I think I have the standard array of kinds of anger. How would you know for sure? Still, I get angry and I watch other people get angry. I see people that I think are probably angry but who don’t know it. I see people who know they are angry and who are trying not to splash it on passersby.
But when it is happening in me, it isn’t always clear. The hot angers and the cold angers are clear, of course. I feel them to be “passions” in the old sense of the word, in which they are active and I am passive. They act on me. But there is another kind of anger that I feel as a vague uneasiness.
I know that “uneasy” isn’t very helpful. Let me try some analogies. It’s a little like vertigo. You know which way is up and which way is down, but things don’t look that way at the moment. It’s a little like the feeling you have when you stub your toe and it hasn’t started to hurt yet. You know the sequence so well; still, there is a time between the bump and the pain when you are feeling something that doesn’t have a name. It does have a signal function. You know what it means; you just don’t know what it feels like. Or it’s like the first signals of nausea. These signals establish that something is wrong and then you are going to start to feel nauseated shortly, but you don’t feel that way yet.
As Bette and I have gotten to know each other better—we met in January of 2005—I have begun to be more willing to say, “I think I’m angry.” Bette used to say, very sensibly, “About what?” And I would say, “Not sure yet. Workin’ on it.” By now, this is familiar territory, so she says, “Let me know when you find something out.”
I don’t always find out, actually, but I usually do. Feeling like these are like the message the cop gets in the British crime shows I like so much. “Meet me at the train station at 9:00 and I’ll tell you something you need to know.” That’s what these early angers are like. I do the kinds of things that have some prospect of clarifying the message. I go hang out with some people or go for a bike ride or do a little more work on one of the essays I am always working on. Usually, one or the other of those things—or maybe its just the passage of time—bring some clarity.
The clarity is a movement from unease to some hypothesis or other about just what it is. A hypothesis is a great help. You can test a hypothesis. Maybe an acquaintance made a remark that hit the target and started making things happen and I just didn’t notice. Now I realize what he really meant and I can try a name out on this particular “making things happen.”
If I’m right about that, it often brings a good deal of clarity. It’s like putting in one piece of the puzzle and all of a sudden you see the outline of the object. So now I have a pretty good idea what the source of my anger is That’s a really good moment for me because now I get to make choices. I like making choices.
If, in hindsight, I decide that the remark was a deliberate provocation, then I will need to decide if it is more like a fart or more like an opening salvo. If it was a frivolous insult and really had more to do with how he was feeling at the time, I can safely let it go. Maybe open a window. If it was an opening salvo, then I need to do something or it is just going to get worse.
There is the question, of course, of just what to do. Tit for tat is sometimes exactly the right thing. If the opening salvo was part of the process of locating some poor schmuck who can’t defend himself, then tit for tat says, “I’m not the one you are looking for.”
Sometimes letting this one pass, but signaling that there will be a response to the next one is the right thing. Sometimes, just bringing it up to the surface is the right thing. There are, as you would expect, all kinds of ways to bring the issue—hypothesized issue—to the surface. I like something like, “When you said X, what did you mean?” There are other phrasings, of course. “I thought you said X. That’s the way I heard it. Did you say that and, if you did, what did you mean by it?”
A currently popular style is to say that X hurt your feelings, the theory being that you are the one who knows whether your feelings are hurt or not. That doesn’t work very well for me because I don’t always know how I am feeling. But it also has the disadvantage of moving the question away from what is meant to what the emotional outcome was. That’s not really the direction I want the conversation to go. I like to get clear on intentions and outcomes. Those are the things that matter most to me.
Those are the things that help me decide what, if anything, I am going to do. When I am sure that I am angry and I am sure the feeling arose from that particular interaction (hypothesis confirmed) and I have decided how best to respond, then I am pretty much at ease. I can wish it hadn’t happened. I can wish I had not provoked it, which is always a possibility. But if I know what to do about it, I’m pretty much OK.