Controlling Anger #2: on the physical problem of anger

Originally posted in “100 天不发火” on 6 July 2016.

Anger is one of the primal emotions. It comes from deep inside the part of us that is shared with animals – and it is, fundamentally, a physical process. In order to manage anger effectively in the heat of the moment, we must understand that what we have in that instant is a physical problem to be solved.

I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t pray, “Lord, help me be calm,” any more than that you should not pray, “Lord, please help my back get better,” when you are in pain. Of course you should pray. But God generally likes to solve physical problems with physical solutions, and anger is no exception. When your back hurts, you pray, and also you go to the doctor or physical therapist. When your body throws you into anger mode, you most certainly pray, but you also do the physical things you need to do to break out of the physical state of anger.

So let’s start with understanding what happens when you get angry.

In the first place, you don’t decide to get angry – your subconscious decides, without asking you, “Uh-oh, this situation requires anger.” There are several different reasons that your subconscious might decide that, but the physical consequences are all the same. Your amygdala triggers a rush of adrenaline and cortisol and testosterone into your brain and bloodstream, and kicks your heart into high gear. Blood rushes out of your digestive system and into your outer muscles, which tense up for violent action. The adrenaline and rush of blood through your frontal cortex essentially shuts down your ability to think rationally – quite literally, angry people are stupid people, and indeed you could even say that angry people are temporarily sub-human, as the part of our brain that separates us from the animals largely stops working. Meanwhile your voice automatically gets louder and your face automatically grimaces – in other words, your body automatically, without your telling it to, starts trying to scare the people around you. Even worse, when you raise your voice and move around violently, your subconscious starts a feedback loop – it interprets your own behavior, which it caused to begin with, as evidence that the situation requires even more anger. Furthermore, since many people instinctively respond to anger with anger, and all angry people instinctively respond to anger with more anger, all of this stuff our subconscious is doing to us will usually trigger a response in the people around us that will be angry or fearful – and when our subconscious sees the people around us getting angry and scared it interprets that as more evidence that we need even more anger.

So the question of how to control your anger in the heat of the moment is really a physical question: how do we flush the adrenalin and testosterone and cortisol out of our bloodstream, and bring our heart rate back down, and get our voice lowered and our muscles relaxed? How do we get ourselves out of the physical state of anger and temporary stupidity, and back to a state of calm and clear-headedness? How do we get our brains back on-line?

Generally speaking, the biggest part of the answer is: breathe. Slow, relaxed breathing reassures those primitive parts of your brain that things are okay and it’s all right to calm down. You should practice deliberately slow, deliberately relaxed breathing when you are calm, and then you need to develop the habit of making sure the first thing you do when you feel anger seize you, is to very consciously and deliberately breathe like a non-angry person. Breathe slowly and consciously relax your diaphragm and chest muscles with each breath. If you just do that and nothing else, it will make a difference. (If you take high-end combat training in the military or in an American gun safety course, you will be taught breathing exercises explicitly as “this is how you keep your heart rate below 150 and your adrenalin and cortisol levels low enough for your brain to work properly so that you can make smart decisions in critical situations.”)

But there are a couple of other things you can do that will also help. So here is how I myself approach the problem when I feel rage building inside me. It doesn’t always work…but I think if you ask Helen she will tell you that she has seen me in a truly towering, out-of-control rage about three or four times in the five years we’ve been married. Once a year is a pretty good rate for a guy who as a child and young man had one of the world’s all-time terrible tempers.

Step 1: breathe. See above.

Step 2: I remind myself that, at this moment, I am very stupid, and therefore whatever I want to do I will probably regret – so I try very hard to do nothing at all. I look down at the floor so that I won’t run the risk of seeing expressions or body language from the other people in the room that my subconscious will interpret as threatening or disrespectful. I don’t allow myself to speak. (When I was a kid, most American parents would tell children, “When you get angry, count to ten slowly before you say anything” – perfect advice except that I would replace the word “say” with the word “do.”) On the rare occasions when I can feel myself getting madder anyway, if nothing else I leave the room, generally without saying anything (and I have told Helen that if we are having a disagreement and I suddenly get up and walk out of the room, she is absolutely NOT to follow me). Do nothing, because what you are going to do, is wrong.

Actually, “Do nothing,” is slightly overstated – it should really be, “Do nothing except what you have decided in advance, “Here’s what I will do when I get angry” – such as, “Breathe slowly and consciously relax your diaphragm and chest muscles with each breath.” Which brings us to Step 3…

Step 3. Deliberately express respect for the other person, most importantly with your body language.

Here you are taking advantage of the fact that there are at least two emotions that are incompatible with anger, and one of them is respect. There is a book called Outsmarting Anger that points out that it’s almost impossible to be angry with anybody if you feel like that person respects you; also, when you are angry with somebody, at that moment you do not feel respect for them. Your subconscious wants you to express intimidation and rejection, through your body language. Instead you deliberately express respect. This keeps the other person from getting angry, which would cause your subconscious to ramp up your own anger in response. But just as important, it sends a message to your own subconscious: “Look, I respect this person; so obviously I’m not really mad at them.” This may seem silly but it will make sense to your subconscious.

