On meeting anger from the outside

??????????????????????????????Some years ago I went on a brilliant course with the not very catchy title of “Dealing with Difficult Behaviour in the Library.” At the time, I was working in a community library on one of South London’s least lovely estates, where we fought running battles with gangs of teenagers.

One of the things I learned on the course was some simple phrases that I’ve found useful in dealing with all sorts of difficult situations. One of these was for use with a person who was irate, even aggressive. What she warned us never to say (unless we wanted to get hit) was, “Calm down!” Instead she recommended the simple sentence, “I can see you’re very angry.”

Recently I wrote about Descartes’ view on anger, and the post was orientated towards how we can own, manage and transform the anger within ourselves. But lately, circumstances have made me consider how to meet the anger of other people, especially those close to us. Of course, if we encounter a violent or aggressive stranger, the sensible thing may be to avoid them. But so often it’s our closest friends, lovers, work colleagues whose anger vented against us leaves us hurt, confused or angry ourselves.

In  Marshall Rosenburg’s theory of Nonviolent Communication, anger, like other feelings, is understood as a message that expresses a need. On one level this seems a trivial claim: we get angry when service is slow in a restaurant, for example, because we’re hungry and need to eat.  But  there are other, higher needs, in particular the need to be respected, to be recognised and accepted.

Psychologist Dorothy Rowe,  in her manual on depression Breaking the Bonds, also holds that anger has a meaning, and that meaning is, “I am here, and I have the right to be here, and I will survive.” So this sense implies that the person experiencing anger feels that these three aspects of our existence are threatened or denied.

Aristotle  saw anger as a revenge-seeking reaction against disrespect or belittling:

Let anger be defined as desire, accompanied by distress, for apparent retaliation because of an apparent slight that was directed, without justification, against oneself or those near to one.

According to Aristotle, when one person belittles another, they actualise an opinion that the person is worthless. Belittling can come in three forms: contempt, spite and insult.

So how might this help us cope better with our angry friend, our angry child or our angry lover? If we are not going to add insult to injury, we could first show that we acknowledge what they are feeling. That’s why just saying “I can see that you are angry” can begin to alleviate a tense situation, while saying “calm down” just makes things worst. But if we are to go further, and help our angry friend to see past their overwhelming sense of being squished, we have be with them, feel with them as they themselves look within to ask “what does she really need right now?”

It’s undoubtedly a tall order. Some people are  so bound up in their own needs that they’re hard to cope with. Often their anger, even when not vented at us directly, elicits  our own, born of our very human instinct for self-defence which goes into gear in frightening situations. But maybe we can learn to take the other’s anger a little less personally, to open up just a crack to seeing it as a poorly articulated request for recognition, for support,  to be heard – to be loved even.

This doesn’t mean I have to be the angry person’s punchbag. We can also express how it feels for us to be shouted at or insulted. We can also draw boundaries, insisting that there are behaviours we will not tolerate.

But – and I’m still experimenting with this myself – it seems that when we try to give compassionate  attention to our friend and their anger, just as with our own, this light causes it to soften, and open communication returns.

Sometimes we have to listen to be heard.


Seasonal #5

Seasonal #5

Amidst winter snows,
my dreams of summer cycling
are melting to slush.


I recently adopted the benign superstition that the new moon is an auspicious time to begin new  projects. For me this means that I aim (and generally fail) to start work on a new piece of writing, whether it’s a poem or a paper. But yesterday, being the day of the first new moon of the new year, it seemed particularly significant, so I thought I might set out my stall for the next twelve months, and in particular try and formulate my first research question.

For a while now, partly inspired by reading Dan Ariely, I’ve been telling people that I want to focus my attention on the topic of human irrationality, and, what is much the same thing, what passes for “rationality”.  Partly this unhealthy interest in, to use Bukowski’s phrase, “ordinary madness” is an attempt to answer Mrs. Kaamos’ galling challenge to my analytic mindset: “Sometimes it’s rational to be irrational.”

The study of irrationality  goes back to Ancient Greece, and in particular the curious case of akrasia or weakness of the will, familiar to anyone who has already broken their new year’s resolution, considered at some length by Aristotle.

The same issue runs through the Stoics and on through to the Early Modern philosophers, Descartes and also Spinoza who described the person subject to emotions – pretty much all of us really – as in bondage: “though he sees the better for himself, he is still forced to follow the worse.” And then around 300 years later, along comes Freud and it all starts getting really interesting, when he fiendishly places the source of irrationality in the covert drives of the unconscious.

There are, or course, other aspects of irrationality: error, bias and prejudice, hallucination, illusion and delusion. Why does it matter? Well, if you believe as I do, that we might all be going to hell in a handcart, a you might start to wonder about the collective irrationality of a species bent on its own destruction. To borrow from the medical model, before we can begin to discover the cure, it might help us if we try to understand the sickness.

But the irrationality module that piques my curiosity at the time of writing is the remarkable human capacity to remain convinced of a belief for which there is no evidence and which has no practical benefit. Why do we stubbornly persist in holding, even defending, such beliefs, often incompatible with other firmly held convictions, even if everyone around us tells us they are false?

Almost every time I come to write an essay, I reach a point where I fully believe that it is impossible for me to write it. I procrastinate, I go on Facebook, I stare at the screen, cursing the cursor.

This is not, I believe with complete certainty, because it’s rather arduous work and I’m not always completely thrilled by the topic, but because, without a shadow of a doubt, I know that I am incapable of doing it. At that moment, all the essays I have written  in the past are just statistical anomalies, freaks of my otherwise fixed nature.

