Two things happened last month that made me reflect on how we humans deal with anger in our own very different ways. The first was Florida’s “loud music” murder case in which an irritated white man shot and killed a black teenager. The second was attending a performance by Lewis Black, a comedian known for his rants.
Black used his anger to make the audience laugh. Michael Dunn used his rage to bully and kill 17-year-old Jordan Davis in a convenience store parking lot.
Anger is natural and can arise without warning. We see red. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase. We are suddenly ready to fight or flee. It is an adaptive response to perceived threats, and so a certain amount is necessary for survival. However, not all annoyances warrant a big response. It seems too many people feel justified in aggressively standing their ground, as if it were proof of their strength or rightness. Too often this ends in violence and tragedy.
Certainly we see plenty of angry role models in the media. And anger seems to spread virally, abetted by ego, alcohol, testosterone and firearms. But if anger is unavoidable, what should we do when our blood starts to boil?
Experts agree the healthiest thing to do is to express it. Repressed anger festers and poisons our minds, our bodies, our relationships. Nonetheless, those expressions need to be respectful and assertive, not aggressive or threatening. Take a breath. Count to 10. Take a walk. Allow the rational part of our brain time to gain a bit of control.
Humor can defuse anger as well, as long as it’s not sarcastic or cruel.
Perhaps surprisingly, Lewis Black offers a case study in how to handle angry feelings in a healthy way. As a regular on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” who performs across the country and on USO tours, he rants loudly and comically on stage for 90 minutes a night. The rest of the time he’s pretty mellow. In an interview with St. Louis Magazine last October he said, “In a lot of ways, one of the nice things about doing what I do is, I get rid of it, so I don’t have to be screaming all day.” Lucky him.
On the other hand, my mother had two very effective ways of coping with angry, squabbling kids. Sometimes Mom sent us and our tempers out to smack our backyard tetherball around, focusing our wrath on an inanimate and indestructible object.
Other times she made us smile. That’s right — smile. Mom knew it was nearly impossible to remain angry with a real, honest-to-goodness smile on your face. Go ahead. Try it.
At least when you flash a killer smile, no one gets hurt.
Lorie Smith Schaefer is retired, mostly.