Yesterday I got really angry. We're talking boiling, hopping, furiously angry. Something happened that triggered an old wound and while I knew the entire time that I shouldn't be angry, I was.
My family and I were all sitting around getting ready to watch a movie and the thing happened (via text message) and while I didn't bother to address it (wasn't the time or place) I sat there, silently seething to myself, all the while ruining the first 20 minutes or so of what was an excellent movie, that I had been looking forward to seeing for months.
As I sat there, trying to will myself out of my intense ire, something came to me that I had read recently from Laura Ingalls Wilder from around 1880:
"It was then I learned, many years ahead of the scientific discovery, that anger poisoned one, for I went home and to bed sick at my stomach and with a violent headache."
There is also the Mark Twain quote that I have posted before:
"Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which is it poured."
Now there are times when anger is necessary, and even beneficial. If people hadn't gotten angry about the lack of civil rights we might not have the 15th amendment. Or women's suffrage. Or the success that comes from people being angered by someone else's criticism and wanting to prove them wrong. But usually, anger is just a destructive emotion, that leads to nothing but bitterness and illness from carrying it around with us.
So how do we let go of anger? It is not easy. I think some excellent advice comes from Thomas Jefferson:
"When angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry count to one hundred."
This is a superb tenet in my opinion, especially in the age of immediate texting and instant messaging. I could have very easily sent back an acid-laced text, which would have probably resulted in at least an hour of back and forth anger spewing, which would have most likely resulted in a face to face fight with someone, which would have ruined not only our lovely evening, but quite possibly many days afterward. Which would have all been caused by my old feelings of resentment and frustration, which would have caused the other people to be surprised and bewildered at my reaction. In short, an angry response would have caused nothing positive, but instead a lot of negative and I decided that I didn't need that in my life right now.
So what did I do? I started counting. When I got to ten, I kept counting. I lost track at some point because I let myself get lost in the movie, and after about 40 minutes I forgot about what was making me angry. When I think of it now, the next morning, it's more of a diffused disappointment. I'm not stark raving mad, but rather tired and slightly annoyed at having to deal with the situation.
This whole experience made me realize this: Anger is indeed poison. To our mental state, to our physical state, and to our spirit. It eats away at our joy and our potential for success. It also squelches one of the most important emotions we can possibly have:
There can be no room for hope when angry. When you're sad or disappointed, you can still hope for a better outcome next time. But when you're angry, the anger can be consuming. It can cloud every other emotion you have until you deal with it, and if you don't deal with it, it feeds upon itself too, getting stronger with each passing moment until all you are is angry. Anger can be like a pot on the stove - its just simmering and simmering until eventually it boils over, destroying everything close to it. Anger burns. It burns our hearts, our minds, and our relationships with others.
It also destroys any possibility for true happiness. Anger seems like it's more powerful than joy, although it shouldn't be. It seems like joy can be fleeting, while anger can stick around (and does) for years, or even decades. Last night I had a choice. I could have stayed angry, and had my special family time ruined irrevocably, or I could have let the anger go, and instead focus on the beauty and preciousness of the present moment. I'm proud of the choice I made, especially because there was a time when I would have chosen the former over the latter.
Of course there are times when it is necessary to get angry. And I'm not suggesting that anyone be a doormat and just take abuse or injustice. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that last night I faced the dilemma of allowing the knee jerk reaction of anger to take over my happiness or not. Which meant stopping myself in the midst of the reaction, assessing how I wanted to feel and what I wanted to do, and making the conscious decision to release the anger. It was really three distinct steps, during which I felt the pull of the perceived "deservedness," and "justification," and the "I-have-every-right to feel this way" the whole time.
It's nice to feel like anger, or non-anger, is a choice. And it's nice to feel like we have control over our anger instead of the other way around. There are so many anger-filled triggers out there (especially during election season) but it's so empowering to believe that we have the strength within ourselves to choose how we react. Anger may be poison, but we always have the option not to drink it. Every time.