Neuroscience has identified the part of the brain that lights up when we are angry — the insula, deep in the cerebral cortex. When the insula is aglow fight or flight chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol are released and the mind is literally disabled from making fine, or even gross, distinctions.
A truly angry parent may actually be physically incapable of seeing the harm in venting against a young kid who has provoked them to rage. Incapable of seeing the damage done by slapping the kid, or locking the kid in a dark closet and turning the music up to drown her screams or raging wildly against the child’s sense of self.
This shut off of the moral faculty when rage is upon us seems like an obvious point, but it really isn’t. Angry and “mad” are synonyms, but even that is only a hint of the obvious.
The other side of being angry is that we instantly justify our anger, even though these deeply-held justifications often don’t bear much scrutiny. All available evidence, when we are mad, points to our being absolutely right to be angry. The urgent reason we feel angry couldn’t be more obvious, to us. It’s telling, and very human, that the only non-physical faculty that continues to work when we are enraged is our homo sapiens ability to justify ourselves.
This trait, rage making one resolute and incapable of seeing another person’s point of view, is what makes war possible. It explains mob lynching and every other atrocity. Rage makes people support deadly policies of all kinds. We don’t see the victims of war, lynching or deadly policies as humans with souls as unique and precious as those of the people we love. We see them as irredeemable fucking assholes who deserve what they fucking get. If Donald Trump had a massive stroke during a nationally broadcast speech, many Americans would feel no empathy for him, some would even laugh. Reminds me of a great line of Trump’s, from early in the presidential campaign when he was picking off his Republican opponents one after another.
I think it was Ted Cruz, right before he was voted off the island, who introduced a woman, I think it was Carly Fiorino, as his running mate (turns out Carly introduced “our next president” Ted Cruz — ed.). The woman turned on stage and seemed to fall into a manhole. She stepped forward and just went down. Trump showed the great clip to his crowd at a rally. The crowd loved it. He pointed out that nobody on stage had gone to help her. “Even I would have helped her,” Trump said with a smile and a little shrug. “Even I!” Cracked me up.
My grandmother, no stranger to anger, liked to calmly say, after she’d provoked me with some harsh comment about my work ethic, “I know, I know… the truth hurts, I know…” I’d sputter on in defense of the thing she had just attacked and she’d smile, and nod, and sympathetically tell me that the truth hurts, that she knew, she knew. I loved her, but that was some hard to come back from shit.
There is this, though: the things that will make us most angry are things that attack us where we are most vulnerable. A shameful secret, dangled sadistically. Noting a particular weakness we know we have. Bringing up something painful in a way that seems unfair. Making an issue of our greatest fear.
I’m no expert on anger, but I have studied it for many years, since it played a terrible role in my life going back to my earliest days. It turns out there are ways to avoid an angry confrontation, methods to defuse anger rather than escalate it.
The intellectual part is hard enough, recognizing the maddening principle at work, the exact, familiar thing that pisses you off, before the anger takes over, and then learning what you need to say and do next to avoid escalation. That intellectual understanding is crucial for de-escalating the situation. It’s hard, but over time we can get better at recognizing the signs that we are about to get mad and take the steps that have worked in the past to calm our reactions.
The emotional component of anger is the truly hard part to master. The overwhelming feeling of injustice hits us hard out of nowhere. Suddenly we are under attack, the stress chemicals flowing, the insula lit up, the justifications for our anger mounting aggravatingly. That, my friends, is the fucking hard part. Something to think about while you consider how you feel about the idea that anger, even rage, is inevitable in human affairs. I would not concede that in my own relations.