I cannot overstate the importance of body language, by the way. When we talk to somebody face-to-face, something like 10% of what they hear is what we say. Something like 20% to 30% of what they hear is our tone of voice. And the other 60% to 70% of what they “hear” from us is what our body language is saying. (This is why e-mails can be so easily misunderstood – 90% of the information we rely on to understand other people is missing in e-mails. It’s also why emoticons are so widely used in e-mails and WeChat – they stand in for the missing body language.)

Now I am a little bit handicapped in giving you brothers and sisters specific advice on what “respect” looks like…because I am an American, and what respectful body language looks like in America is not necessarily what it looks like in China, as these things are to a certain extent culturally determined. So this is something for the group to discuss: when you talk to somebody you respect, in China, what do your hands do? What is your voice like – its pitch, its volume level, its timbre? What is your posture – if you lean forward, does that say “respect” (it does in some cultures) or “threat” (as it does in others)? I think it’s close to universal that with someone you respect you are physically open – that is, your shoulders are back and your hands are at your side or further out, rather than crossed defensively across your chest. But other things vary from culture to culture, and you guys are the experts in Body Mandarin, not me.

A different way to think of it is to ask yourself, “What does contempt look like?” In America, for example, there is a particular way of sighing and rolling your eyes that says, “I think you are stupid and contemptible and infinitely inferior to me,” and you are much better off saying verbally, “I think you are stupid,” than you are cutting loose with that particular eye-rolling sigh. China will have its own code for contempt, of course. But whatever contempt looks like, respect in most cultures looks like the opposite of that.

I am completely serious – you guys should have a discussion about what exactly contempt and respect look like in China. Then you should practice deliberately “saying” with your body, “I respect you.” And when you feel yourself getting angry, you breathe, you remind yourself not to do or say anything that you feel like doing, and then you deliberately “say” to the other people in the room, with your body rather than with your mouth, “I respect you.”

Step 4. Find a way – any way that you can – to laugh, or at least chuckle, unless you happen to know that you are dealing with somebody who will go absolutely insane with rage if you laugh.

I said there were two emotions that are incompatible with rage. One is respect. The other is…well, I don’t know that there’s a word for it, but it’s whatever we feel when we feel like laughing.

You know how I talked about breathing as a way to reduce the adrenaline and testosterone levels, and bring your brain back online? Well, breathing properly will do that…over the course of a few seconds, if you are not too terribly angry. But laughing – if you can manage to laugh sincerely – kills anger (on a physical level) instantly, even if you’re really, really angry.

I don’t know why this is true, though I suspect it’s because laughing is a very human thing to do and it restores the humanity that we lose when we get angry. But it doesn’t really matter why it’s true – what matters is simply that it works. For this reason I have never forgotten some very wise words from Bill Flett, a twentieth-century New Zealand minister (dead now these thirty years, alas) who said that in his lifetime the most important and frequently used prayer of all was probably, “Lord, please help me see the funny side of this.”

You can’t always find a funny side; and you have to be careful to make sure that when you laugh, you are not sneering – that is, you need to not laugh at the other person for being so stupid, because that gets in the way of respect. But if you can manage to laugh, the simple physical act of laughing will trigger a release of all those clenched muscles and that racing heart.

So that’s my four-step recipe: breathe, remember that you are temporarily very stupid and therefore should not do or say anything, say with your body, “I respect you,” and if at all possible laugh.

One more piece of advice: you should actually rehearse all of this. You should practice breathing slowly. You should practice looking down at the floor (or, if that is disrespectful, then looking at the other person’s knees or whatever is culturally acceptable) and saying nothing. You should practice saying, “I respect you,” with your body language. You should have some sessions where your husband or wife or friend stands in front of you and says, “I say something insulting in three…two…one…NOW!” and you do all of those things at once. This is really just like athletics or playing a musical instrument – you don’t want to have to think about how to do all of these things when you’re angry; you want to practice until it becomes part of what in English we call “muscle memory.” By that I mean, the only way to get really good at playing the piano is to play your scales and exercises over and over until your fingers can do the right things without your thinking about it – you can see on the score that you need to play an A-major-7th chord sforzando, and your hands play an A-major-7th chord without your having to think about the individual notes, because your fingers know the chord and don’t need your brain’s help anymore. It’s the same thing here: bringing your brain back on-line from anger mode is a physical process, and physical processes have to be practiced until your body can do them without your having to think about how.

And that is more than enough for one day.

How Bad Are Things?

I try, as much as I can, to pay attention to the points other people are really trying to make rather than the points I think they should have made — after all, among the most basic differences of opinion are the differences in what issues should take priority. And it’s a simple fact that I am not Scott Alexander’s target audience in his piece “How Bad Are Things?” — he seems to think there should be some natural expectation that happiness will be correlated with wealth, whiteness and a college education, which is a very silly belief that is held primarily by college-educated liberals; and he goes out of his way to describe his social circle in a way that makes it clear that persons such as yours truly are Not His Kind. I don’t mean this critically — he is very much aware that his social circle constitutes a bubble of artificial like-mindedness and is not very happy about it.

