Anger Is Often Pointless / How to Free Yourself from Anger

Buddha on Anger (Dhammapada)

Anger is often nothing more than an intense emotion caused by an apparent injustice. The destructive outcomes of anger are well known. When even a slight annoyance arises, it is capable of growing quickly and overwhelming your state of mind.

Anger results in (1) a loss of perspective and judgement, (2) impulsive and irrational behavior that is destructive to both yourself and others, and (3) loss of face, compassion, and social credibility.

Anger is often pointless, as the following Buddhist parable will illustrate.

Often, there’s no one to blame

Once upon a time, a farmer was paddling his boat upstream to deliver his produce to a distant village. It was a sultry day, so he was covered in sweat. He was in a great hurry to reach the village market.

Further on upstream, the farmer spotted another boat rapidly moving downstream toward his vessel. It looked as though this boat was going to hit him. In response, he paddled feverishly to move out of the way, but it didn’t seem to help. He yelled, “Hey, watch out!” The other boat seemed to approach him swiftly. The farmer shouted, “Hey, you’re going to hit me! Adjust your direction.” He got no response and continued to yell in vain.

As a last resort, the farmer stood up angrily waving his arms and shaking his fist. The other boat smashed right into him. He was hopping mad and cried out, “You imbecile! How could you hit my boat in the middle of this wide river? Couldn’t you hear me asking you to get out of my way? What is wrong with you?”

Then, all of a sudden, the farmer realized that the boat was empty; it had perhaps cut loose of its moorings and floated downstream with the current. He calmed down and realized that there was no one to blame but an empty boat and the river. His anger was purposeless.

Anger depletes energy and leads to loss of perspective and judgement

When you lose your inner peace, you expect that your anger can help you get even with the offending person or amend the vexing circumstances. However, responding with anger is illogical. The offending deed has already occurred, a fact your anger fails to negate. Also, your anger cannot thwart or diminish the perceived wrong.

In the New Testament, Ephesians 4:26–27 advise, “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”

How to Free Yourself from Anger

Free yourself from anger

There is no benefit to anger at all. All anger can beget is negative energy, which can aggravate an already volatile situation. Anger can also impede sound judgement and inhibit your ability to consider the negative consequences of your abrupt reactions.

The next time you’re angry, consider the following response:

  • Stop. Don’t respond immediately. Walk away from the situation that has instigated your anger.
  • Breathe deeply. Become fully aware of your state of mind. Assess what’s going on.
  • Calm down and compose yourself. Invoke mindfulness to appeal to your wisdom. Anger and other emotional arousals often stem from a lack of self-awareness or mindlessness, and can simmer down if you just wait long enough.
  • Consider the matter from other points of view. Ask if there could be other possible explanations for what happened.
  • Identify the reasons for your anger by asking three questions: (1) “Is this matter serious enough to get worked up about?” (2) “Is my anger necessary and warranted?” (3) “Will getting angry make a difference?”
  • Reflect about what response will be most effective. Try to develop a wise and measured course of action.

Idea for Impact: A low-anger life is a happier life

Patience is the definitive antidote to anger and aggression. With patience, you may not always be able to eliminate anger, but you can usually control it. Patience can build and fortify your intellectual and psychological resources.

As Proverbs 19:11 tells in the Hebrew Bible, “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.” Ultimately, developing greater patience enhances your romantic, personal, professional, and casual relationships—as well as that all-important relationship: the one you have with yourself.

Life Is to You as to Everyone Else: What the Stoics Taught

Mosaic of Alexander the Great, who Sucked at Geometry

Life is as hard for one as for another

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius (Latin orig. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium) tells a story of Alexander the Great’s schooling.

Even at a young age, the hugely ambitious Alexander dreamt of conquering empires. He had no patience for formal learning. When faced with the difficulty of understanding geometry, he whined to his tutor, “Teach me something easy.” His tutor replied, “These things are the same for all, as hard for one as for another.”

'Letters from a Stoic' by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (ISBN 0140442103) Alexander, king of Macedon, began to study geometry; unhappy man, because he would thereby learn how puny was that earth of which he had seized but a fraction!

Unhappy man, I repeat, because he was bound to understand that he was bearing a false title. For who can be “great” in that which is puny?

The lessons which were being taught him were intricate and could be learned only by assiduous application; they were not the kind to be comprehended by a madman, who let his thoughts range beyond the ocean.

“Teach me something easy!” he cries; but his teacher answers: “These things are the same for all, as hard for one as for another.”

Imagine that nature is saying to us: “Those things of which you complain are the same for all. I cannot give anything easier to any man, but whoever wishes will make things easier for himself.” In what way? By equanimity.

You must suffer pain, and thirst, and hunger, and old age too, if a longer stay among men shall be granted you; you must be sick, and you must suffer loss and death.

On a related note, the great Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations (trans. Gregory Hays,) “Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.”

Idea for Impact: Put your problems and worries in perspective

Life Is to You as to Everyone Else Beyond the randomness (or providence for those of you with a religious bent) of where we’re born and whom we’re born to, life is generally fair to all and cannot be easier for anyone. The trials and tribulations of life are equally difficult for everyone. Complaining about others having it easier is futile.

