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ôPerfection of moral virtue does not wholly take away the passions, but regulates them.ö
—St. Thomas Aquinas
I travel often. On one particular occasion I was waiting in line to reschedule a flight that had been canceled because of poor weather conditions. The man in front of me was becoming increasingly agitated. He had been muttering to himself, pacing and slapping his tickets against his hand. As the minutes passed, his voice grew louder, ôI canÆt believe these people. This has happened to me one too many times and itÆs not going to again. They are going to put me on a flight right now, or IÆm going to take my business somewhere else! IÆm a hundred-thousand-mile flyer, for GodÆs sake.ö
I thought to myself that his hundred thousand miles in the air werenÆt going to do him any good if the plane crashed in the middle of the blizzard we were facing. Yet he, and many others like him waiting to be rescheduled that day, appeared not to notice the weather. They seemed to feel the airline was deliberately plotting to ruin their lives.
When he reached the front of the line, the man screamed and hollered, and threatened the ticket agent, who remained incredibly calm and focused. He was still screaming and threatening as he walked away with his rescheduled tickets in hand.
Standing behind me was a mother with three little children. At one point the oldest, who appeared no more than five, asked her mother, ôMommy, why is everyone so angry?ö Her mother replied, ôI donÆt know, honey, some people are just angry.ö
According to news reports, the number of raging passengers is increasing. Federal records indicate that the number of attacks on flight attendants has steadily increased from 296 reported incidents in 1994 to 921 in 1997 (Ken Kaye, Aug. 31, 1998). The cases reported went far beyond this manÆs verbal abuse. Flight attendants have been physically and emotionally attacked, sometimes in brutal fashion.
Such incidents bring to mind the developing violence in our society. We have ôsky rage,ö ôroad rageö and ôchildren killing childrenö; thousands of people are on medication for depression; countless women and children are killed every year in cases of domestic violence; divorce rates remain high. . . . Are some people ôjust angry,ö or are we lumping many different reactions and emotions into the category of anger and giving that legitimate emotion a bad reputation?
The gentleman in the airport wasnÆt expressing healthy anger; he was enraged because he was powerless and out of control. His display of abusive behavior was most likely his common response to frustration. Yet if I asked most people to describe his actions, they would probably say he was angry.
ôAngerö is a word that is commonly used to describe a wide range of emotions. Curious how the general public viewed anger, I asked a small number of people for their definitions:
Eleven-year-old boy: ôAnger is a mood and it makes me feel like crying. But itÆs better to plain get angry than to take your anger out on people or animals. ItÆs not fun being angry.ö
Sixteen-year-old girl: ôAnger is a feeling that nobody likes to deal with caused by something that hurts. ItÆs a feeling I fear because when someoneÆs angry, no one knows what they are capable of doing. It is a powerful, uncomfortable and awful feeling and yet we are surrounded by it.ö
Twenty-one-year-old student (woman): ôAnger is a feeling that is manifested in many different ways by each person. Some people will lash out at everything and everyone around them, while others will just let it bubble inside and act as if nothing is wrong.ö
Twenty-four-year-old snow-making foreman at a ski resort: ôSomeone is angry when they have reached or gone past the point of being reasonable—when emotions start to influence thoughts and actions.ö
Twenty-seven-year-old restaurant manager (man): ôAbsolutely no control over a situation. Feelings of powerlessness.ö
Thirty-two-year-old housekeeper (woman): ôAnger is rage inside you that you canÆt cope with or deal with.ö
Given the degree of violence surrounding us every day, it was not surprising that most individuals attempting to define anger actually describe rage.
Anger is a healthy emotion. It is a warning signal that something is wrong. It can alert an individual to the potential for physical or psychological trauma. Anger can provide the energy to resist emotional or physical threats, allowing defense or escape. Anger aids in our awareness of emotional and physical boundaries and helps individuals set healthy limits.
Anger can also mobilize us to make much-needed changes in our world when we are faced with injustices. Consider, for example, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), or people who fight for needed legislation regarding child abuse and neglect. Many people who work hard to make the world a healthier place are fueled by anger.
A majority of people in our society appear afraid of healthy anger and are taught from a very young age not to feel it or express it. Many women are socialized to ôbe nice,ö not to ômake waves,ö while men are still taught to ôfight backö rather than allow themselves to feel normal emotions of vulnerability or powerlessness. Many people are taught not to express feelings at all, while at the same time being systematically desensitized to the violence around them through music, television, movies and video games.
We are a society out of balance. This lack of balance is made apparent in many ways: mentally, emotionally, socially, culturally, spiritually and physically. In forthcoming chapters, I will explore this lack of balance and its dramatic effects on individuals, relationships and society. The effects include symptoms ranging from continual underlying depression and difficulty in relationships to the rage expressed by the airline traveler, as well as many others.
Life out of Balance
Sages of many cultures have warned repeatedly that ôlife is out of balance.ö Nowhere is this lack of balance more noticeable than in the incredible changes that technology has made in our lives since 1950: color televisions take seats of honor in homes throughout the world; video arcades house high-tech games where we can kill almost anything with accompanying sound and lots of blood; guns can shoot seemingly endless rounds of deadly ammunition without reloading; planes, trains and automobiles go faster and faster; technology makes it possible to rebuild many parts of the human body or extend childbearing years into the sixties. Innumerable tasks are performed more efficiently without leaving home by typing ôwhatever.comö on the computer keyboard. But what of emotions and values? What does all this technological progress have to do with lack of balance and unhealthy anger, especially when progress often saves lives and supports healthy lifestyles?
Our children live in a society that continually uses modern technology to model and glorify violence. Some families are aware of this input and its results. Many people donÆt allow their children or grandchildren to watch movies that contain senseless violence, play endless rounds of video games that condition violent responses or allow children access to guns, but people often feel overwhelmed and powerless to effect change when so much input into a childÆs upbringing is provided by influences that the family canÆt control. Maintaining emotional connectedness and strong values is hard when families have to compete with a consumer culture that has for its support the power of multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns.
Nonetheless, parents and families must work hard to achieve connectedness and build healthy values, for only with a strong foundation will children grow to become healthy adults who can experience a wide range of human emotions, including anger. As mentioned above, properly channeled anger can be healthy for individuals and society. Mishandled or buried anger threatens individuals and society. Becoming competent to deal with and process oneÆs emotions is one of the hallmarks of an emotionally healthy person.
¬1999. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Boiling Point by Jane Middelton-Moz. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.