So basically his is a post written for a blog audience that consists overwhelmingly of members of the secular liberal elite, by a member of the secular liberal elite who is on terms of intimacy and mutual understanding with pretty much nobody except members of the secular liberal elite. My chances of understanding either the viewpoint he is trying to challenge or the viewpoint he is championing are not very great. So this isn’t an answer to his post nearly as much as it is a post that represents a reaction to his post from a person who probably missed his point.

The core paragraphs in which he spells out the view against which he is reacting is this:

This is part of why I get enraged whenever somebody on Tumblr says “People in Group X need to realize they have it really good”, or “You’re a Group X member, so stop pretending like you have real problems.” The town where I practice psychiatry is mostly white and mostly wealthy. That doesn’t save it. And whenever some online thinkpiece writer laughs about how good people in Group X have it and how hilarious it is that they sometimes complain about their lives, it never fails that I have just gotten home from treating a member of Group X who attempted suicide.

This is also why I am wary whenever people start boasting about how much better we’re doing than back in the bad old days. That precise statement seems to in fact be true. But people have a bad tendency to follow it up with “And so now most people have it pretty good”. I don’t think we have any idea how many people do or don’t have it pretty good. Nobody who hasn’t read polls would intuitively guess that 40-something percent of Americans are young-Earth creationists. How should they know how many people have it pretty good or not?

Look, I don’t know what the people he reads on Tumblr mean when they say the things he quotes. “You’re a Group X member, so stop pretending like you have problems,” does certainly sound like the sort of thing mostly liberals would be likely to say, as it is characteristic of liberals to be so enslaved to group-oriented thinking as to deal with individuals as mere representatives of liberally-defined groups — as if there were such a thing as generalizations, however valid, without exception, or as if it were in any way morally non-contemptible to deal with a conversational partner as a Group X Member rather than as an individual. It may be that Dr. Alexander’s online social circle is as intellectually non-diverse as his real-life social circle and that all he is complaining about is the liberal habit of deciding which groups are “privileged” and which groups are and “oppressed” or “discriminated against” or “impoverished,” and then treating individuals classed by the liberal into different groups the way the liberal feels the group deserves to be treated. “You are a Privileged Person; how dare you pretend to deserve compassion?” And if that’s the case, well, then I don’t disagree with him; but then I’m not part of the intra-liberal conversation and I doubt very seriously they are in the business of soliciting opinions from me.

But I have been part of conversations in which have been expressed ideas similar to those Dr. Alexander appears to be complaining about. Those conversations, so far as I can remember, have not generally involved liberals; most non-liberals have learned that expressing an honest opinion in the presence of liberals tends to get you attacked as a [fill in the blank with your term of abuse of choice: “racist,” “sexist” and “fascist” have long been the sort of holy trinity of liberal terms of abuse but in the past few years “homophobe” has achieved full status in what now is a sort of Gang of Four], while doing the liberal himself very little good as liberals often seem to be much less interested in gaining wisdom than in avoiding having to admit that they are wrong. And so a prerequisite of honest conversation among the 65% or so of Americans who do not think in lockstep with the Occupy Democrats, has regrettably come to be, “Is it safe to talk openly, or is one of a us a liberal?” This means that the conversations in which I have heard these sorts of things being said, being primarily conversations between non-liberals (which is not at all the same thing as “conservatives”), are probably quite different conversations from those in which Dr. Alexander has heard these sorts of things being said, as he is (I gather, perhaps wrongly) primarily a participant in conversations between liberals. And if he were trying to respond to non-liberals who say these sorts of things, I think he would be missing the point rather badly.

You see, when a non-liberal says things like, “Millenials are spoiled and whiny,” for example, he doesn’t mean, “Millenials have no problems.” What he generally means, in my experience, is one or both of two things:

1. From time to time such conversations are sparked by something like the following. An American complains about economic inequality. Or someone like Judy Haiven complains about male monopolization of conversations on college campuses from her seat on this particular panel. Or white women living on college campuses complain that they live in a “rape culture” (rather than in one of safest environments any woman has ever lived in in the history of human civilization) and insist that therefore young black men who are accused of rape by young white women should be condemned and labelled for life not only without any evidence, but actually in the face of such evidence as exists. The conversations, in other words, arise from blatant attempts to hijack compassion by people who are often more sinning than sinned against.

Now there are people who suffer genuine oppression and live in genuine poverty. My Chinese (PRC) wife and her family (the older generation of whom lived through the Cultural Revolution) know what genuine poverty is, as do the four of my children who were adopted after living for years in Kazakh orphanages; an American complaining about poverty — not about unhappiness, but about “economic inequality” — would change his tune on a dime if he were required to live at the standard at which the average non-American lives. I have four (!) female relatives or close friends who have actually been raped, as in they were violently attacked, held down and violated to the fullest degree; and Ayaan Hirsi Ali was genetically mutilated at the age of five. Neither I, nor the rape victims I care about, nor Ms. Hirsi Ali are likely to react positively to women who imagine themselves to have been “sexually assaulted” because a stranger on the street greeted them and said, “Hello, beautiful” — especially not when the woman so “assaulted” has spent ten hours walking around New York for the express purpose of getting “assaulted” and has about two minutes of “sexual harassment” to show for her troubles.