The reality that I perceive is that I have either never really been able to write,  or even if I once have,  I’ve lost my touch.

And then, when I give up and in my frustrated exasperation just write something, guess what? I write something. And that something gets mucked around with until it suddenly emerges as an essay.

So, here it comes, the Instant Kaamos 2013 question of the year:

How and why do we protect, preserve – treasure even – our false beliefs against the corrosive effect of reason and evidence?

Seasonal #3

Seasonal #4

In iced Helsinki,
I go in  search of glögi,
with smoke drifting south.

On meeting anger

Being out of the country in May, I missed the depressing news about yet another senseless shooting, this time in Hyvinkää; a teenage boy opening fire on a crowd of people, in what appeared to be a random act, leaving two dead and seven injured.

I learned about it from two other aliens I was chatting with after the Finnish Language Café at Pasila Library. Wondering why these incidents are sadly becoming all too frequent in Finland, one of them speculated that it has something to do with the Finnish male’s inability to talk about his feelings. Unable to express feelings of anger or hatred,  it comes out in senseless acts of violence.

I’m not sure I quite buy that. First of all, I question whether there’s anything specially problematic about Finns. After all, you can go into any English provinicial town centre on a Saturday night and experience testosterone-fuelled explosions of anger. It just so happens that gun ownership is considerably lower in the UK than in Finland.

There is a long history to what might be called a hydraulic theory of the emotions: that somehow keeping them bottled up means that they must explode at a later date, or as Freud suggested, find expression in our neuroses.

The English poet William Blake, seems to be thinking along these lines in The Poison Tree:

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

Descartes, in The Passions of the Soul proposed a theory as to why, as he saw it, people who anger “makes flush” and even cry, are less dangerous than those “it makes turn pale”.Descartes' physiognomy of anger

In the first group, those who are only able to avenge themselves by looks and words employ all their strength and fervour as soon as they are moved.

On the other hand, others who plan to delay their vengeance are saddened by thinking of themselves as “bound to do so by the action that angers them” as well as being afraid of the consequences that their vengeance will have. This makes them “pale, cold and trembling.” Then when they have their revenge, “they warm up all the more for having been cooler at first, just as we see that fevers that begin with chills are usually the most severe.”

However, I feel uncomfortable with the suggestion that we simply have to act out our anger, or even necessarily talk about it. Often it seems that  rehearsing the case for the prosecution – telling ourselves or a friend just how much we’ve been wronged –  just seems to feed the anger. And if we go the whole hog and let loose the full force of our rage against the wrongdoer, this often leads to unpleasant and unpredictable consequences, including quite often, further personal humiliation.
As so often, perhaps there is a middle way between the seeming polarities of pent or vent. One alternative might be to learn to understand that the anger is part of ourselves and not something in the person or people we feel angry with.  The next step is to familiarise ourselves with it in order to learn how to manage it.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a walking meditation using six sentences:

Breathing in, I know that anger is here.
Breathing out, I know that the anger is me.
Breathing in, I know that anger is unpleasant.
Breathing out, I know this feeling will pass.
Breathing in, I am calm.
Breathing out, I am strong enough to take care of this anger.

What I like about this exercise is that it is rounded off by a statement that embodies our ability and intention to be kind to ourselves as well as to others. In relation to the confused and angry adolescent, it’s like the development from teenage frustration to quiet, confident adulthood, the child being father to the man.

The vital ingredient for maturity in anger is self-knowledge. As Descartes puts it, wisdom “teaches us to render ourselves such masters of [the passions], and to manage them with such ingenuity, that the evils they cause can be easily borne, and we even derive Joy from them all.”

Medicina Mentis

A visit from the Groke (original  name Mårran in Swedish or in Finnish,  Mörkö) over the past couple of days has driven me in search of some medicine for the mind. With little give and take on terminology,  I’m warming to Monsieur Descartes‘ latest book, The Passions of the Soul, published in 1649. Much of it comes out of the correspondence he had with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, herself a sufferer from melancholia who hoped to find a remedy for her disease in the study of philosophy.

He seems to capture something essential about the physical, embodied nature of emotions, the phenomenological nature of their arriving in the soul/self from or via the body, rather than originating in thought.

If I understand him correctly, this would be in opposition to the modern cognitive approach to understanding emotions and their more persistent cousins moods. But I somehow doubt that this reading is correct, and so I’ll continue to wrestle – and I’ll let you know who wins.

Meanwhile, to be getting on with, here is Descartes’ definition of sadness (article 92):

Sadness is an unpleasant languor, wherein consists the distress which the soul receives from the evil or defect which the impressions of the brain represent to it as belonging to it. And there is also an intellectual Sadness, which is not the passion but which hardly ever fails to be accompanied by it.

Moomintroll encounters the Groke

And the winner is…

…Sauli Niinistö who becomes Finland’s first conservative president since 1956. He replaces the popular, Social Democrat president, Tarja Halonen in March.

I’m still not completely clear what the role of the president is in Finland as it seems that unlike say in the US, the executive functions of government are performed by ministers. Apparently, the job is largely a ceremonial one, for example hosting a big shindig on Independence Day.

Coming myself from a country where the head of state is always conservative, as well as being unelected, the idea of the president being from the right-wing Kokoomus (National Coalition) Party doesn’t sound too many alarm bells.

As for Mr Haavisto and his supporters, I think they can be more than satisfied with a result which, after the success of the populist and anti-immigration ‘Basic’ Finns in parliamentary elections last year, has restored many people’s faith in the Finnish electorate.

In a vane attempt to follow Pekka Haavisto’s successful use of social media, Instant Kaamos is now on Twitter: @instantkaamos.