Doug Taylor and Rabbi Morton Moskowitz
Dear Mr. Taylor: I read your article about anger last month. So what's the secret? How do you "rationally" deal with anger when you're feeling it? --- Bill D., Mukilteo
Dear Bill: Thanks for writing. I wasn't sure how to answer your question, so I posed it to my friend, the King of Rational Thought, during a walk last week. His response was not what I expected.
"Why do people get angry?" he asked, after I read your letter to him.
"Well---" I hesitated, groping for an answer. "Because somebody made them mad?" Just then, a young boy whizzed unsteadily by on a skateboard. Out of balance, he tried to recover, but crashed instead, almost impaling himself on a fire hydrant. Even from our 10 yard vantage point, we knew his body wasn't seriously hurt. But his pride was a different story. Grabbing his skateboard from nearby bushes, the boy viciously kicked the fire hydrant, swore at it, threw his skateboard on the ground, and took off.
"There's your answer," the King of Rational Thought said as we continued our walk.
"Huh?" I said dumbly, still caught up in the skateboard incident and not even remembering what we were talking about.
"The answer to why people get angry," he said.
I was lost. And I hate being lost.
"I don't follow you," I said.
"You just saw a perfect example of why people get mad," he said.
"Because of fire hydrants?" I asked, still mentally struggling to catch up.
"Look," he said, "why did that boy kick the fire hydrant?"
I started to reply, then stopped and actually thought about his question. All I could come up with was, "Because he ran into it."
"Why should that make him mad?" he asked.
"Because it's not what he wanted," I said, exasperated. This felt like a circular game of twenty questions.
"You're right," he replied. "He was mad because he didn't get what he wanted. But why take it out on the fire hydrant?"
Fortunately, this time he answered his own question before I had time to worry about a suitable response.
"When we get mad," he explained, "it's usually because we don't get what we want. In other words, we're not happy with reality. We stomp our feet and demand that reality be different. In this case, the boy was mad because there was a fire hydrant where he tried to skateboard. Notice that he didn't blame himself for not anticipating the fire hydrant's presence. He blamed the fire hydrant - an inanimate object - for being there."
"We get angry," he concluded, "because we are unwilling to simply accept reality and deal with it."
I was reeling all this in, trying to make the pieces fit. I thought I saw his point, but...
"But how do you change that?" I asked.
"By going over this idea, in many different situations, until it becomes clear to your mind," he replied. "Real behavior change only takes place when something is clear to your mind. Once you see this idea clearly, you won't get mad like you did before. You'll learn to just deal with reality."
I took his point to heart and began applying it to petty annoyances, like drivers who cut in front of me, or business people who promise on their voice mail to return my phone call and almost never do. But my greatest challenge in accepting reality is coming up this weekend.
I have to do my income tax.