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Anger makes you forget other people are people

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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

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david hayes August 3, 2011 at 8:45 pm

Very very good.

There are two things that you called to mind that I hold as some of the central truth of my life.

(1) The world is filled with kind and generous people who sometimes have trouble being that way and so appear to be against you. Some relevant quotations that call this to mind for me: “Men aren’t against you, they’re merely for themselves.” And, “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by ignorance.” (Hanlon’s razor is actually “stupidity”, but I feel ignorance is more accurate here.)

(2) The entire work of mindfulness (meditation), to me, is to close the gap between the things we know intellectually and the things we know viscerally. Knowing the senselessness of anger, the questionable value of fear, the wisdom or compassion, the power of love, our miniscule place in the universe, etc is something most everyone think they do. But they constantly act in ways opposite to these things they claim to understand because they’ve not really internalized them and made them a part of their operating procedures. This is the task I’m most driven to work on in my life.

David August 4, 2011 at 6:25 am

Knowing the senselessness of anger, the questionable value of fear, the wisdom or compassion, the power of love, our miniscule place in the universe, etc is something most everyone think they do. But they constantly act in ways opposite to these things they claim to understand because they’ve not really internalized them and made them a part of their operating procedures.

It’s clear to me now that this is true. We understand a lot of important things conceptually but we don’t do a good job of living as if they’re true. Humans have so much trouble with this.

Chris Walter August 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm

I think that is where the struggle really lies, between concept and application. The application will always be the hardest part. You can realize a truth once but you have to work at applying it every single day.

Dan Mitchinson August 4, 2011 at 6:41 pm

The concept and the execution.

WarmSunshine August 3, 2011 at 9:04 pm

I appreciate the effort you make in writing every story you put up here. Anger is something that’s causing whatever problem I’m facing on a personal front. Indeed it can be very destructive and can destroy even the best of relationships. Definitely one loses his or her mind when in extreme anger and to suggest that one keep their head is just not possible. It takes only the first time to show your aggression to the extent that you forget people are people with feelings just like us. From the second time onwards, it just becomes a habit, the person has already grown small to you. So what I say is, as far as relationships go, never let that first time happen. Never belittle anyone. I find this article very useful and I will make sure my partner reads it; we both want to make improvement and I’m sure there is a lot you can tell him too. Thank you for that!

I have added your site to my recommended reads. That’s a small token of gratitude I can offer you :)

David August 4, 2011 at 6:30 am

Hi Mehreen. I don’t have a really strong belittlement impulse, but I probably do it sometimes.

marc van der Linden August 4, 2011 at 12:45 am

It is good to become aware of our own actions and reactions on emotions.

For me, anger has always been a major emotion and it is difficult to fight. Anger makes indeed blind for other people. There is only yourself.

But I learnt that anger is an emotional reaction on helplessness and can be balanced by changing my perspective.

Thanks for your posting!

David August 4, 2011 at 6:31 am

It really is a symptom of helplessness :(

Kerri August 4, 2011 at 4:54 am

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Kurt Vonnegut – ‘God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater’

It’s flip, it’s irreverent (who talks of serious things to babies?) and it’s spot on. What are we all but babies grown big? And really, what is more important, more useful and more rewarding over our decades of life than being kind?

“Anger makes me forget other people are people.”
This is a really wonderful insight, David, thanks.
I can recognise the … ‘I’m angry, it’s all me me mE!’. Remembering others, others’ trials and tribulations, is a really healthy way to calm our own me-me-ness. Focusing on being kind, even when it’s hard, especially when it is damn hard, seems to be the quickest most long lasting way to overcome that frustrating emotion. I appreciate the reminder of this. K.

David August 4, 2011 at 6:32 am

That is great advice for babies and I’ll be sure to give it to any babies I meet

Robyn August 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm

as a great man once said: The whole of humankind is battling to grow away from looking @ the world through 2 year-old eyes ….. I, me, myself & my shadow …. :(

Joy August 4, 2011 at 6:52 am

Hi David,
Thank you for sharing your experience with anger.
In my life, what I see strongly in others is a reflection of me, so in your case if I was angry with the world, I would look into my life and see what have I “done” to be angry with me..where have I not “shown up” for my self..
When I am in pain (as anger would be) I’ve learned to lean into it and allow it to teach me..plus an awesome release such as a some type of physical movement works wonders..not that you asked how to heal it…just like to remove pain when possible…:)

David August 4, 2011 at 5:44 pm

I like the way you put it. That’s really exactly why I was angry, I was not showing up in places I was counting on myself to show up

Lisis August 4, 2011 at 7:15 am

I don’t often feel anger, as such… Wrath and Greed are the two Capital Vices I haven’t been cursed with (though I make up for it with my mastery of the remaining five.) Having said that, there are times when, thinking about mankind, my limitless compassion morphs into limitless contempt… like, why should I bother caring about them if they are their own saboteurs? They could be happy TODAY, if they chose it, yet they continue to choose darkness instead.

