If I see a hungry lion racing for me, aiming for my throat, I feel fear. It’s a visceral reaction out of my conscious control. It is an instinct.
If I am walking down a road in England, perpetually scared that a lion might attack me, that isn’t fear, although it is commonly called such (as in Susan Jeffers’ book, Feel the fear and do it anyway). It is actually anxiety. It results from a behaviour—worrying—based on an irrational belief which has generated a feeling of anxiety.
I wish we had a word which bore the same relation to anger as anxiety does to fear.
We get angry—for example, if a stranger attacks my child—and it is a visceral, instinctive response. If I am still angry about the situation two hours later, or two years later, it isn’t anger, it’s something else: a synthetic state which requires mental energy to maintain it.
True anger is biologically impossible to sustain: the level of adrenaline and other hormones and what have you sloshing around would kill the brain. But the anger, at the time, is unavoidable and a necessary life preserver.
Whereas synthetic anger is rarely justified. It may serve a purpose. It is often maintained unconsciously, so the angry person is genuinely unaware of his/her contribution to it. It is very often consciously justified thorough a variety of techniques such as being righteous and more or less covert demands for sympathy.
In the Nicomachean ethics, Aristotle said:
Anyone can get angry—that is easy… but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy.
What this is speaking to is our ability to control our anger, after the initial outrage. I was talking to someone recently who described a hypothetical situation in which I, accidentally as it turned out, spilt scalding coffee on his leg. He said he would respond to me in that Aristotelian way: assessing whether my action was deliberate, whether maintaining his anger was going to be useful (to him) and so on.
I suggest that this is the point where the anger shifts from instinct to being a synthetic cover emotion: here anyone could decide to let go of the anger altogether. (Doing it may be harder, of course.)
Anger is the emotion which fuels conflict, racial hatred—hatred of all groups different from “us”—and is used as an excuse to fail to move forward. ‘Habit’ is too weak a word for this: just because it is not conscious doesn’t mean it is not volitional.
Anger is always a cover emotion. What it is covering may be… fear, or frustration, or judgement or many other things. It is worth being aware of why we are angry and then making the effort to work out why really we are angry.
What’s underneath your anger?
© 2015 Jeremy Marchant Limited . revised 30 may 2015 . image: Free images