright-light individuals, she is deeply into yoga, spirituality, and living cleanly and lightly on the Earth. We got to chatting during a recent gathering and decided to keep in touch via Facebook. When I logged on yesterday, there was a Friend request from her.

From cryptic comments she’d made, I knew that her long-time partner has cancer. She’d made recent references to treatments that went well, and then not so well. I know that he is a young man, and because my partner was also a young man when he developed testicular cancer a decade or more ago, I assumed that that was the brand of C they were dealing with. And because all turned out well for my partner – and for Lance Armstrong, who famously battled that very same cancer — I assumed all would be well.

After she and I Friended each other I browsed her Wall. I saw her partner for the first time. The two of them together look like a glossy magazine ad for the best kind of life two beautiful people could ever live, probably at a base camp in Nepal. Radiating promise and hope and bliss and love, these two gorgeous souls smiled back at me from Zuckerberg’s social network program, and made me smile right back. Because her photos are interesting I started flipping through them – she and her guy have traveled all over the world, I notice — and then I see that a friend of theirs has posted a photo of her boyfriend with the Comment, “This is [name]. He is battling brain cancer.”

BRAIN CANCER. Stomach-punch heartsick held-breath ohmygod ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME, UNIVERSE?!! Is how my thoughts ran. This beautiful boy, this child of the planet, this lover of life, this shining light, has BRAIN cancer?!!!

All morning long my mind reeled. Here I am, so truly far away from the situation – I barely know her, and have never met him – and yet so gobsmacked by the horror of it. When my partner came home from morning services, I explained to him in choked sobs what I’d found out, then cried for an hour. Later, on my walk, I kept looking up at the sky, “Really, God? Really, Universe?”

I don’t know how common this type of cancer is in 20-somethings. I lost another friend to brain cancer a few years ago; she was in her 60s. I do know that people young and old, rich and poor, etc etc get cancer, fight cancer, live with cancer, die from cancer. I don’t usually go around thinking about it because, well, that way lies madness. But I can’t shake this. All day long, whenever I heard someone say something vaguely whiny, I thought, “Or you could have BRAIN cancer!” Watching a television show in which 40-year-old actresses were complaining about their wrinkles, I thought, “Or you could have BRAIN cancer.”

Can your whole life and perspective be changed by someone else’s battle with cancer? I’m not sure I even feel right about it, as though I’m “getting something” from someone else’s – what? What are they even calling it? His illness? His struggle? His challenge? His journey? I want to take care how I characterize what they are experiencing: this is not mine to name or make assumptions about.

Worse, I suspect that my heightened sense of the preciousness and fragility of all things will fade. I mean, not that I particularly take life for granted on a daily basis – I am filled with gratitude – but right now, I’m way above baseline. I’m up there in self-actualization mode, where brushing my teeth this morning was a blessing and touching the cat’s fur brought tears to my eyes, so awed was I by its softness. And I remember being elevated to this state of heightened appreciation and awareness a few years back when another friend’s wife, in her early 30s, with two small children, was expected to die of Stage IV cervical cancer. As I held his hand through that, all the life-appreciation clichés came to pass: air smelled sharper, colors seemed richer, grass felt velvety. She survived that, they eventually divorced, and I went back to baseline appreciation mode.

Someone I don’t even know has brain cancer, and I’m feeling more connected to life. But every day someone I don’t even know has cancer. Every day I could be outraged to the point of transcendence. As I said, it doesn’t seem right, “using” other people’s struggles in this way. On the other hand, is this not what every person wants, for meaning to be made from their life and existence? Whenever something Bad happens, the survivors say, “I want something Good to come of this.”

And so, a friend’s life companion gets sick, and those ripples come lapping into my awareness and something feels changed. For one thing, I know I don’t want to hear any complaining. From anyone, and least of all from myself. I may even say it out loud if I hear any whines today. I may look at the whiner and say, “Or you could have BRAIN cancer!” Someone does. You don’t? Then shut up and live.

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