“Keep this thought handy when you feel a fit of rage coming on – it isn’t manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance – unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.18.5b
February is the month focused on passions and emotions. For me, it started on day one as the month of acute bronchitis. I am not one who often gets sick so when the raspy throat cough I brought back from Colorado crept into my chest the January meditations on clarity had to be invoked. The body is a variable we can try to manage but inevitably cannot control. Proper sleep, good diet, exercise and over the counter medicine all failed to keep me from succumbing to this virus.
The fever and body aches were awful, but it was the lack of sleep I simply didn’t foresee as such a burden. Every night being woken up by uncontrollable coughing. No amount of hydrocodone infused cough medicine could keep me asleep. Thankfully the z-pack and steroidal prescriptions have my arrow on the up, and I can reinvest myself into The Daily Stoic.
And what a perfect start. Anger. Before considering the words of Aurelius, and citing a personal experience, I want to consider a selection from The Guide to Living With HIV Infection by John G. Bartlett, M.D. and Ann Finkbeiner. (source)
One reason for anger is the unfairness of the situation. In the first place, being singled out by the virus at all is unfair. No one, regardless of how he or she became infected, asked for or deserved this infection. Steven Charles, who became infected through sexual intercourse, said: “Why me? I didn’t do anything wrong, I never hurt anyone, I was doing what seemed right to me. I know people who are more promiscuous and they seem to be getting out without a scar.” Helen Parks had found a good job in the post office of the small town in which she lives; she had stopped using drugs by injection before she found out she was infected: “I hadn’t been getting high any more. I was earning good money,” she said. “Why bother to work hard and do good now? I had a rage of fire that wouldn’t go out.”
Being sick affords one a perspective of how it feels to be less than optimal. When it happens to me I consider what it must be like to know you will always feel this way. Getting over acute bronchitis is common. Yes, it can mutate into pneumonia, which can be deadly, but in general, it’s something you overcome in one to three weeks. I have friends that battled cancer to victory but have never experienced the battle and eventual loss of someone to AIDS. Maybe common physical symptoms can grant us a shared experience for the sake of empathy, but the mental anguish is private. Anger seems a natural response to the questions of fairness, and that lack of perceived fairness reminds us that we’re not in control of this body.
Besides unfairness, another reason for anger is frustration at occasionally losing the sense that you’re in control of your life. People get angry about having to live with medications that are complicated to take and can have unpleasant side effects. Dean Lombard was taking a drug whose side effect was diarrhea: “Once I messed the bed like a baby. I got so frustrated and angry at not being able to do what I wanted to do, I cried.”
As we go through this month’s meditations on passions and emotions I found my illness to be a reminder that it’s not just our emotions we can better manage. We also learn to better understand why others may, for example, be angry. There is an ability to be more patient and compassionate through this understanding.
The question asked of the meditation focused on athletes and trash talking. Why do they do it? If you watch or play sports you know it’s to get a mental advantage. When I was younger I compensated for a lack of physical talent through my verbal banter. During one game I managed to suck an opponent into three straight unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, allowing us to obtain an upset victory.
Marcus paints the question of how we should deal with anger within the context of strength and manliness. We can appreciate the historical context of when this was written, but it’s more beneficial for us to approach this as a problem for the real “person”. But anger, itself, is not the problem. Anger is an emotion, and like all emotions, the key is how we deal with it.
Anger, itself, is not the problem. Anger is an emotion, and like all emotions, the key is how we deal with it. How many news stories of road rage exist that end with someone dead, and another person in jail? How many times have you seen situations when words were spoken that can never be taken back, and relationships are forever damaged?
A few years ago we were in West Virginia for our family Christmas vacation. A friendly game of Spades ended with my 22-year-old nephew rising from the table and walking out of the cabin. A few minutes later he returned with an apology. Being very competitive he was not handling losing very well and feared he was on the cusp of an emotional outburst he’d regret. The strength he displayed in walking out, and coming back to apologize, was admirable.
I personally cannot be angry and think rationally at the same time. Neither my words nor my actions are well thought out. We must not let anger run uncontrolled. We must be strong enough to not let other people, or inanimate things, control us. Anger keeps us from being civil, and in turn, denies us the ability to establish the relationships we need to survive. Is our present political climate not a perfect example of the dead-end anger will put us?
Let me leave you with this Confucius quote.
“When anger rises, think of the consequences.”