Anger seems to listen to argument to some extent, but to mishear it, as do hasty servants who run out before they have heard the whole of what one says, and then muddle the order, or as dogs bark if there is but a knock at the door, before looking to see if it is a friend; so anger by reason of the warmth and hastiness of its nature, though it hears, does not hear an order, and springs to take revenge.
—Aristotle, Nichomachaen Ethics
Just yesterday I had an interesting question posed to me. Of the seven deadly sins—gluttony, lust, envy, greed, wrath, sloth, pride—which one afflicts me the worst? I thought it about it for a while. Certainly I am afflicted by each deadly sin. I can be lazy, arrogant, selfish, and all the rest. But I think my outstanding challenge has always been my capacity for rage.
I used to be an angry person. Just ask my brother, or any of my old friends. The smallest things could set me off: a joke, a passing remark, a perceived slight. And when I got angry, I lost all control. Once I threw my cell phone at my oldest friend (thankfully, it hit the guitar he was playing instead of striking him) and snapped it in half. Another time, I kicked a good friend in the back, causing him to fall over in the street. And I can’t tell you how many times I beat up my brother when I was a kid.
It is revealing that, almost always, I can’t even recall what made me so angry in these situations. Usually it was something very trivial. Big things don’t provoke rage in me, but little things do. I become enraged when I’m hungry and I can’t find a place to eat. Or when I’m impatient and stuck somewhere. Or when somebody is being silly when I’m in a sour mood. My mood makes the crucial difference. When I’m hungry, tired, stressed, or otherwise irritable, my patience disappears and I have a tendency to snap at people. I lose my ability to empathize and become a selfish, egocentric man-child.
A big part of growing up, for me, has been learning to control my anger. To do this, I’ve had to recognize that anger is almost always illogical and unwise. Rage, indignation, and outrage are dangerous emotions, because they convince us that they are justified. Indeed, anger can feel extremely empowering. We are never so sure that we are right and others wrong than when we’re enraged. And yet, as Aristotle points out, it is when we’re angry, indignant, and outraged that we are most prone to being wrong, precisely because we feel unshakably sure that we’re right.
Anger is just a defense of the ego. When we feel that we are being undermined, or slighted, or treated unjustly, our anger is a way of preventing our ego from being damaged, of preserving our sense of self-worth, of reaffirming our own perspective. Yet by defending your ego, you acknowledge that it’s vulnerable; and even if you retaliate, you can’t undue the injury that’s been done to your pride.
It is one of the hardest things in the world, but also the most rewarding, to actually listen when you’re being criticized rather than to retaliate. I know from painful experience that the urge to fight back can be nearly overwhelming. Instead of understanding what the other person is saying, we immediately start thinking of how to refute them. But how can you refute someone when you haven’t heard what they’re saying? And how can you convince them when you don’t acknowledge the validity of their experience?
When something seems untrue, unjust, or unfair, then your whole body and mind can tense up in protest. But in these moments it is crucial to remember that what seems true to you may not seem true to somebody else, and what seems fair to you might seem unfair to a friend. Most of all it is important to fight the angry tendency to mishear what other people are saying. To do this, extra effort is necessary, the effort to listen and understand. Do not be like Aristotle’s dog and bark before you know who’s at the door.