Anger Is Rising in America. The Stoics Taught How to Keep Your Cool
According to the latest NPR-IBM Watson Health poll, “42% of those polled said they were angrier in the past year.”
Most of us think we are better than average. We believe others are getting even angrier than we are: “Some 84% of people surveyed said Americans are angrier today compared with a generation ago.”
No wonder some popular politicians speak like they are in a perpetual rage. Joseph Epstein, writing in the Wall Street Journal, observes of Bernie Sanders:
Epstein adds, “Mr. Sanders isn’t a Stalinist, but, judging by his temperament and rigidity, in Stalin’s day he might have been.”
Sanders won’t be giving up his anger anytime soon; his success depends upon attracting angry voters.
And it’s not just in the political arena that anger rules the day. Harvard University law professor Ronald Sullivan, forced to step down as a faculty dean, wrote of “angry demands” on college campuses:
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius observed, “It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners.”
A few months ago, my wife and I missed our highway exit. When we exited to retrace our steps, we found ourselves backed up at a traffic light. Each time the light turned green, only five cars could make it through before it turned red again. My thinking riffed on getting to our destination on time. As I railed against reality and behaved boorishly, my wife sat still, well, stoically.
At that moment, I was sure my anger was coming from the traffic light. I didn’t sign up for a poorly controlled intersection and a delayed trip. Take the issue away, and I would be calm again. Wrong. Anger starts with an internal decision to be angry. If we want to be angry, we will find things to be angry about.
If you shouldn’t trust yourself when you are angry, surely you shouldn’t trust others who are angry.
My momentary agitation was made of the same stuff as full-blown road rage. I had given the world, in the form of a traffic light, power over my peace of mind. “You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all,” Marcus Aurelius counseled.
The moment I stopped feeding my anger with more thinking, the anger was gone. In their book The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman write:
Life will often not meet our expectations. The traffic light will only let five cars through when you have to get somewhere. But do you have to allow your thinking to make the situation even worse? If you keep pinching your arm, don’t be surprised if you get bruised.
James Romm is a professor of classics at Bard College. His book How to Keep Your Cool: An Ancient Guide to Anger Management is a new translation of the Stoic philosopher Seneca’s work On Anger.
In his introduction to his book, Romm asks us to recall “the last minor incident that sent you into a rage.” He asks us to reflect on these questions: “You were injured—or were you? Were you notably worse off, a day or two later, than before the incident occurred? Did it really matter that someone disrespected you?”
Then Romm offers this pointed advice:
In Seneca’s words, “Your anger is a kind of madness, because you set a high price on worthless things.”
Using the common example of road rage, Romm explains the price of our madness:
Awareness cures anger. Look at “all the vices anger gives rise to and take good measure of them.” Seneca was adamant:
Anger harms the angry host. Seneca taught:
The Stoics advised that you can do your “duty” without anger. There is no such thing as healthy anger, taught Seneca.
In short, “Once shaken and overthrown, the mind becomes a slave to that which drives it.” Choose against anger as soon as you recognize it. Seneca instructs:
Here is Seneca’s timeless thumb rule: Don’t trust your first angry thoughts shrieking insane advice. He explains:
Like other Stoics, Seneca advised mind training. Each of us must come to know our personal storm warnings. He instructs:
Seneca asked, “Won’t everyone want to call themselves back from anger’s borders, once they understand that its first onset is to their detriment?”
If you shouldn’t trust yourself when you are angry, surely you shouldn’t trust others who are angry. “There is no reason to trust the words of angry people, which make loud and menacing noise despite the great timidity of the mind that lies beneath,” advised Seneca.
Angry politicians believe they are wise. Enraged college students believe they are just. A driver overcome by road rage believes he is in the right. Seneca would say they are all insane.
Some may believe that the ability to be angry with impunity is a perk of their power. Seneca would say getting angry is a booby prize.
Can we reduce our attraction to anger? Can we keep our cool while others lose theirs? If enough of us can, there will be less demand for angry politicians.
Romm places On Anger in context: “By the time he came to write On Anger, or at least the greater part of it, he had witnessed, from the close vantage point of the Roman Senate, the bloody four-year reign of Caligula.”
Most of us are not pure saints nor demented souls like Caligula. Seneca wrote, “Even in good characters there is something rather unsavory. Human nature contains treacherous thoughts, ungrateful ones, greedy and wicked ones.”
How we spend our days becomes how we spend our life.
Understanding human nature allows us to be “kinder to one another.” Seneca advised us to forgive the foibles of others: “We’re just wicked people living among wicked people. Only one thing can give us peace, and that’s a pact of mutual leniency.”
Always see your common humanity with others, counseled Seneca.
Seneca pointed to our hypocrisy:
And when we forget our ignorance and arrogance, Seneca suggests we recall “every time we find it hard to forgive, whether it’s to our benefit that everyone be implacable. How often has the one who refused mercy later sought it?”
Today, like every day, the world will provide ample opportunity to practice Seneca’s wisdom. How we spend our days becomes how we spend our life. Are we willing to learn, as Marcus Aurelius puts it, that we “have something in [us] more powerful and divine than what causes the bodily passions and pulls [us] like a mere puppet”?
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