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Phil-osophically Speaking - July 23, 2010

The Upside of Anger

Anger — it’s one of the seven deadly sins. No emotion is more destructive than unrelenting and undying anger. It ruins relationships and robs the soul of peace. A recent article by Eric Felton on Mel Gibson’s mental meltdown warned that only Zeus could blow a gasket without looking ridiculous.

Well anyone, I figured, who could throw thunderbolts needs to be pacified not judged. For us lesser beings, however, the beet red face, the throbbing temple, the grotesque, purplish veins protruding through the neck and an ungovernable tongue spewing its poison is not a flattering picture.

The Mel Gibson tapes are being played over the airwaves as if it was the number one hit on the Billboard charts. I have not heard the tape, but understand his slurs and threats are deeply disturbing. America is famous for second acts but it won’t be easy for Gibson to atone for his latest outrage. It wasn’t the first time a celebrity has been taped during a tirade; we all remember the Alec Baldwin phone call to his young daughter that put the famous actor in an embarrassingly unflattering light.

A timeless piece of advice was that one should never write a letter when angry because your words are forever memorialized on paper. With the advent of modern technology displays of temper have become even more dangerous; your words can now be listened to as if you had just spoken them and, if you’re Mel Gibson or Alec Baldwin, listened to over and over again. Let’s not forget that despite all the damning testimony at the Watergate hearings, if it weren’t for the tapes, Richard Nixon would have been a two-term president.

On the other hand, who among us could stand the spotlight if we were audio or videotaped during our worst moments. Not many, I suspect. “We all have thoughts,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, “which would shame hell.” If they would only just stay as thoughts; but thoughts have a way of surfacing, they are the ancestors of actions. I’ve heard some very nice people, in a fit of pique, say some terrible things I know they really didn’t mean. So there is a lot of hypocrisy out there when we are being judgmental, which not so much exonerates Gibson as it indicts the rest of us. I’m fond of saying that most wounds in life, not all wounds but most wounds are self-inflicted. In truth, we are never more disposed to argue with others or to turn the knife on ourselves than when we are angry.

Saint Basil, a 4th century Catholic Bishop, called anger a ‘temporary madness.’ That’s descriptive when anger dominates our better instincts; for while anger can be a good servant, it is a terrible and exacting master. As the good Bishop might have said, “The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” Wrath especially, is a species of anger that implies vengefulness and retribution and should not be exercised except when civilized in protocols established by a court of law. That was the purpose of the Nuremberg trials, it civilized vengeance.

Anger can be justifiable and we should not be afraid of it provided, like the fire that cooks our food, we can control it. Justifiable anger, in fact, is a sign of mental health. That we can be provoked about things that offend our values, our sense of justice and fair play, that we can become angry even at ourselves, shows that there are principles and standards that matter to us. Indeed, Aristotle praised the individual who gets angry at the right things and for the right reasons.

Displays of temper only become an entertaining spectacle when the person is famous, rich or powerful. Frank Sinatra’s unpredictable temper was part of his allure, but if it wasn’t for his talent to entertain millions he would have quickly been dismissed as a boor. But even power and talent is no guarantee that a burst of temper will be well received. Having a temper of grand opera proportions is, after all, truly an art form. You either have it or you don’t. According to Felton, when it came to blowing his stack, the late George Steinbrenner had it in spades. Barack Obama, on the other hand, comes out flatter than a pancake. His anemic attempts to show he was livid over the BP oil spill amply demonstrated that the president just isn’t in the same league with the famed Yankee owner when it came to blowing a fuse.

For most of us, burning anger is something that needs to be kept at a safe distance until it runs out of oxygen and extinguishes itself. There are all kinds of tips from self-help books and advice columnists on the best way to diffuse anger. Even Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners had his method.  Whenever he began to feel angry, he explained, he would simply say: “Pins and needles, needles and pins, it’s a happy man that grins.” Then he would count to 10 and ‘presto’ said Ralph, ‘I forgot what I was mad about.’   

This worked fine in the beginning of the episode but, a half-hour later, Ralph’s legendary temper, set off by some minor provocation, was erupting with the fury of Mount Vesuvius. But Ralph was doing the right thing, what anger management experts call ‘sublimation,’ the process of diverting an emotion from its primitive form to one that is considered more socially acceptable. For Gibson that meant marshalling all that stored up vitriol and redirecting it into making another movie that moved audiences; instead he imploded a still promising career into a charred, fiery wreck.