Tuesday, September 1, 2015

All the Rage

“I would not look upon anger as something foreign to me that I have to fight... I have to deal with my anger with care, with love, with tenderness, with nonviolence.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh,

I’ve been thinking about anger a lot lately, particularly its relation to getting older.  The stereotype of grumpy old men suggests that there is a correlation between growing angrier as we go gray. But is it true that the longer we live the shorter our fuse?  Do we find that, much like our knees, hips, and backs, anger no longer works the same way it once did?  Finally, are there any benefits to being angry that might allow us to drop all of the “anger management” techniques that mostly serve to turn on anger on ourselves for not being a good manager?

Arguably, anger is our most maligned emotion.  We talked about the need to manage it, to control it, to eliminate it. Conventional wisdom tells us that it is at the root of a myriad of societies’ ills.  Paradoxically, we are told to get angry with our anger and kick it out of our lives.  Despite these warnings, anger is one of our go-to emotions—one of the sharpest tools in the emotional tool box that we return to again and again.  Anger is almost always a more pure and honest expression of how we feel.  People seldom question whether or not we are really angry with them. Really love them?  A different story, altogether.   

Anger, itself, has a developmental cycle that corresponds to our physiological growth.  Early displays of anger take the form of meltdowns, tantrums or fits.  While these often remain the preferred method of expression for some, most will move on to more subtle forms like the silent treatment, the cold shoulder, and, the granddaddy of them all, the stink eye.  These are tempered forms of anger that serve the purpose of expressing one’s inner experience while at the same time leaving room for denial—as in “I’m not yelling, I just have a loud voice.”

Psychological theories of anger vary widely and, quite frankly, many of them are maddening.  The definition I find the most helpful, particularly as it relates to aging, is “Anger is an emotion, resulting from a perceived loss, attributed to a willful agent, and judged as unfair.”  This would explain why anger and aging are intertwined—the loss, that of youth, the culprit, Father Time and totally unfair—case closed.

The anti-anger crowd would probably point out that getting angry at something that is inevitable does not make sense.  To those folks, I say “Shut up!  Who are you to take away anyone’s right to, as Dylan Thomas said, Rage against the dying of the light.”  Sure, we can all accept the idea that life’s unfair, but as the great philosopher Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes, once mused, “Why isn’t ever unfair in my favor?”

By no means am I suggesting that we head into the golden years red-faced with rage.  Unchecked, anger can lead to some nasty consequences, not the least of which is spending one’s remaining days alone, having chased away friends and loved ones through one too many unfiltered rants.  I do, however, think that there might be times when not going gentle into that good night could be helpful.   If anger motivates us to tear down the walls of ageism that still divide our county, helps to give voice to a marginalized group, and stops predators from taking advantage of the elderly, then bring it on!  

Here are some useful aging anger tips:

1. Own it. Whoever asks “Are you angry?” already knows you are.  At least do them the favor of allowing them to be right.
2. Use it to solve problems not create them.
3. Take responsibility for it. No matter what was said or done the anger arose within you and therefore you made yourself angry.
4. Save the aggression for the gym.  Anger doesn’t hurt people, acts of aggression do.  Slamming doors, throwing things, and even punching pillows simply create violent habits and send the message that you are not in control.
5. Sit with it. Turn anger into meditative moments where you pause and reflect on your experience rather than fight or flee.

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