But this doesn’t mean that non-liberals don’t care about the sufferings of America’s poor (or the very real unhappiness of America’s feminists, for that matter), and these conversations don’t, in my experience, reduce to really meaning things like, “Poor Americans don’t have anything to complain about.” The point usually seems to be that what poor Americans have to complain about, is not poverty — it’s not that they have nothing to complain about; it’s that they complain about the wrong things. A high percentage of America’s poor people are, in point of fact, deeply disadvantaged, even in comparison to a sizable percentage of the world’s poor who are economically much worse off than they. But that is because is because there are many kinds of poverty, and emotional and spiritual poverty are far more important than economic poverty. Imagine an American child born to “white trash” — that is, a mother who has provided the child with three other siblings from three other fathers, a father who is never around and pays child support neither for you nor for the five or six other bastards he has scattered around the county, and three generations of cousins and uncles and grandparents on all sides who have for decades been allergic to work and have been in and out of jail for petty (or not-so-petty) crimes. But on the bright side, the child has color TV and an X-box and lives in a (small, admittedly) apartment with air conditioning, central heating, and running water. Now imagine a child in Kenya who has been walking a mile to fetch water from a well twice a day since she was four, and who has never lived in or even seen a house with electricity, but whose parents are honest and hard-working people of fine character who are devoted to each other and to their children. One of these children is very much more likely to be miserable, and very much more likely to need the services of a psychiatrist, and very much more to be pitied, than is the other. And if we ask which of these two is relatively privileged, only a fool would say it was the American.

I personally am a very good example of this principle. If Jonathan Butler (whose father makes upwards of $8 million per year) were to imagine that I had a more “privileged” childhood than he because I am white, he would be an ass. (To be clear, I have no firm reason to believe Mr. Butler thinks such a silly thing and am happy to presume that he does not.) I grew up quite economically poor even by modern American standards. My father was an East Texas farmboy who grew up plowing behind a mule and who before attaining teenagerhood was already working ten-hour days in the summertime fields to get money for clothes. Having been driven out of his job as a young junior high principal in rural East Texas for having dared publicly to say that “separate but equal” was a lie and that justice required public school integration, he spent my childhood supporting our family as a southeastern Oklahoma public school teacher in the days when most men who taught in public school held down second jobs in the summer to make ends meet. My father did NOT have a second paying job; instead he and my mother (and, from the time we could walk, my sister and myself) worked all summer in the garden and the chicken coops and the rabbit hutches to raise and butcher and preserve and can all of the vegetables, and most of the meat, that we would eat all year — that is, when we weren’t out cutting the firewood that kept warm the one or two rooms in our house that we could afford to heat in the winter. By any purely economic standard, I was grotesquely disadvantaged by comparison to Mr. Butler.

But economic standards are the least important of standards, and I would say unhesitatingly that I had a deeply privileged childhood. For one thing, while we were poor, we were not edge-of-starving poor. We were the kind of poor that meant that my sister and I looked forward to the one twenty-five-cent soda pop we got each week, and had to force ourselves out from under the quilts on winter mornings in a room where the indoor temperature was in the twenties — but not the kind of poor that meant we developed symptoms of malnutrition.

But more importantly, we had parents of sterling character. So we learned how little joy and peace and happiness have to do with your circumstances and how much it has to do with character and love. My parents didn’t buy a television; instead they bought enough copies of Shakespeare for the four of us to sit around on winter evenings in front of the fire taking different parts and reading our way through Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My parents were, I suppose, the sort of young-earth creationists that Dr. Alexander appears to hold in contempt, though I doubt they are strict young-earthers anymore (the issue appears to me to be of so little importance that I have never gotten around to asking them about it). But they were Christians (again, I have the impression that Dr. Alexander is an atheist and would not expect to find their company congenial) who lived out their faith on a daily basis and showed me what it means to have honesty and compassion and integrity and unselfishness and a healthy work ethic. My parents taught me everything about success and happiness, and there is no greater privilege in life than having such parents.

In other words, I was not privileged by being white or wealthy; but still I would contend that I have never met anybody whose childhood was more privileged than was mine.

And Mr. Butler, he of the $8-million father? He also had a privileged childhood, in my estimation — but not because his father makes eight million dollars a year. Here is a story about what kind of parents Mr. Butler grew up with. I imagine I disagree with Mr. Butler’s parents on most political issues; and I frankly think that his University of Missouri protest was, to put it kindly, rather misguided and apt to be productive of an increase, rather than a decrease, of injustice. If it was really his father who raised him to engage in that particular sort of advocacy, I don’t think Butler the Senior did Butler the Junior any favors in that one particular respect. But that Jonathan Butler grew up, like me, in a loving and healthy home with parents of integrity and character, is I think undeniable. And that is the greatest of all privileges.

