I had a rough couple of days and last night I was angry when I went to bed and I was and angry when I woke up today. In rotten moods, perspective goes out the window, and even though I’m aware of that, I can’t get it back.
It’s like how Hunter S. Thompson described one’s behavior under the influence of ether: you can see yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can’t control it. There’s a point where all wisdom has left on vacation and all bets are off, and I was way past there.
This morning, while I angrily packed my lunch I was lucky enough to remember something I’d once realized about anger:
Anger makes me forget other people are people.
They’re still around, their faces and voices, but they no longer quite appear to be people, like me. I become blind to the fact that other people might also be having a hard time. My world becomes entirely about me and the last thing on my mind is giving thought to how the other people might be doing. When we get angry, that’s the first casualty: compassion.
I guess the corollary to that is this:
Other lives are just as real and immediate as your own.
I think most of the time we don’t quite appreciate this truth. We would still probably nod our heads in agreement if someone said that, but that’s not the same as really feeling the reality of that in the moment. The pit in your throat you sometimes feel when things go wrong, other people have that too, and it’s every bit as real. Often it’s happening right beside you, in the next car over, in the elevator with you, across the counter from you. Really.
When I get mad, any awareness of that is the first thing that goes out the window.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” as our friend Plato put it.
When I’m angry I become an asshole. My powers shrink to nothing and I don’t know how to be anything else. That’s what anger is I guess. That which makes one able to be an asshole. Plato would have said too that if he’d thought of it.
Armed with this remembered insight I drove to work. A resentful monologue kept restarting in my head. But this time, it reminded me to look at the heads in the cars around me and at least wonder about them. The effect was immediate. I felt a lot less like it was me against the world, and more like it was all of us against whatever that thing is that happens to human beings that makes them stressed and hateful sometimes.
I don’t want to make it out like I get off on the suffering of other people. That’s not what I’m saying at all. But to recognize that other people are ultimately on the same side of the trenches is to know that I’m ok. It’s also the opposite of the knee-jerk thoughts I have when I’m angry — others are either on an opposing side, or nowhere to be found at all. It’s hard to see that because anger makes you forget other people are people.
In the summer I work in the field, measuring things for a living. It isn’t always an actual field (most of the time it is) but it’s always outside somewhere. Today I was measuring a catchbasin in a little stand of trees, and from somewhere I heard someone trying not to laugh.
It was such a weird laugh, and in a surreal moment I realized that they were actually sobbing, this awful, halted sobbing. I had barely realized that my little stand of trees was in a huge cemetery, and there were people having a real hard time there. Every headstone represents real hard times for some real people, and there are too many to count.
It was a pretty good day.
Photo by Torcello Trio