There Go I: Anger From Three Angles
About all my huffs and furies, I have to admit to a double standard. In my anger and disdain, I ignore all similarities between me and the objects of my wrath.
I’m not typically hypocritical in real time, though that too is sometimes a possibility. When I’m angry or annoyed with someone, I’m probably not—at that moment—doing wrong of the same kind that they are. That double standard is usually too obvious. But the kind of wrong they’re doing is almost certainly something I’ve done before and will do again, and in that sense my wrath is evidence of a double standard.
“There but for the grace of God go I” almost captures it, but doesn’t go far enough. It’s not that by the grace of God or anything else I’m spared. I’m not spared. I’ve got the same flaws, or at least the potential to have them, a potential I’m quite likely going to discount. “There go I,” is more like it. Or, “I wouldn’t put it past me.”
Doubt and Fury
Awhile back I had a chance to do a controlled experiment on my anger. Within a week I found myself angry in two separate situations, one in which I was uncertain whether I had been wronged or just felt wronged; the other in which I knew I had been wronged.
In the first, the fault was ambiguous. Someone gave me a severely unfavorable and possibly unjustified criticism. My mind raced to figure out whether the guy was being mean or whether I was simply being too sensitive. The ambiguity about whether the discomfort I felt was his fault or mine paralyzed me. If he was being nasty, I should give him what-for. But if instead I was being overly sensitive, giving him what-for would be the most inappropriate thing to do. If I was being too sensitive, I should just swallow my pride and move on. But if he was being mean, then swallowing my pride was the last thing I should do. Better to give him what-for.
In my cycling uncertainty my face went molten. Half sheepish, half steeled for combat, I couldn’t find a place to settle. I just had to wait it out. (See Suspended Animation on Mind Reader’s Dictionary.)
That same week someone else slighted me in a much more direct and obvious manner. I had been minding my own business, and this other person, normally a dear friend, had a rather stark morality lapse at my expense. This time there was no ambiguity, and for a while my wrath knew no limits. I felt justified, licensed, and liberated. I raged until I had gone too far, and then I apologized and forgave the person.
A few months later I had a morality lapse of my own around the very person who had so clearly wronged me. Sheepishly, I asked forgiveness. I was told that of course I was forgiven, since I had forgiven when the offense was to me. Yes, I thought, but I had forgiven only after raging a while, raging as though there didn’t go I—as though I would never have a moral lapse, when in fact I just wasn’t having one at the time.
The contrast between these two incidents is what interests me. In the first case I recognized that the fault could be mine. In the second, I had lost sight of the ways in which I too could have moral lapses.
During that week of contrasting reactions, I happened to be teaching about the French Revolution. I imagined the release that the French commoners must have felt. I pictured them shifting from the paralyzed anger I experienced when I wasn’t sure I had been wronged to the focused anger I felt when I knew I had been wronged. As they shifted from doubt about whose fault their poverty was to certainty that it was the king’s fault, their liberated rage knew no limits.
The shift from uneasy paralysis to liberated tirade is one of the more compelling feelings around, and one of the most dangerous dynamics in all of human behavior.
In Defense of Anger
The obvious takeaway message is this: We should all forgive everybody all the time—because, after all, we’re all equally capable of making mistakes.
But that’s only half the story. It’s a half-truism. To get at the other half of the truth, we should ask, why—if forgiveness is always right—do we keep having to make the case for forgiveness?
The answer that leaps to mind is that we’re dumb. We forget. We should know better, but we don’t. People continue to make the mistake of not forgiving one another, but forgiveness is always called for.
I don’t buy it. Instead, I’d say forgiveness is one of two points that wisdom demands we keep in mind. The other is that pushing, scolding, cajoling, and anger are necessary and inevitable in the give-and-take of life. I illustrate my point with an exception to it:
When people die, their effort is over. Sure, their works live on. The fruits of their labors may take decades, centuries, or millennia to be fully realized. But their own personal exertions are done, and you can assess their lives.
Suppose your alcoholic, abusive father died. You would be understandably angry at him. Perhaps you wouldn’t be able to forgive him—but that would leave you in a quandary. The impulse would be to say, “He didn’t have to be the alcoholic child abuser he was.” But that statement is illogical. Either he did have to be the alcoholic abuser he was or he would have been someone else.
“He could have had more self-control.” Well, apparently he couldn’t. The way things played out, given his total package of experiences, self-control, and morals, apparently he couldn’t have been different. Saying “I wish I had tried something else to make him stop” makes sense. Saying “I wish he had been different” makes sense. But once he’s dead, saying he could have been different doesn’t make sense.
What is anger for? It’s for the living, for people who can still change. Maybe if you rage, or cajole, or push, or blame, or coax, or caution, or warn, or something, maybe in their remaining time they could do something other than what they’re doing that is bothering you.
Bark at the living. The living can still change. And expect, so long as you’re alive, that people will sometimes bark at you to change.
Wisdom is walking a fine line, but it’s not like tracing. It’s walking a fine line that hasn’t been drawn yet, a line that’s drawn as we walk it. Only looking back can we tell when we were too far to one side or the other of this fine and living line. The best way to walk in wisdom is to know what’s on both sides of the line. For example, on one side, too much anger, on the other side too much forgiveness.