Why So Mad?

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Author: Andrew Santella

You are better than this.

You are not a hostile person, not a picker of fights. You’re a Boy Scout troop leader, Friend of the Library, volunteer at the PTA. Last year, you even called in and donated money during one of those NPR fund drives.

And yet you have these moments when the worst parts of your nature come to the fore. Moments when the world seems to be conspiring against you and the frustration builds inside you and the frustration turns to rage.

This morning, for example, you were running late for an 8:30 meeting and you just wanted to get your latte and a bagel from Starbucks and run. Of course the guy in front of you in line had to spend 10 minutes talking to the woman behind the counter about that most fascinating of topics, the weather. You’re ashamed to admit it now, but you were on the verge of balling up your 10-dollar bill, throwing it across the counter and screaming for service.

Actually, the whole day has been a little like this. At work, you had a tense exchange with your boss about what he called “peculiarities” in your expense account.

Even now, on your way home, as you were inching toward a tollbooth on 294, it happened again. You had 20 minutes to get home, pick up your daughter and drive her over to her dance lessons. No chance, right? The traffic was going nowhere when suddenly, thank God, another lane opened up. You went for it. So did the guy in your blind spot. A Hummer, cutting right across your bow like you weren’t even there. And off you went, laying on the horn, screaming some embarrassingly unoriginal obscenities, spittle flying, face contorted. If you could have caught a peek of yourself in the rear-view at that moment, you would have seen a person who appeared utterly insane.

Here’s the thing — and maybe you’ll find this comforting or maybe you’ll find it frightening. There are a lot of you out there.

The rage of rage
Rage seems to be all the rage lately. Look around; it’s not difficult to conclude that the world is getting angrier and angrier. Our politics is angry, dominated by Bush-haters and Clinton-haters and even Nader-haters. Our popular music is angry, spiked with misogynistic rants and paranoid fantasies. Our highways run like rivers of anger. As Peter Wood points out in his book A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, automakers are even making angrier-looking cars, with grills that seem to snarl at whatever gets in their way.

Are we really that angry? It’s not an easy question to answer. There simply aren’t a lot of practical ways to measure how pissed off people are. Judging by the space on the nation’s bookshelves taken up by books about anger, we seem to be living in a golden age of Wrath Lit. You can find books about the perils of anger, books about how anger can work for you, books that relate personal battles with rage.

Does this Wrath Lit explosion indicate a growing level of anger in the world or just a greater interest in the topic? Are we really angrier or just trying harder than ever to understand our anger? For that matter, is there more anger being released into our world or are our camera-phones just capturing more episodes of angry behavior and Internet sites such as YouTube making them more readily accessible?

“Have rates of public rage from seemingly normal people gone up, or has our awareness of it gone up?” Colorado State University psychologist Jerry Deffenbacher asks. “We don’t know. But there are a lot of angry people out there.”

Not even episodes of road rage are easy to quantify. In 1997, the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety released a study that detailed an increase in road rage incidents of as much as 7 percent each year. Media outlets, already awash in trend stories about the road-rage phenomenon, reported the study widely. USA Today described “an epidemic of aggressive driving.”

Then a piece by Michael Fumento in The Atlantic Monthly punched holes in the AAA study, arguing that any increase in reported incidents of road rage was the result of increased awareness. The newly coined road-rage label had become a convenient way to describe episodes that might not have been reported at all in the past. The article quoted one researcher saying, “You get an epidemic by the mere coining of a term.”

Barry Glassner, in his book The Culture of Fear, asked why journalists became so interested in the road rage “epidemic,” when—even using AAA’s numbers—angry drivers accounted for not more than one in a thousand roadway deaths between 1990 and 1997.

Crime and vending machines
If measuring road rage is problematic, what about violent crime? Surely statistics on assaults, batteries and murders would help indicate a welling of anger in the world. Here, too, there is a problem. As Deffenbacher points out, violent crime figures seem to be going down.

Even though taking stock of our rage on the road and our angry assaults on others proves frustrating, it is possible to quantify one particular kind of anger epidemic, directed at one particular kind of victim. Call it Vending Machine Madness. A 1988 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported 15 serious injuries, three fatal, as a result of irate men kicking or rocking vending machines that had taken their money without giving them snacks.

How did it come to this? It’s the kind of question that comes to you as you sit in your car in line at the tollbooth once you have emerged from your meltdown and regained some self-control. Is there something in the way we live our lives—maybe the frantic pace we set, maybe our relentless emphasis on personal fulfillment—that is bringing our rage to the surface? Or is it, as Wood suggests, that we have made a virtue of expressing our anger, so appearing pissed off, defiant and aggressive is all just part of being authentic, keeping it real? Or, as Glassner argues, do Americans just have a knack for pessimistic panic-mongering so that we see epidemics and crises wherever we look?

Certainly you’ve never thought you might need help. You are familiar with the anger-management industry which has sprung up to provide that help, but the whole process makes too easy a target to be taken fully seriously. After all, you’ve seen the Adam Sandler-Jack Nicholson comedy Anger Management.

