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May 02, 2019 Thursday 02:48:14 PM IST

An Antidote to Anger

3rd Eye

A man, a step-father of sorts, goes out in the morning for a walk with his ‘wife’. When they return, he notices something unpleasant. The younger of his two step sons - a child of three - has wetted his bed. His elder step son, seven years old, is sleeping beside the boy, unaware of the impropriety committed by the untrained bladder of an infant.

     He flies into a rage. He had ordered the elder boy to ensure that the young kid was taken to potty before such inconveniences happened. His instruction seems, prima facie, disobeyed. What does the angry step father do? He sends the little boy flying with a kick. The kick is so mighty that the victim gets hurled against a wardrobe. His skull cracks. But that does not appease the infuriated step-father. He keeps attacking his victim, multiplying his injuries. A few days later, despite heroic medical efforts, the boy dies in hospital.

     A few years ago, I was witness to the anger of a five-year-old child. You have to imagine the intensity of it! The extent to which anger in a tender child can go. It reminded me of what Seneca said nearly two millennia ago - a tyrant hides within each one of us. But Seneca also said, even wild animals change their nature, if brought into regular contact with human beings of the right sort! That made me think of the scope latent in parenting.

Three basic truths

     This underlines three basic truths. There is a reality of ‘wildness’ - that expresses in various ways as ‘anger’- latent in human nature. Second, it is possible to do something about it. Basically, two things can be done. One can overcome anger. One can also help others overcome anger. Third, anger needs to be overcome. It is an unhealthy, harmful and self-destructive passion.

      It is a cause for worry that we are fast becoming a society of rage. At the time of writing this, the 2019 general elections are in progress. What is it that hits our awareness foremost in this connection? Is it not the amount of anger that is spewed into the public sphere by way of electioneering?

     What is our idea of patriotism and nationalism? Is it anything more than the duty to be angry with putative enemies both within and without? Why is it that speeches that secrete anger appeal to the masses? Isn’t because it activates something that lies dormant in mass psyche? It is a tempting thing to do. Hitler did it to the hilt and perished in the process. It plunged a whole nation into unspeakable misery. The outcomes of anger are, invariably, regrettable, even though at the time anger takes possession of us, we feel that it is a natural; even an honourable thing, to allow ourselves to be borne away by anger.

     Anger enjoys cultural and social approval. Even though most people don’t say this, they still assume that the incapability for anger shows a poor spirit. It is high-spirited to be angry. Anger is almost a status symbol. That is why your stereotypical ‘boss’ flies into a rage on flimsy things. Next time he does so, watch him. See what a pathetic figure he cuts. He becomes a caricature of himself, and shows every sign of weakness even as he unfurls anger as a metaphor of his power.  Those who realize this pay particular attention to keeping anger under leash.

Enslaved by anger

     The story is told of Plato that he got angry with one of his slaves. Plato had the offending slave bend forward and bare his back to be whipped. He raised his hand. As his hand came down, the thought occurred to Plato that he was being a slave to his anger in the process of punishing his slave. He stopped his hand, held it poised over the back of the slave and stood like that for a long, long time. One of his friends happened to come by and asked Plato what he was doing. He replied, “I am punishing a worse slave”. Plato’s point is that one who allows himself to be possessed by anger is the meanest of slaves.

     How can parents train their children in keeping their anger under control?

     The first step is to understand how anger works. It works in three stages. First, there is an external provocation - an abuse, a gesture of disrespect or contempt, an action contrary to what is expected, and so on. We have no control over these causative elements of anger because they are external to us. But we can have control over the next stage. That stage is internal to us. We consider the particular offence. Come to the conclusion that we did not deserve it. At this stage social and cultural factors work in a subconscious way. Our cultural formation and social milieu have taught us that it shows a low spirit to not repay in kind. So, even when we may be inclined to overlook the offence, we are inwardly urged to react by the internalized promptings of the ambience. With that we enter the third phase in which we let our anger take possession of us. Once we do so, we lose all control.

     The scope for controlling anger is limited to the second stage. So, we need to understand this state more clearly. We could well say that no deliberation or thinking is possible at this stage because everything happens so quickly! We could be right, but only partly right. What needs to be realized is that every human being has the choice and power to delay responding and to enlarge the space for consideration: the gap between provocation and reaction. This is special to human beings and it is the essence of our moral freedom. If you step on the tail of a dog, it is sure to bite you instantly; for it has no moral freedom to ‘consider’ the provocation and to choose a nobler mode of reacting to it. No animal can deliberately enlarge the provocation-reaction gap.

     It is precisely this that parents need to ‘educate’ children about, if they want them to grow up as healthy and noble human beings. To understand this more clearly, let’s consider the opposite of anger, ‘clemency’. Clemency involves punishing an offender to an extent lesser than what the gravity of his offence demands. This may include complete pardon, the grace to overlook the offence completely, resulting from the free and enlightened choice of the offended person. Only a noble person, one who masters his anger, can practise clemency. In comparison, the tendency to over-react to offences and to make offenders pay in excess of their offence is ignoble and contemptible. Parenting has the power to re-orient human nature from anger to clemency.

Dual expectations

     An important factor in feeling angered are the expectations we entertain. Expect others to be in the best of behaviour all the time; whereas we fail often. As we say, ‘to err is human’. If erring is human, forgiving also must be human; lest life should come to a standstill. We must have lower expectations from others and make higher demands on us. We should be generously lenient with others and less sparing with ourselves. Currently, it is the other way around.   

    The war against anger through parenting must start early - as early as anger begins to manifest in children. At each stage of a child’s manifesting anger, parents must take the trouble to explain to them what anger is and the importance of keeping one’s temper under control. Not rewarding temper tantrums plays an important role in this. Parents need to be patient and persevering with this process. There are no over-night results in human formation. An important message to communicate to infants and children is that anger doesn’t pay; rather it hurts oneself.

There was this four-year-old child who, in fits of anger, would refuse to eat meals for a whole day. It was his way of coercing his parents to yield to his will.  His mother was wise. She kept her cool and deployed her resources in storytelling. She would make up stories in which a character would act the way her son was doing, and go on illustrating the consequences thereof. Say, there was a race. The character in the story, though the best runner in the city, lost the race because he was weak. How did he become weak? He got angry with his parents and refused to eat meals for a whole day.  The message that in anger, one hurts oneself, or acts against one’s own best interests, was communicated to the child in so many ways. It got registered and worked wonders. If you have the storytelling capacity, you can spare the rod without ruining the child! 

Dr. Valson Thampu

Former Principal of St. Stephen's College, New Delhi

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