I guess in those moments I don’t see them as individual people with problems, but as a deluded bunch, and my contempt (which is as close as I can get to anger) is for the amalgam. But if I focus on each person in the bunch, and on their personal struggles, then I can empathize on a personal level, and my compassion returns.

I’m still pretty sure it makes no difference to them whatsoever, whether I feel compassion or contempt, but it certainly does to me. So, HHDL was right: compassion is essentially self-serving. :)

David August 4, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Yeah I guess it manifests itself in different ways on the surface, but it’s the same thing happening. When I’m not enraged I am aware that I can’t fairly dismiss people just because they cause trouble for themselves, because I do it. Everyone does.
Most of our behavior doesn’t arise from decisions at all, human activity is mostly conditioned responses with no deliberation. We tend to infer bad decisionmaking in other people from their situations using hindsight, but it looks very different for the other person when they are taking the action in question.

The “deluded bunch” is what I mean when I say we forget people are people. The trees become a forest again, or whatever :)

Lisis August 5, 2011 at 7:04 am

It’s interesting that I find I have no contempt at all for stand alone trees… or forests. I’m quite fond of them both! ;)

Leigh August 4, 2011 at 8:03 am

This is quite a post. Very honest and a bit chaotic in that honesty which I think reflects a very subtle truth.

None of this is easy to convey in writing, but you did it so well.

I completely relate to this. And it’s not just anger that renders us myopic. It’s all of those so-called negative emotions that keep us focused on ourselves and keep us from seeing there’s something else out there.

I think it would be easy to call this selfish, but I don’t mean it that way at all. It’s more about being stuck. Which is yes, dismissive of others and their experiences, but in being this way, we hurt ourselves the most because we’ve closed ourselves off to openness and happiness.

Anyway, just some meanderings for this Thursday morning. Thanks for sparking them with this really thoughtful post.

David August 4, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Thank you for meandering with me!

Seb August 4, 2011 at 9:45 am

Hi David

I have been inspired and uplifted by this and many more of your articles in the last few weeks since discovering your site — thank you.

It’s extremely rare for me to comment on the internet, but felt compelled to on this last post as it reminded me of a fantastic speech by the late David Foster Wallace, which I am sure you will find very rewarding if you find the time to read it.

Here’s the link to the transcript:


David August 4, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Excellent, thank you

vaevictus August 4, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Reading this article and glancing through the comments, I notice something is being left out, though I doubt it’s intentional. Some people are angry because most of the time they are told their angry attitudes and feelings are unwarranted. How many times do you hear in our society that one needs to ‘get over it’ or ‘man up’. It’s hard to see the humanity in others when they refuse to see it in you.

David August 4, 2011 at 5:58 pm

For sure, and often I’m the one telling me to get over it. Anger is unavoidable and normal. I’m just trying to figure out some tools for working with it a little better.

Lanie August 4, 2011 at 2:27 pm

I think perhaps it isn’t that we no longer notice that other people are people with their own troubles and their own suffering. I think maybe it’s more that we dont’ care about them anymore when we’re angry because we’re busy worrying about what’s upsetting us. It’s kind of like if you break your leg and you see 5 other people with broken legs beside you. At that point, do you really care that their legs are broken too or are you busy trying to make yourself feel better? It’s easy to care and notice other people’s pain and suffering when you’re doing fine. But when you’re going through something difficult yourself, it’s harder to expend energy on others trying to make them feel better because at the end of the day most people are focused on themselves. It’s that whole ‘in case of emergency put the oxygen mask on yourself first before trying to help the person next to you’.

David August 4, 2011 at 6:00 pm

That’s really what I’m saying. When I’m not upset I am much more open to the fact that people around me are feeling and breathing too. I tend to see them as symbols, usually of something that makes me more mad. What I’m trying to say is that the more mad I get, the more my world becomes about me, and that’s not so great.

Andrew Olson August 4, 2011 at 3:30 pm

“Other lives are just as real and immediate as your own.” Absolutely, it is not possible to be angry and compassionate at the same time. The more compassion you can cultivate, the more you will see anger starting to subside.

David August 4, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Yeah, and I was encouraged to see such an effect from a little conscious effort to be compassionate when it was the last thing I felt like doing. Because they are exclusive of each other. There’s no room for anger in compassion, or vice versa, so it allowed me to break the “angry train” into pieces.

sui August 4, 2011 at 5:56 pm

I first learned this lesson when I was doing customer service training to be a cashier at a hardware store when I was 16. Some of the most valuable stuff I learned in treating people (& being of service, in ANY profession) came from those two workshops we were forced to take… there was also pizza delivery…

Anyway, they told us to be empathetic with angry or impatient customers, because you never know if people need to get somewhere because their wife is pregnant, their parents are dying, … etc.

I remind myself of this every time I get cut off in traffic– pretty much the only time I get pissed off randomly. The other day someone honked at me for going the speed limit and then gave me the finger. I breathed and reminded myself that he probably is going through his stuff.

