On Anger

I do not like being angry, yet I have come to realize that, of late, I am incredibly angry. Now, I attempt to be very aware and cautious of my emotions. In general, I feel that I am a very reserved person. I don’t mean to say that I do not feel strongly, merely that I attempt to restrain my initial reactions to people and situations until I have time to step back and analyze why I am reacting as I am, and determine whether my reactions are reasonable. Over and over again these last eighteen months, however, I keep coming to the conclusion that my anger is justified, that I am not overreacting, that I am correct in my basic set of assumptions which I bring to the situations in question (and I haven’t done all of that work alone, I speak to friends and confidants about my reactions and the situations and honestly and humbly ask for their feedback).

Unfortunately, I have not been able to form a reasonable course of action in dealing with my anger. In the past, I have turned toward Stoicism. Epictetus (with whom, let it be stated, I am not in complete agreement throughout his treatise), as translated by Keith H. Seddon, explains,

It is not circumstances themselves that trouble people, but their judgements about those circumstances. For example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have appeared so to Socrates; but having the opinion that death is terrible, this is what is terrible. Therefore, whenever we are hindered or troubled or distressed, let us never blame others, but ourselves, that is, our own opinions.

I do agree that we must content ourselves with changing that which we can, and recognizing that which we cannot effect. The power of Stoicism lies in its ability to distinguish that which we have power over and that which we do not. We always, to a certain extent, have power over ourselves, over our emotions, over our thoughts and opinions. However, I must ask, at which point do our opinions cease to rely merely upon ourselves. We, fleshly and embedded within the world, must have thoughts and opinions, reactions of all sorts, which touch upon the world around us. In that action, surely the world is strangely amalgamated into our being. My happiness, being mine, amalgamates those elements outside of myself into a close relation with my being. My being is constantly in extension with the world around it. The walls between I, it, you and she are not necessarily as distinct as Stoicism would imply.

My anger is entirely my own, it begins and ends within my self. However, I also think that it is foolish to deny that there are forces outside of myself which negatively impact me. The true source of my anger is my self, I do take ownership of it, but the conditions for its arousal are also present in the world. I would not be angry if I did not care, both about my own condition and the condition of those around me. I am simply not willing to stop caring. While that would certainly remove my ever present anger, it would also remove my soul, my humanity. I think that it is a basic part of the human condition to care, to be be oriented toward oneself and others.

I agree that a great deal of human suffering is produced by the way we approach and frame situations, however, I also believe that there are human conditions with inherent values attached to them. Being in a state of starvation has little to do with framing. One cannot reorient themselves away from their hunger when it is consuming them. It is foolish to tell a starving child that starving is not such a terrible thing (they could be dead, after all, and isn’t that a relief? They do yet live…). I am certainly not claiming that my anger is on par with the plight of starving children, I am merely attempting to show that there are things which we have the right, and indeed it is incumbent on us as caring humans, to be angry, to be troubled about. There are judgements at play, but there are also circumstances which provoke those judgements.

Stoicism, by its nature, is unconcerned with the provocative circumstances out of which judgements arise, merely the judgements themselves. To a proper Stoic, and I hope that I am portraying them honestly, the substance of the world is of little matter, merely the substance of the mind in reaction. The world, being largely unchangeable by the Stoic frame, should give little cause for concern, all happiness, all pain, are products of the mind and may only be addressed therein. It is interesting to me how the Stoics thus address the Problem of Other Minds. Stoicism is both oriented emphatically toward the Social Good, and away from the expectation of goodness in others. By the Stoic frame, and one sees this quite prominently in Seneca, one must act toward the greatest good, without hoping to change the basic natures of those around them. A Stoic is a good man because of his basic nature, refined and cared for over many years of labor, but those whom are not by nature inclined toward an awareness of good cannot be expected to alter themselves. Other minds, while present, are incorrigible. Instead of being a source of frustration for the Stoics, this is the basis of the whole philosophy. Being unable to attend to the cares of others, attend to the care of yourself, and so doing, strengthen the social fabric of your society: your success is incumbent upon the success of your surroundings.