To retreat from the specifics of Mr. Butler’s and my individual cases and return to the general point: what has to be understood is that, outside of liberal circles, when somebody says, “The members of Group X have nothing to complain about,” then when you dig into what they really mean, it often comes down to two things. One is, “The noisy members of Group X have no business complaining about the things they obsessively complain about.” And the other is, “The noisy members of Group X refuse to admit what the true sources of their problems are; so their problems are not going to get solved; so after a while sensible people get tired of listening to incessant and pointless complaining and look for more productive uses of their time.” Now these opinions may or may not be justified even as generalizations, and there will certainly be many individual members of Group X to whom the generalizations, even if valid, do not apply. Any of these points is open to challenge and (depending upon the generalization and who Group X is) may be outright wrong; and even when these points are valid, they may be made uncharitably and insensitively. But those are the two points often being made; and Dr. Alexander’s blog post does nothing to address these particular points. A conversation is there to be had about those points; but that’s not the conversation Dr. Alexander appears to be having. (Which is fine, of course; his blog, his choice of topics.)

2. There is, however, a more fundamental point, and this is the second point I generally hear made in conversations where people feel safe enough to identify as not-entirely-orthodox liberals. Suffering has always been part of human existence. But until fairly recently, parents and society generally set the expectation that children needed to grow up enough to deal with their suffering. Now, however, there appears to be a significant subculture in the West that wants to teach children that their suffering is not a challenge to be overcome by character (the way that Abraham Lincoln overcame a lifetime of clinical depression, for example), but an injustice that licenses and justifies bitterness and retaliation, or at the very least pointless and maudlin self-pity. Of course some suffering is in fact a matter of injustice and some of those who cause suffering are engaging in violence and injustice and must be fought. But there is simply no way that I know of that you can say to these emotional three-year-olds, “The basic solution to your biggest problem is for you to grow up,” without bringing down the Wrath of the Six-Foot-Tall Toddler Tribe down upon your head. Suffering, especially on the relatively trivial level at which it is experienced by most Westerners, does not have to bring unhappiness. But to the extent that any young person’s parents or admired role models or subculture encourages the young person to think of himself primarily as a victim and to wallow in bitterness and resentment towards those he imagines to be responsible — even if his victimhood is real — that young person is being raised up to a life of unhappiness and discontent. “It never fails that I have just gotten home from treating a member of Group X who attempted suicide.” Well, yes, because happiness and misery have very little to do with the objective goodness or badness of one’s material and social circumstances, and a very great deal indeed to do with whether one’s character has been molded, during formative days, to be a character of gratitude and fortitude and joy or else to be a character of bitterness and resentment and self-pity.

I do not deny for a moment that there are a great many wealthy and highly privileged Millennial ladies who despite the staggering array of material blessings in their lives are greatly to be be pitied. But they are not to be pitied because they live in a sexist society that fails adequately to recompense female twenty-five-year-old deconstructionist literature majors in comparison with male math majors. They are to be pitied because their character is such as to make it very unlikely that they will ever be happy and joyful — for they have been trained by those responsible for shaping their character, to willingly imprison themselves in a pit of resentment and unforgiveness. Nobody has ever explained to them (as, among others, Dr. King would be happy to explain) that there is one way in which it is critically important to rebel against your oppressors, supposing that you actually have any: it is critically important to be able to say, “You do not have the power to make me hate you, and I refuse to allow my happiness or unhappiness in life to be held hostage to your treatment of me; I refuse to give you the power to decide whether or not I live in joy.”

I have known many joyful people, and many of these joyful people live in circumstances that “whiny Westerners” of liberal bent would think precluded joy, including circumstances in which they are, unquestionably, victims of open and vicious political oppression (the real thing, not “microaggressions”). But joy does not depend very much on circumstances; it depends on the attitude with which we meet circumstances. And in my experience, there is one characteristic that is universally found among joyful people: joyful people are grateful people. They notice all the good things in their lives (even if there aren’t, objectively speaking, very many) and rejoice in them; and as for the bad things in their lives…well, if they can fix them, great, but otherwise they set them aside. Joyful people simply do not live lives of bitterness and resentment; they live lives of gratitude and emotional generosity. So it often happens that when somebody tries to tell a whiny Westerner, “You have nothing serious to complain about…” what they are trying to lead up to — though the temper tantrum that interrupts them may keep them from ever getting there — is to add, “…and a very great deal to be grateful for — and you will be much happier if you turn away from the complaints and embrace the gratitude.”

But again, because liberals in general treat anyone who dares to disagree with them very badly indeed, these are the sorts of things that tend to be said in conversations where the people involved have first ascertained that none of the participants are doctrinaire liberals and therefore that if you express your true opinion you may well be disagreed with but you are at least very unlikely to be verbally abused. So probably that’s not what’s being said in any of the conversations Dr. Alexander participates in. More sadly, this means that you don’t get people saying this: “You have nothing serious to complain about and a very great deal to be grateful for — and you will be much happier if you turn away from the complaints and embrace the gratitude.” Instead, you get, “Those people have nothing serious to complain about and a very great deal to be grateful for — and they would be much happier if they would turn away from the complaints and embrace the gratitude.” And however true such a statement might be, it doesn’t really do anybody very much good.

Controlling Anger #1: Solving the “anger problem” starts with understanding what the problem really is

Originally posted in “100 天不发火” on 6 July 2016. Note: if you know Chinese, you might enjoy my hilariously bad attempts to say all this (except for the final point 6) in Chinese, which attempts are appended at the bottom of the post purely for the sake of amusement. After this first effort, by popular demand I wrote in English and left the Chinese translations for people who could actually, you know, write comprehensible Chinese.