The thing about anger is that angry people can often make you angry, and that’s when you have to especially pause and be empathetic.

:) ♥

David August 4, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Haha… I do react in traffic too, and sometimes I’m lucky enough to remember something Richard Carlson wrote about getting cut off. He said that when you get cut off, try to remember how painful it is to be late for something.

sui solitaire August 4, 2011 at 11:25 pm

Ahhh I love Richard Carlson. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is one of my favorite books, & I’ve bought multiple copies over the years so I can give them away. :]

Ed Egan August 4, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Now we know why right-wing radicals whip their followers up into a frenzy of anger over this or that “other”, be it gay people, single mothers, Hispanics, and on and on. You cannot conduct a purge without de-humanizing your intended targets first.

sui solitaire August 4, 2011 at 11:26 pm

So true… sadly. :\

David August 6, 2011 at 8:03 pm

You bet. If you want people to hurt other people, you have to reduce them to a simple concept, like “the enemy”. Human beings seem to have enormous resistance to hurting other people while they are regarding them as people. There is a book by an ex-general about how military psychologists attempt to neutralize this resistance in soldiers… I forget what it’s called but maybe someone knows what I’m talking about.

Gerrit August 5, 2011 at 7:20 am

I found Tony Robbins idea of understanding emotions as “action signals” very helpful. Awareness, as in so many cases, is the key: as a first step you have to realize what is going. Then, depending on the signal, you can act upon it and turn things around.

With regard to anger, Tony says the signal tells you that “an important rule that you have in your life has been violated by someone else – or maybe even by you.”

Wondering if that was the case here…

Mannan Khan August 5, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Nice post. I also wrote an article on Anger. It’s at hyphed.com.

nrhatch August 5, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Feeding negative mental states (anger, jealousy, rage, envy, greed, hatred) is destructive and robs us of inner peace and tranquility. When we choose to react negatively to situations which could be viewed more positively, we are increasing our suffering by destroying our peace of mind.

As you have noticed, we minimize our suffering, and increase our happiness, by replacing negative thought patterns with a more positive perspective on things ~ for example, by viewing the world with a greater degree of kindness, tolerance, contentment, forgiveness, and compassion.

Lasting happiness, or peace of mind, is not tied to external events. It is not what is happening around you, but what is happening within you, that matters.

Asking the question, will this thought bring me happiness, whenever we are facing a choice about how to view a situation, provides necessary clarity. It shifts the focus from what we are denying ourselves (i.e., the “luxury” of being upset over some minor incident or infraction) to what we are giving ourselves (peace of mind and serenity).

Namaste. _/!\_

Steph in Berkeley August 6, 2011 at 12:00 am

Measuring things–Isn’t that what Thoreau did for a living?
I like it. That you measure things like HD did. And I like the article.


John August 6, 2011 at 11:55 am

Sometime ago I learned that my anger was a manifestation of my fears:now when I feel anger & Im mindful enough to recognize it,
I ask myself what I’m afraid of & then reduce my fear(s) to the
ridiculous; I generally end up amussed at my self importance, at which point I find it comforting to acknowledge that it’s all part of the human experience

Jason August 6, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Does sharing your epiphanies help you to remember them? Because that’s the problem I have. I come up with similar (though less well expressed) thoughts but forget them too quickly.

David August 6, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Absolutely. That’s one of the main reasons I write. If I make myself articulate my thoughts in words, then they become memorable to me. When you have something internal you want to hold onto, you have to make it into something external, something physical, or it will be gone when you need it.

rob white August 9, 2011 at 7:22 am

Very astute article, David. Glad I found my way here. Indeed, anger is a selfish state to be in and an escape from taking responsibility for our lives. Now when I am easily angered, I like to think that I temporarily misplaced my sanity.

Living a life of anger and agitation helped me successfully escape from taking personal responsibility for my life. How’s that for insanity? Avoiding being responsible for one’s life is ignorance masquerading as wisdom. Being ignorant of my ignorance gave more power to it. Becoming aware of my ignorance put an end to it. I’ve learned, in a thousand different ways that the truth doesn’t see me as a helpless victim … so why should I?

Paul August 11, 2011 at 12:08 pm

It really comes to a point when you finally understand that when you anger yourself for some reason, you are only doing damage to yourself. Of course it’s not like if you´re never going to get angry again, but you can work your way out by controlling yourself a bit more, and express yourself by saying the same thing in a better way later, when u calm down a little

Happytizinglife August 14, 2011 at 10:51 am

Beautifully written and an eye opener. Something we know but do not apply. Great reminder.

allexaU September 3, 2011 at 12:47 am

Indeed true! When your angry you will have the best speech you will ever regret!

Christy September 3, 2011 at 3:53 am

Things like that really happen, we can’t help but get angry to the extent that we yell at others and wouldn’t let anyone stop us from letting our anger out. It’s okay to let anger out, what’s not okay is when we’re only concerned with ourselves and unknowingly hurting others with the sudden burst of anger.

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