At a certain level, this all sounds very cunning and useful. It is, as a philosophy, eminently pragmatic. It is also a philosophy which relies foremost on an act which I find reprehensible. It a philosophy of distance and disconnect. One’s formost focus is oneself, all other good thus pours out of that action. I certainly agree that even with a strong orientation toward others, one must maintain a strong focus on oneself (failing to do so weakens one’s own abilities to care for the world around oneself), however, the a complete focus on oneself may also result in a dangerous internalization of one’s presence in the world. While the Stoics never deny their embeddedness in the world, to a large part they seek to deny the effects of the world upon them. All effects must be intentional and originate within the Stoic. The exterior world is reoriented away from the Stoic, rather than toward, the effects of the world flee from the Stoic only to impact others, and the Stoic is thus above such petty affairs.

All of this is then perfectly useless when the effects of the world are persistent and pervasive. How does one deny the provocative circumstance of one’s anger when every day, from the moment of waking they are staring one in the face? I find myself living in a society which is increasingly abhorrent, and which I realize that as one mere man I have little power to change. I, being by my nature as I am, do not have the luxury some do to keep their heads down an attend purely to themselves. I am, in several different ways, distanced from society, and the acts required to bring me into line with social expectations would destroy me; I am not willing to sacrifice my happiness for mere comfort, survival. My being is, in a basic way, threatened by the world around me.

I am also very aware of circumstances wherein I can step in and affect a change which will result in an immediate improvement of my surroundings. However, I am also aware that doing so, I am attending to the responsibilities of other people in a way which not only will they fail to recognize, but which will almost certainly encourage them to continue in their persistent disregard to other lives. While I can alter the discrete effects which are but mere elements of the provocative circumstances of my anger, I have almost no way of changing the total cause of my anger: the failure of those around me to get their heads out of their asses and take responsibility for their actions.

I find myself at a complete loss. My orientation toward myself and others forces me to abandon a great deal of Stoic thought (what I can maintain are their techniques of self care), when my frustration and anger is provoked through a persistent failure of those around me to attend to themselves in such a way that their failure directly impacts my own life persistently and emphatically. I am forced to attend to the failure of other people on a daily basis, and in so doing I find myself having an increasingly difficult time dealing with other people at all.

Seneca himself faced this problem too late to address it: his suicide was ordered by Nero.

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4 thoughts on “On Anger

  1. emjay says:

    I have a similar problem, that I deal with in an entirely different way. I, too, am angry at the world most days, all day, from waking to sleeping and even my dreams are tinted red with it. When my partner deployed last year, this anger got me out of bed, out of the closet, out of my head, in a way, even if it does tend to encourage self-destructive habits.

    You turned to stoicism, and I started to research the lore surrounding beserkers, who channel their rage into a socially productive and (for the most part) acceptable action. I embraced the anger, I let it carry me forward when nothing else would, but I also started learning ways to put it aside, to bank the fire, so to speak, so that I could sleep, so that I could experience gentleness. Its been an interesting ride.

    • eidolos says:

      I apologize for taking so long to respond, but what with the wedding, and various other distractions, I haven’t had the time to focus on this blog as much as I’d like.

      What I was trying to get to, slowly, though, is that Stoicism has largely failed me. I can’t not be angry or irritated or upset, because I do still basically respect and care about people. I may dislike the person who is the cause of my anger, but I still know what they are capable of as a person, and I respect that basic humanity. I keep feeling like Stoicism will only lead me down a road of solipsism and frigidity, where I have no desire to travel.

      • emjay says:

        So you leave behind Stoicism. Where do you go from there, with all of your anger intact and unmitigated?

      • eidolos says:

        Well despite my frustrations with the failure of other people, if there is a situation which I feel needs to be improved or attended to, even though I believe it to be some one else’s responsibility, I myself must attend to it, as my recognition of the failure of other people, I have come to feel, makes it incumbent upon me to act.

        There’s no use in being angry with someone for failing to do something or live up to their responsibilities. If it bothers me enough to inspire my anger, then I am obviously engrossed enough in the situation to just deal with it myself. I’m trying to turn my anger into something productive.

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