Learn to play the hand you’ve been dealt. If you’re fraught with pain and suffering now, don’t ask, “Why is my life so difficult? Why can’t it be easier?” Take solace in the realization that even the greatest and the mightiest had their share of life’s struggles. Make it easier by viewing life with calmness, composure, and evenness of temper.

A Prayer to Help You Deal with Annoying People: What the Stoics Taught

How to Deal with Annoying People

The 18th Century French writer Nicolas Chamfort once urged, “A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the day is over.”

'Meditations: A New Translation' by Marcus Aurelius (ISBN 0812968255) If you’re not looking forward to annoying people who seem to elevate provocation to an art form, consider the following prayer offered by the great Stoic Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 CE–180 CE) in Meditations (trans. Gregory Hays.)

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me with ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.

Along those lines, the Buddha taught his followers to transcend ignorance through knowledge by observing four practices of inner conduct: loving kindness, altruistic compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity with regard to the impure and the evil. And in the New Testament,

  • Luke 23:34 suggests, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
  • Peter 2:23 offers the example of Jesus, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to Him who judges justly.”
  • Romans 12:17–21 recommend, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Considered Response, Not Naiveté

Aurelius’s urging tolerance, understanding, and patience towards difficult people may sound like naiveté at first glance, but what he urges is a wise and measured response.

Aurelius (121–180 CE) was one of the great Stoic philosophers. Stoic philosophy was founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century BCE. Its core themes of inner solitude, forbearance in adversity, and acceptance of fate gained far-flung following and made it the dominant philosophy across the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.

One of Stoic philosophy’s central beliefs is that destructive emotions result from our errors in judgment. The Stoics argue that many things aren’t within our control, as I elaborated in previous articles (here and here.) The best way to deal with situations we have little control over is to anticipate and neutralize any negative feelings.

Stoic Forbearance through Emotional Detachment

The Stoics argued that our lives will be dramatically different if we realize that we can neither avoid annoying people nor change them. We must accept this reality and work on how we respond and interact with them. In On Tranquility of Mind, the other great Stoic philosopher Seneca (65 BCE–4 CE) wrote:

By looking forward to whatever can happen as though it would happen, he will soften the attacks of all ills, which bring nothing strange to those who have been prepared beforehand and are expecting them; it is the unconcerned and those that expect nothing but good fortune upon whom they fall heavily. Sickness comes, captivity, disaster, conflagration, but none of them is unexpected—I always knew in what disorderly company Nature had confined me.

How to Handle Difficult People

The Stoics encouraged a meditative practice of negative visualization called premeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils.) As suggested by Aurelius in his prayer, premeditatio malorum consists of contemplating the potential challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) we may have to engage and how. By rehearsing not to resign ourselves to adversities, we’re prepared for a more considered response—we could forgive, forget, appreciate and empathize.

As part of the premeditatio malorum practice, we’re to contemplate a priori potential difficulties, setbacks, and misfortunes. While envisaging all the difficulties and evils we could foresee seems like an unwholesome—perhaps even a morbid—exercise, the Stoics argue that this practice can help us react to bad news with equanimity and hence minimize the impact of bad news on our self-worth or confidence. If and when a bad thing should actually happen, our initial response would be to think that “this wasn’t totally unexpected.” While we’d rather it hadn’t happened, we would nevertheless not be surprised by it because this potential outcome was expected all along.

Idea for Impact: Cultivate Equanimity and Manage Yourself First

To handle a difficult person, prepare yourself by thinking of all the things that could go wrong. Don’t focus on how he behaves, but focus on how you can react to him. By ignoring his irritating behaviors, you can neutralize his effect on you. In other words, if someone is being difficult but you don’t feel the difficulty he’s imposed upon you, you don’t have a problem.

The cognitive reframing suggested by the Stoics can be particularly effective in situations where you have little to no control. It’s far more productive to focus on your own behavior because you can control it. And by managing yourself first, you’ll come to appreciate that the annoying person isn’t as annoying anymore. As the other Stoic philosopher Epictetus reminds us, “Man is shaped not by events but the meaning he gives them.”

Feed the Right Wolf: An American Indian Parable on Cultivating the Right Attitudes

The two wolves inside us

A traditional American Indian story features a young Cherokee boy who once became annoyed that another boy had done him some injustice. After returning home, the young boy expressed his frustration to his grandfather.

The old Cherokee chief said to his grandson, “I too, at times, have felt a great hatred for those who have taken so much with no sorrow for what they do.

“Hatred wears you down, and hatred does not hurt your enemy. Hatred is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these emotions many times.

“It’s as though a fight is continuously going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.

“One wolf is good and does no harm. He is filled with joy, humility, and kindness. He lives in harmony with everyone around and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so and in the right way.

“The other wolf is full of anger, envy, regret, greed, and self-pity. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone all the time and for no reason. When blinded by his anger and hatred, he does not have a sound mind. It is helpless anger, because his anger will change nothing.

“It is hard to live with these two wolves inside me. These two wolves are constantly fighting to control my spirit.

“Young man, the same fight is going on inside you and inside every other person on this earth.”

The grandson thought about it for a moment and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win inside you, grandpa?”

The old Cherokee chief smiled and replied, “The one I feed.”

Dear readers, which wolf inside are you feeding?

The Right attitudes beget the right attitudes.