Helen wants me to explain how to control anger. But it’s not easy to explain in a few words, because anger is not one thing; it is many different things.

In trying to control anger, we need short-term solutions and long-term solutions. The short-term solution involves controlling yourself in the moment when you get angry, in order to minimize the damage. The long-term solution involves eliminating anger, rather than controlling it, by becoming a person characterized by joy and gratitude rather than bitterness and resentment.

Anger can be a physical state, or an emotional state, or a spiritual state, and is usually all three at once. We usually identify anger as a particular emotional/physical state…but that one physical/emotional state can have many causes, and so can actually be any of many different problems. So what solves my “anger” problem may not help you solve your “anger” problem at all, since your “anger” and my “anger” might be two completely different things.

I will try to post a list of several problems that are all experienced as “anger” and that will be all I can do today.

  1. Fear masquerading as anger. If you try to resolve this by solving your “anger” you will fail, because the solutions for fear are rather different from the solutions for anger.
  2. Unjustified / unnecessary anger, where the problem is us.
  3. Justified anger on our on behalf, where other people genuinely are doing us wrong.
  4. Anger and contempt of others that is driven by our own insecurity and emotional need to find other people that we can feel morally superior to (this is actually a species of fear-masquerading-as-anger).
  5. There is also something that in English we call “righteous anger;” I don’t know what it’s called in Chinese. This is when nobody has done anything to us; we are angry because they have harmed somebody else. There are also several different kinds of righteous anger, but we can discuss that later, because I still have to go buy groceries tonight.
  6. Some people do not understand body language and tone of voice, and so they project anger even when they are not angry, without realizing it. Then they wonder why everybody they know gets angry so often, not realizing that other people think THEY are angry all the time. This is a social skills issue, not really an anger issue – except that it causes anger problems since these people are constantly making other people mad at them and don’t know why. It is a strange problem, but for people who struggle with it, it is very troublesome, especially in marriages and in parent-child relationships.

In the next installment, I talk about the concrete steps I take to stay under control when I feel the temperature risin’.

Kenny’s original “Chinese” (to use the term very generously indeed) version:

I don’t want people to have to translate into English for me; so I will try to write in Chinese but then will add what I wanted to say in English, so that if my Chinese makes no sense somebody else can fix it for me. Like this: 姝姝想我说明, 攻略克制愤怒。可是说明简练的很难, 因为愤怒不是一个事,是很多的事。Helen wants me to explain how to control anger. But it’s not easy to explain in a few words, because anger is not one thing; it is many different things.

为了克制愤怒,需要短期的解决办法和长期的解决办法。In trying to control anger, we need short-term solutions and long-term solutions. 短期的解决办法帮助愤怒的时候克制自己,帮助避险危害。The short-term solution involves controlling yourself in the moment when you get angry, in order to minimize the damage. 长期的解决办法不是克制愤怒,是消除愤怒, 是变得没有苦大仇深没有怨恨有快乐有感谢的人。The long-term solution involves eliminating anger, rather than controlling it, by becoming a person characterized by joy and gratitude rather than bitterness and resentment.

愤怒可以是体育状态还是情绪状态还是精神状态,平常是三个都状态。It can be a physical state, or an emotional state, or a spiritual state, and is usually all three at once. 我们平常感体育状态的时候说“我很生气”, 可是这一个体育状态可以从很多的因来, 可以展露很多问题之一。We usually identify anger as a particular emotional/physical state…but that one physical/emotional state can have many causes, and so can actually be any of many different problems. 所以常常我愤怒的解决办法不解决你的愤怒, 因为我愤怒和你愤怒可以是两个问题。So what solves my “anger” problem may not help you solve your “anger” problem at all, since your “anger” and my “anger” might be two completely different things.

我要尝试列举好像愤怒的问题。I will try to post a list of several problems that are all experienced as “anger” and that will be all I can do today.

  1. 害怕假借愤怒 —— 如果这是你真的问题,你尝试解决“愤怒,” 你要失败, 因为愤怒的的解决办法不是害怕的解决办法。Fear masquerading as anger. If you try to resolve this by solving your “anger” you will fail, because the solutions for fear are rather different from the solutions for anger.
  2. 没有理的愤怒, 我们输理。Unjustified / unnecessary anger, where the problem is us.
  3. 有理的愤怒, 别的人真的输理。Justified anger on our on behalf, where other people genuinely are doing us wrong.
  4. Anger and contempt of others that is driven by our own insecurity and emotional need to find other people that we can feel morally superior to (this is actually a species of fear-masquerading-as-anger). 对不起, 我不会普通话说这个。[This means, “I’m sorry, I have no idea how to translate this bit.”]
  5. 也有英文名字是“righteous anger”的什么东西, 我不知道中文名字。There is also something that in English we call “righteous anger;” I don’t know what it’s called in Chinese. 没有伤害我们的时候, 可是人是伤害别人的, 如果我们又愤怒, 这是“righteous anger.” This is when nobody has done anything to us; we are angry because they have harmed somebody else. 也有“righteous anger”的几个种类, 可是我们可以再说,因为现在是买杂货的时候。There are also several different kinds of righteous anger, but we can discuss that later, because right now I have to go buy groceries.

