Anger-Free Zone

Buddhism teaches that all life is interrelated. Through the concept of “dependent origination,” it holds that nothing exists in isolation, independent of other life. Everything in the world comes into existence in response to causes and conditions. Nothing can exist in absolute independence of other things or arise of its own accord. [July 99 SGI Quarterly]

I’ve been thinking about dependent origination and anger lately. Twice in the past month I’ve been on the receiving end of bitter diatribes from customers, rants so angry that I erupted into tears as soon as I hung up the phone. I’m not blameless in these matters; in both cases, I made mistakes. I failed to inspect work on one person’s car, and I failed to call the other in a timely manner. I accept responsibility for these oversights and have no problem apologizing. Apologizing and taking ownership of problems is what I do for a living, and it’s become a polished skill. In hostile conditions, however, that skill sometimes sits in the corner and refuses to come out until the air clears.

I do not have the kind of personality that gets angry, so it is hard for me to relate to other people’s need to fulminate. I get upset, frustrated, worked up, and vexed on a regular basis; however, I am hard-pressed to think of a time when I clouded the air with an unleashing of venomous words. I don’t say it to brag, and I don’t feel self-righteous about it; it’s just the way I’m hard-wired. I know that everyone is different, so I try not to judge.

My step-son Forrest and his mom are two people who are definitely wired differently from me. They get angry, and feel compelled to express it, especially with one another. They are both head-strong, and I hear that they’ve had screaming matches that would make me curl up in a fetal position. The blessing here is that because of their conflicts, Kevin and I are able to spend more time with Forrest, who seems to thrive when he is around his dad. The tragedy is that the relationship Forrest has with his mom has become so strained that some permanent damage may have been done. It will take a serious olive-branch, kumba-ya, soul-baring, pride-swallowing love-fest to get them back to a place of some semblance of trust. And even that is only going to be as good as the time it takes for one or both of them to get angry again.

The problem arises, as almost all problems do, from a perspective that embraces being right. Once somebody says “it’s the principle of the thing”, and starts using that principle to justify their outbursts, all is lost. My personality dictates that it is more important to get along than it is to make a point, a position I embrace more as I see that angry or insulting exchanges only result in hurt feelings, and rarely in peaceful resolution. We don’t have to convince one another of our point of view. We only have to listen and be respectful. There are many times in life we have to “agree to disagree”, or even better, take ownership and apologize.

Here is the critical point in apologizing, and I’m sure all lawyers will disagree with me: just because you say you’re sorry, doesn’t mean you are saying you were wrong. You can apologize for yelling, or apologize for someone’s frustration (aka empathy). You can apologize for the simple purpose of putting the conversation in a more peaceful place.

It’s important to remember, as you simmer in all of the “rightness” in your head, that it’s often impossible to sway the other person’s point of view. So if you are steadfastly holding to “the principle of the thing”, you are sacrificing the relationship in the vain hope that the other person will eventually acknowledge they are wrong, a tricky thing for even the most evolved human beings.

As difficult as it is to convert someone to your point of view (because, like you, they want to be “right”), imagine how much harder it is to convince them when you are expressing yourself in a state of anger. Angry outbursts have damaging effects, which brings me back to the concept of dependent arising. We cannot know all of the repercussions our words and actions will have on others. The indignant customer who yells at me feels justified; he is convinced that he is a victim of some wrong, but he doesn’t have all of the information about the situation. He certainly doesn’t have any information about what his angry words will mean to me as I sit in the middle of my family dinner. When you throw garbage out into the air and walk away, you no longer see the garbage, but it is still there for someone else to manage. Words yelled in anger are garbage, and the mess is very difficult to clean.

Everything in the world comes into existence in response to causes and conditions.  How I present myself to you will impact how you present yourself to those around you, who are also affected by these interactions. The ripple effect of how we choose to behave has far-reaching consequences, and anger will always contaminate that stream. The only thing we can do at that point is wait until the anger subsides, go back to the source of the garbage-spewing and apologize to them. “I am sorry for your frustration. I take ownership in being a part of the resolution. I kindly request that our future interactions take on a tone of increased mutual respect. Here is my olive branch, will you accept it?”

Perhaps we can impact the ripples around us with greater empathy. There are reasons people lash in anger, reasons I will never know. Their wiring may not be for me to understand.   For my part, I promise to embrace the art of the apology and do my part to keep the air clean for those around me to thrive.

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