Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Temptations of Anger and the Challenge of Peace

I wrote a few days ago on the problem of Fear and its effect in disrupting peace. At root, that article was about a very basic question: what contributes to, or destroys, peace? And what can we do about it?

I suggested at the time that Fear is a disruptor of peace, but not necessarily the only one. As this question continues to rattle around in my skull, another possible answer has climbed to the surface: Anger.

That anger should disturb my peace is no surprise. The physiological effects of anger are well-known - it increases heart rate and respiration, floods the system with adrenaline, all the usual stuff. With Fear, both sides of the fight-or-flight reflex are in play - in fear, I may run away or I may lash out. In Anger, I am far more likely to lash out, which makes Anger more likely to disrupt not only my peace but the peace of others around me.

So why do we get angry? For all sorts of reasons, but I think there are a couple of broad categories. Most important, and perhaps most common: we get angry when things don't go our way, when something happens or someone does something that doesn't meet our expectations of how things are supposed to go.

A lot of this can be little stuff. Someone cuts you off in traffic, slowing your journey by a few seconds. The store is out of the product you made a side trip to pick up. Someone at work made a different choice than the one you wanted, or committed a thoughtless act that requires you to do something different from what your plans were.

Usually, we think that the anger from these little things is momentary - we get irritated, we get over it, we move on. And on the surface that is true. But there is an underlying, subtler set of effects. The adrenaline stays in the body for a while - sometimes for significant periods of time, especially with repeated prompting. A part of the mind ponders the slight or insult a little longer than we are conscious of. The spirit is diverted to a darker mood. And all of this makes it just a little more likely that we will react with anger to the next minor incident.

So what do we do? In every such response, there are two components. There is the external act or circumstance, and there is my expectation about that circumstance. Anger consists of my putting the two together and reacting to the discrepancy. In rare cases, I may be able to influence those external circumstances, and that may be a good approach. But in all cases, I can control my own expectations.

This is one reason, I suspect, why monastic orders have fostered a discipline of asceticism across history and around the world. It may be as much about learning to control and set expectations as it is about conforming to a particular set of material standards.

Those of us who are not monks, whoever, can still control our expectations. Most of us, most of the time, don't do so consciously - like much of the rest of what we do, our expectations of the world around us run on autopilot. There's nothing wrong with that - it allows us to be efficient and concentrate on stuff that really needs our concentration. But if we have habits of expectation - that we will always arrive at work within 20 minutes, that certain products will always be available on demand, that other people in our lives will always act in a certain way or speak in a certain tone of voice - those habits can get us in trouble when things go differently.

It should be noted that there are expectations that are consciously thought of and defended - indeed, that should be. Anger is not always an inappropriate response. It is, I think, the appropriate response in the face of genuine, malevolent evil. Like the protagonist in C.S. Lewis' Perelandra, if we find ourselves faced with real evil then anger - even the use of force - may be the best response. But for most of us, most of the time, those encounters are extremely rare. Being cut off in traffic isn't evil, just inconsiderate (or maybe just thoughtless). So anger should be saved for those rare instances where it is the right response.

Beyond those few encounters, I think there's another lesson here in how I can provide more peace in my own life - by better managing and controlling my expectations. The fewer demands I make on the world around me, the more I cultivate conscious perspective on what's important and what can be flexible, the less angry I am likely to be. This doesn't mean that I won't be disappointed, or that I necessarily settle for mediocrity or bad outcomes. But it does go some way towards putting me in better control of my response to those outcomes. And like reducing fear, reducing anger is likely to produce more peace.

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