I originally forgot point #6, which I added somewhat later, after I had been told emphatically to let other people handle the Chinese.

On controlling anger: first in a series

My wife has for a while now been leading a WeChat group called “100天不发火,” which literally means, “100 days without catching fire” but in this context means, “100 days without losing our tempers and screaming at people.” The members of the group are, generally speaking, people who consider themselves to have bad tempers, and who don’t want to lose their tempers and scream at spouses and children and co-workers. The group gets its name from the commitment made by every member at the time the group was formed: they would try to go a hundred days in a row without “catching fire.”

(My favorite story out of all this was shared by one of the ladies in the group, who said that about four days into the hundred, she had been doing very well…and then her five-year-old said wistfully, “Mommy, can you please go a hundred years without catching fire?”)

Now, Helen knows from hearsay that I was born with a genuinely fearsome temper, which is in fact a family trait (my great-grandfather was known to whip his children with barbed wire). I am fortunate in having wise and diligent parents, and so from very early childhood my parents concentrated on helping me learn to get that temper under control; and now when I mention to people that I have a bad temper they are frequently shocked. Only about once a year, these days, does the demon break loose. So Helen has seen that temper of mine in its full fury about three times — and has been absolutely terrified when she has seen it. (Though I will say that I have never resorted to violence, even at the height of rage.) But most of the time people see me as patient and easy-going and long-suffering, and the general attitude of most of my casual acquaintances is, “If you can’t get along with Kenny, you can’t get along with anybody.” That is not necessarily true, but it does at least indicate that my parents did their job well and their training was effective.

Well, Helen mentioned this to people in the group, and naturally their response was, “Get your husband to tell us how he does it!” Which would be fine, except…well, what works for me is not necessarily generally applicable, and also, you know, I don’t speak or write Chinese, and Helen has enough to do without having to translate lots of my English blatherings. But recently five of the ladies in the group who are reasonably bilingual have joined forces to assure me that they will help Helen with the translation so that it will not be a burden; and therefore I have started to write down my thoughts on anger and send it over to them.

It seems, after all, to be a good time to look back over the years at what has worked and what hasn’t, here as I come up on the half-century mark (I will be fifty the eighth of this November). And if I’m going to be writing it up for folks in China…well, it seems to me like I ought to at least make it available to my kids as well, and to anyone else who is interested.

I should say that I do not consider myself an expert on the subject in general, and to a certain extent “I don’t speak Chinese” was an excuse to keep myself from saying a bunch of things about anger that would turn out to be wrong, thereby making a braying ass of myself. So another reason for putting the thoughts on my blog, is to give anybody who wants to a chance to challenge me and tell me I’m wrong, or maybe partly wrong and partly right, or maybe what I’m saying is right as far as it goes but I’m leaving out something important.

So if you’re reading this, then feel free to disagree. You can slam me pretty hard in the comments without worrying about making me angry…I have, after all, lots of practice at controlling my temper. ;-)


  1. Solving the anger problem starts with understanding what the problem really is

A new experience

I’ve never before been asked the question, “Do you speak English?”

Helen and Kai and I are in Honolulu for a few days, having stopped over on our way to China. This morning being Sunday, I hopped onto Google Maps and quickly ascertained that a thirty-minute walk away from our hotel one could find 檀島華人宣道會 — that is, the Honolulu Chinese Alliance Church. There was a Chinese service at 10:00 and an English one at 11:30, and I figured we could just go to the Chinese service and I could practice my Mandarin.

Actually, it would have been better had we gone to the English service. We would have caused much less trouble to our new friends…because the Chinese service was in Cantonese, not Mandarin. A shy but apparently very sweet young lady, who looked to be somewhere between about seventeen and about twenty-two, was therefore assigned to translate into Mandarin on our behalf, whereas if we had simply gone to the English service, no translator would have been necessary. There are three special chairs in back for visitors who do not speak Cantonese, each with a set of headphones. Katrina (that being the translator’s English name) translates into Mandarin, speaking softly into a microphone that is linked up with the headphones, and all is well as long as you only have three people who don’t understand Cantonese (and as long as they all do understand Mandarin, which would seem to be highly likely since one presumes that otherwise they would be considerate enough to go to the English service). Helen, of course, spent a year working in Hong Kong, and she quickly decided that she could understand the minister fine without the headphones. But Kai and I sat through the service wearing our headphones, while Katrina sat two feet from me speaking very quietly into the microphone so as not to disturb the rest of the congregation. And it says a very great deal for Katrina’s abilities as a translator that I was able to follow a lot of the sermon, because her pronunciation was as clear as a bell — which it has to be if I’m going to understand anything at all.

I might also add that one of the songs was sung in Mandarin, and there didn’t seem to be many people singing other than the worship leaders and Helen and Kai and (this being a song that is also sung in Houston Chinese Church and parts of which I therefore know) sometimes me. I strongly suspect they changed up their song selection at the last minute out of kindness to their visitors.

But the most memorable part of the day, for me, happened before the service started. When the three of us walked into the church fellowship hall, one of the ladies realized that visitors were present and hurried over to give us a cheerful greeting. “Where are you from?” she asked, in accented but clear English.

