Some things justly demand that we be angry.
But anger always makes it more difficult to think clearly and to keep proper perspective.
And every instance of anger feels abundantly justified in the moment, even if we will look back on the vast majority of them with sufficient distance and (assuming we aren’t completely stunted in our moral and social development) be able to recognize that it was selfish and silly to get as angry as we did in a particular set of circumstances.
And even in the times when we would be justified in getting angry, even then, we do ourselves no favours by getting so angry that we can’t think clearly.
No one can tell us in the moment to “calm down,” if we are going to be angry. Beforehand, though, we can resolve for ourselves to seek to avoid anger as much as we can.
This is a tough one. We’ll fail more than we succeed. Once we try fighting it we’ll notice that the silliest things will manage to bring us to anger. It will remind us how little self-control we really have, a fact we are usually able to forget and ignore.
I have a reputation for being a calm and peaceful and patient person, and for the most part I am grateful to say that’s been true. Still, even for someone with my placid disposition, I’m surprised how often I feel the blood in my chest growing hot as I’m filled with righteous indignation, which in hindsight is often not quite as righteous as it seemed at the time.
I think a tool from Plato’s workshop is helpful here.
It’s good to remember that everyone thinks they’re doing what is best. Even the addict who makes a self-destructive choice for the thousandth time is, in the moment of decision, seeing the world through a wildly distorted perspective that shows the addictive choice as the good one. How much more will all of us see ourselves as doing the right thing, we who have not admitted we have a problem, who do not see the rest of the world as normal and ourselves as aberrant.
The person you’re talking to or dealing with is trying hard to do the right thing, as difficult as that may be to imagine in the moment. That other person is striving for the good, the just, the best, as well as they can, even if they may lack the knowledge or skills or vision to see that what seems best to them is really unhelpful or counterproductive or dangerous.
“So what? They’re trying to do the right thing. That doesn’t mean I can’t get mad at them!” Indeed, it is still possible and often justifiable to get angry, even having made that admission.
However, in my experience this is one of the best ways for staying calm, not only externally but internally. Once we admit that they’re just trying to do what’s right from their standpoint, and we take just a second to start to try and see how they could perceive their actions and words in that light, it’s astonishing how anger begins to evaporate.
I too often forget to follow the path of thought that I just described. When I remember to do it though, and I deal with a conversation partner reasonably, I find the outcomes tend to be much better, and even if things don’t go better, I still won’t regret having followed the path without anger, because then I can withdraw at an appropriate moment, without rancour. Even that is a great improvement over the alternative.
And the best part is the stillness in my soul afterwards. I hate being angry after an interaction and going back and replaying it and wishing I’d pointed out this hypocrisy and that inconsistency. Getting to avoid that is, all by itself, completely worth the effort of being less angry.