Then you remember to think about spouses trapped in angry, maybe violent, marriages, about kids being warped by a parent’s misplaced rage. Ask one of them if the world is getting angrier or if they might not welcome some help for the scariest people in their worlds.

If that’s a little too much for you, just ask one of those poor mopes lying flattened under a snack machine.

As one of the classic seven deadly sins, anger holds an exalted place but is a bit of a misfit among the group. It is the only one of the seven that doesn’t pay off in our self-interest.

For people like me who have never been unusually prone to anger, that makes the emotion difficult to understand. There’s no obvious payoff to a fit of anger. Only an outburst, hurt feelings or, worse yet, some violence. Hardly ever any real resolution to the problem that started the whole thing. Where’s the temptation in that?

Lust we can understand. Gluttony we can understand. They may be wrong and hurtful, but we can acknowledge that it’s sometimes hard to ignore that extra slice of pizza, hard to say no to the noontime quickie.

In The Enigma of Anger, Garrett Keizer writes that his anger “has more often distressed those I love and those who love me than it has afflicted those at whom I am angry.”

Knowing that anger doesn’t always pay doesn’t necessarily make it easier to control it. Which may help explain why anger is so prominent in our lives. Our religious tradition centers on a God who, when provoked, turned people to salt, drowned entire armies, and sent floods and pestilence as tokens of his wrath. The most famous episode of anger in the New Testament is Jesus lashing out at the money changers of the temple. It might be the most modern scene in the Gospels.

We’re also deeply suspicious of our anger. The Romans preached self-control, and Renaissance essayist Montaigne advised marshaling our anger and using it wisely. He urged people to “husband their anger and not expend it at random for that impedes its effect and weight. Heedless and continual scolding becomes a habit and makes everyone discount it.”

That advice recognizes one of the paradoxes of anger: It’s often destructive, it’s often a waste, but every once in a while it works. It can fuel our drive to achieve, it can help us maintain our self-respect, it can help stop the world from walking all over us.

The trick, apparently, is getting angry at the right times and not getting angry at the wrong ones. Sounds easy, right? Mark Twain suggested, “When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear.”

A history of anger
Wood, in A Bee in the Mouth, argues that one of the most telling signs of a national problem with anger is the hostile tone of our political discourse. Wood calls it a new style of anger. “For the first time in our political history,” he writes, “declaring absolute hatred for one’s opponent has become a sign not of sad excess, but of good character.” As an example of political discourse that delights in its own vitriol, he cites Jonathan Chait’s 2003 essay in the New Republic, which begins, “I hate President George W. Bush.” For Wood, such language is typical of what he calls our “Angri-culture.” It’s not just that people have such fury, Wood argues, it’s that they are so proud of their rage, so eager to broadcast it, so determined to assert their rage as a badge of their identity. I’m pissed off, therefore I matter.

Wood recognizes the vein of anger that has always run through American history, but he may not do full justice to the venom and the power of historical fury. Contemporary wrath-mongers like Ann Coulter are loud and all too visible. But compare her to self-appointed avenger Preston Brooks, the South Carolinian who took a cane to Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856. Clearly, extreme fury is nothing new in American politics.

Often it changed our world for the better. American history owes a great deal to the motivational power of wrath. The abolition movement was largely fueled by rage and so was the women’s suffrage movement.

The abortion clinic bombers and schoolhouse shooters of recent decades may be the most violent examples of contemporary American rage. But don’t forget strident bloggers, finger-pointing cable-news hosts, brawling professional athletes, bullying grade-schoolers, and those Little League parents who go after umpires, veins bulging. It’s likely that more often than not, anger plays itself out on the home front. The wife-beaters and screamers-at-kids are probably doing more damage with their anger than any of the more visibly angry people. Once you start looking for anger, you see it everywhere.

Then again, maybe we’re not angry enough. Given war, environmental crisis, economic injustice, maybe we should be out in the streets in force, demanding change. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recently declared that the “anger quotient is much too low.”

Too angry? Not angry enough? Not a single one of the sources I consulted suggested that we, as a society, have arrived at precisely the appropriate level of anger for our circumstances. Like perfect happiness, this “anger quotient” must be an elusive target.

So is there any hope for you and your anger? Is there any reason to believe that someday you will be able to survive the afternoon commute without screaming or tailgating or displaying choice fingers?

One option, of course, is to seek out some help with anger management. The very phrase has become such a familiar part of our lives—how often does a day pass without hearing of some offender being sentenced to attend anger-management sessions?—that it’s easy to forget that it is a relatively recent coinage. Raymond W. Novaco may have been the first to use the term, in his seminal 1975 work, Anger Control. But the term didn’t begin appearing in the popular media until well into the 1980s.

One of the first and most influential popular books on anger was Carol Tavris’ 1982 Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion. Her book was a response to the then-popular “ventilationist” strategies which suggested that merely loudly articulating our anger would free us emotionally. Tavris insisted on a more subtle and complex approach to anger, one that even acknowledged its constructive aspects.