“我们是中国人 [Wǒmen shì zhōngguó rén],上海人[Shànghǎi rén]” answered Helen in Mandarin — “We’re Chinese, from Shanghai.” (This is as best as I recall and so if there are grammatical problems there you can safely assume the fault is in my memory, not in Helen’s Mandarin.)

“啊,中国人,” she responded, clearly making a rapid mental adjustment from her initial assumptions. Then she looked at me in some confusion…and then made my day by asking, in obvious confusion, “Do you speak English?”

I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before; so, as I always enjoy new experiences, that was fun. (I have to admit that I was sorely tempted to answer, with a straight face and in tones of deep regret, “Discúlpeme, Señora, yo no entiendo,” but one should always get to know other people for at least a few minutes before commencing to tease them.)

I enjoyed the service very much, despite being even more lost than I usually am in a Chinese service — communion at least is, after all, a more or less universal Christian language. And the sermon was on one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Romans 8. If I’m ever in Honolulu again of a Sunday morn, I’ll be back at 1110 Isenberg Street.

But next time I’ll save everyone some trouble and just go to the English service.

American Airlines and United fail to impress…which is hardly a surprise

Helen, Kai, and I checked in at 5:00 a.m. for our flight to Hawaii a couple of days ago. We had relatively cheap tickets, because rather than taking a direct flight, we were flying United to LAX and then taking American to Honolulu. At check-in, when our boarding passes printed out, we had good news and bad news. The good news was that we were all three cleared for TSA Pre express security. The bad news was that, according to the boarding pass computer, they didn’t know yet from where in LAX the second leg was going to leave; they only knew we were landing at Terminal 7.

So I waited until it was close to time to board in Houston, and then asked the girl at the gate, who told me we would leave from Terminal 2.

This rather annoyed me because that meant having to go out onto the street, catch a bus from Terminal 7 to Terminal 2, and then to go back through security – and our second round of boarding passes was not marked TSA Pre.

We get to LAX, and as I’m following the signs to Terminal 2 something is nagging at me. We get out on the street and I figure out what it is – I don’t think American uses Terminal 2. So I check the flight status on…and although it doesn’t give a gate, it does say the flight is leaving from Terminal 4, which we could have gotten to without leaving security. But now we are on the street and on the wrong side of the TSA geniuses.

There’s nothing for it. We hike down to terminal 4, go through the slow version of security, and find a screen so that we can figure out which gate to go to. It says Gate 61, which is an odd gate for Terminal 4. There is, however, a sign that says that Gates 40 – 49 and Gates 60 – 69 are both in the same direction. We follow the signs…and “Gates 60-69” turns out to be an escalator down to a shuttle bus stop that will take us from Terminal 4 to Terminal 6, which as you might have guessed has been next door to Terminal 7 all along. But at least we don’t have to go out and go back through security.

We go down the escalator to the shuttle bus stop. There is a woman there ahead of us who is rather old and rather painfully obese. Her husband is worried that there will be stairs at the other end; but the girl at this gate tells him there are no stairs and no problem. Meanwhile another woman is on her phone trying to get information. It turns out she is NOT going to Honolulu. And her flight started the day off at Gate Forty-Something, and then got changed to Gate 61; but it has been changed again and will now be leaving from the Tom Bradley International Terminal, in about half an hour…and there is no shuttle bus service so she is going to have to go out on the street, walk a quarter of a mile or so, and go back through security. Um, I hope she isn’t going to be too inconvenienced when she misses her flight, which to me now seems more or less inevitable.

Our shuttle bus arrives; we climb on along with the other Honolulu passengers. We drive across several runways, dodging planes and baggage trucks…it is astonishing how much non-plane traffic is running around out in the landing and taxiing areas. Finally we arrive at Gate 61, and of COURSE there is a huge double flight of stairs for the poor lady to have to climb.

Moral of the story: if you can avoid connecting to an American Airlines flight in LAX by paying a premium to fly direct…whatever it costs, it’s probably worth it.

Literacy: Optional in America

The other day I was having a conversation with Carmel, one of the nice, polite, friendly, competent baristas at the Omni Hotel where I buy my afternoon latte. I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but I asked, “So, Carmel, were you named after the mountain or the church?” (For those who did not grow up in the South with lots of black friends, “Mt Carmel Baptist Church” and “Mt Nebo Baptist Church” are very popular names in the Southern black Christian heritage, a fact which I know from experience to be true but could not begin to account for.)

Carmel’s eyes widened slightly in mild surprise, and then she congratulated me: “Wow, there aren’t many people who know that’s a mountain. Usually people ask me which kind of candy my parents named me after.”

“But, um, wouldn’t it be obvious…?” I left the rest of the question hanging unspoken in the air.

“You would think so!” she exclaimed. “But no, I get that all the time. In fact, the other day I was ordering a salad at [unfortunately I didn’t catch the name of the restaurant] and I wrote my name on the order. Then when I went and picked up the salad, there was a side order of what I thought was some weird salad dressing. But it turned out to be a little cup of caramel…so I think when I wrote my name…”

I was already laughing and we finished her sentence together: “…they thought you/I wanted caramel on your/my salad!”