“I have watched people use anger, in the name of emotional liberation, to erode affection and trust, whittle away their spirits in bitterness and revenge, diminish their dignity in years of spiteful hatred,” she wrote. “And I watch with admiration those who use anger to probe for truth, who challenge and change the complacent injustices of life.”

Relax!
Two decades later, researchers were still probing for the constructive aspects of anger. A January 2000 article in the journal Health Psychology suggested that calmly discussing angry feelings and working toward solutions with others can have health benefits. But the emphasis, the researchers pointed out, must be on solving problems, not merely venting feelings.

Anger management specialists usually work from a menu of strategies that include everything from deep-breathing exercises to muscle-relaxation techniques to visual imagery exercises which help people regain their calm. Other interventions may stress cognitive approaches that aim to change unhelpful patterns of thinking. And there are, as always, pharmaceutical options. Dr. Emil Coccaro of the University of Chicago has explored using Prozac to treat explosively angry people.

Psychologist Deffenbacher urges, among other things, using humor to defuse anger. The idea is that the next time you find yourself tempted to call someone a dumb-ass, you can merely picture them as, say, a burro wearing a dunce cap. The image might be amusing enough to get you through your angry moment.

Whatever successes anger management professionals can claim, they are clearly dealing with new realities that make it all too easy to vent rage. John Duffy ’86, a Chicago-area psychologist and life-coach (and, full disclosure, an old friend of mine), says many of the teenagers he works with use text-messaging and social networking sites such as MySpace to lash out at classmates or authority figures who have crossed them. Part of the appeal is being able to spew bitter thoughts at targets without having to confront them and deal with them as human presences. Just as road ragers may find it easier to flip someone off when the gesture is mediated by a windshield, information technologies allow us to vent at a digital remove. And this spring The New York Times reported on the popularity among high school students of “hit lists"—sometimes posted online, sometimes scrawled on a school wall—of people an angry student would like to harm.

Anger has been called a sin. It has been called an emotion. Alexander Haig once called it a “management vehicle.”

Disordered thoughts

One thing anger cannot be called, not yet anyway, is a mental disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s official guidebook to mental illness, offers multiple varieties of depressions, anxieties and phobias, but no specific category of disorders for which anger is the defining characteristic. The closest it comes is a mention of Intermittent Explosive Disorder, which is marked by “aggressive impulses that result in serious assaultive acts” in which the “aggressiveness is grossly out of proportion” to the immediate provocation.

Anger experts want more. “We need probably a half-dozen anger disorders,” says Deffenbacher. Such an array, he argues, would help legitimize the study of anger, and help researchers to understand it better and doctors to improve their interventions.

Not everyone agrees. Domestic violence advocates argue that making anger a disorder would give abusers an out-of-jail card, allowing them to plead that they were at the mercy of their disorder when they lashed out. Others simply object to the idea of labeling more and more behaviors as disorders, which they say only feeds the therapeutic and pharmaceutical industries.

For Deffenbacher and other specialists in anger, however, recognizing dysfunctional anger as a disorder would help more troubled people recognize their own problems and seek help. That’s not an argument which should be too easily dismissed. For most angry people, the real problem is not their anger. The problem is the endless series of people and things that keep provoking their anger. “Want me to stop being angry?” the angry guy asks. “Then tell the world to leave me alone.”

Even the most patient of us can put together a long list of things that piss us off in the course of a day. What does it for you? People who fail to say “excuse me” when they run over your foot with their baby stroller? Drivers who drift across your lane when they make a left-hand turn in front of you? Bellicose vice presidents of the United States? Litterers who toss cigarette butts and Big Gulp cups out of car windows? Movie-theater talkers? Cell-phone loudmouths? Email non-responders? Wise-ass journalists?

What if they could all be convinced to disappear? What if all the things that pushed your buttons just went away? You’re a decent person. At the core, your nature is good. Remember how you stayed late to clean up after the book group meeting last week, even though it wasn’t your turn? If you could just avoid the jerks, the rude bastards, how much calmer would you be?

In his Enigma of Anger, Keizer writes about Abbott Ammon, one of the early desert fathers who lived in the fourth century as a hermit in a remote and desolate region of Egypt. Keizer points out that Ammon, while doing his monk-ly spiritual exercises, never ceased praying to be delivered from his anger. Which raises the question: What exactly does a hermit have to get angry about?

Ammon, whatever hardships he had to endure in the desert, was spared “Dixie” ringtones, was spared telemarketers, was spared traffic jams. He was spared Bill O’Reilly. Yet he continued to struggle with his anger.

Maybe Ammon’s problem was that he was left, in the end, with the one thing that not even you—well-meaning and kind-hearted as you are—can escape.

Your own angry self.

Andrew Santella (www.andrewsantella.com/) has written for The New York Times Book Review, Slate, GQ and other publications.

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