Thursday, February 23, 2017

Press on the Brake! - An essay on anger and temper

Let me fess up.  Prior to writing this piece, I did a google search: difference between anger and temper.  I was directed to a site called (what a name!) that spelled it out lucidly that temper is an “expression of anger.”  I am glad that I listened to the dormant dork that resides within me and googled this because I was letting quite a few thoughts stew in my mind over the past few days.  On a relaxed Sunday afternoon, I was digging through old papers and sundries on the floor of my basement closet, determined to create enough space to walk through the area!  I found an old group photograph from a high-school excursion from September 1997.  That made me whiz along the twisting and turning lanes of my memory, a la a sports car on a winding road.  Looking agape at that horror of a picture, I wondered how impossibly large my glasses were, not to mention my waist size.  I was amused that the cleverest thing that a classmate could do was to put his hand above and behind another friend’s head and strike a ‘rettai elai’ pose as though he was campaigning for the AIADMK!  So yes, I did smile to myself.  But no, it was not just a sweet nostalgic moment.  I simply put the snap in a pile of papers.  It was the stack of papers that I was going to throw into the trashcan.   Not the set of papers that I wanted to retain. 

As I walked upstairs to the living room, I wanted that 'car' to zip back to the present as quickly as possible.  It was because I don’t think I enjoyed the memory of how I was as a person.  It was an age where I thought that it was perfectly fine to lose my temper.  No, I have never hurt anyone physically.  And yes, I was a pampered but not insensitive kid; I was taught by my family to apologize when the blame rested squarely on my shoulders.  “But everyone has flaws,” I would say to myself.  “And, a short fuse is my shortcoming.  Those who love me will accept it.”  I would apologize quite sincerely when I made a mistake but I would move on.  But 20 years down the line, I can still hear the unpleasant sound of my screaming at a classmate (who was in that snap) who took great delight in needling me persistently.  Even now, I can almost feel my ears vibrate as a result of that high pitched shriek of mine.  But here’s the strange feeling that I experienced.  I wondered whether I was ever nice to him.  Anger might have been what I felt when he may have said something hurtful or unsavory but why could I never find a better “expression” than temper to convey that?  Well, let that memory be consigned to the trash can, as the car zooms by to 2007.  

2007 was the year that I started doing yoga.  Rest assured that I am not going to pontificate on the benefits of yoga.  But I will share an analogy that a yoga practitioner once shared with me.  He said, “Imagine that you are on an interstate and you are traveling at 80 miles an hour.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, you see a truck coming at you in the opposite direction, traveling in the wrong lane!  You start pressing on your brake and realize that the brake isn’t working!  Is that when you take your car to a mechanic?  No, you need your car to be a well-oiled machine.  Similarly…”  Well, you catch his drift.  I share this because I use to have this ill-informed belief that at the moment that I was going to erupt, if I could manage to somehow count to five or delay my response that I could manage to keep my temper in check.  Let me just say that the car was clearly crashing into a truck quite often and insurance rates were skyrocketing!  (Not literally, thankfully!)  

I can’t claim enough knowledge of meditation to establish a causative relationship.  But a reasonably healthy diet and regular meditation have been integral parts of my life over the past few years.  Keeping my temper in check (for the most part) allows me to love my near and dear more deeply, more thoughtfully, more gently.  As mushy as it may sound, to lavish my loved ones with kind words and meaningful gestures is something that means a lot to me.  If temper is a barricade in that journey that I share with my family and friends, then the least that I can do is to put my brakes on at the right time and swerve around it.  And, yoga might not be your cup of tea.  But I do sincerely believe that some sort of a sustained, disciplined method to focus on the self is a necessary ingredient of temper control.

I have purposely avoided mentioning the triggers of my temper because that is besides the point.  The triggers are excuses.  I would like to believe that irrespective of the trigger, my reactive expression cannot be one involving temper.  There are things that make me angry.  Recently, I was in a group setting where I was working on something for a good 25-30 minutes and when I was finished, someone in the group loudly cracked a crude joke (an admittedly funny one, I must say) about what I had worked on, even if the output was very well received by everyone (including that person).  I must say that I did not enjoy the joke at that moment.  I was quite peeved.  I thought that it was neither respectful nor sensitive.  But I just smiled faintly while others laughed.  The laughter subsided soon and everyone carried on with their business.  But the hurt lingered for a while.  Between asking myself whether I was being too touchy and questioning my own silence, I just walked away with at least a sense of satisfaction that I didn’t behave like a killjoy, puncturing the lightness of the atmosphere that resulted from the joke. 

I repeat to myself what Dr. Sheena Iyengar wrote to me (see my write-up if interested) when she signed her book (“The Art of Choosing”) for me.  “Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well.”  I just have to choose and prioritize what is truly meaningful to me.  If someone gives me grief on something that I consider a core element of my being, then I have the right to become angry, even if I don’t have the license to lose my temper.  Instead, what would be more apropos would be a  mature conversation that addresses what disturbed, bothered or offended me.  Anything outside the realm of those core elements is just not worth losing sleep over.  Life is too short.  Life is too precious for that.  I know that I have some ways to go before I can consider myself completely free of any temper control issues.  But at the very least, I do respect the periodic maintenance that the car needs, in order to enjoy the pleasure of the ride that I am on, with those that gift me the bounty of their affections.  After all, being in the driver’s seat is not only a privilege but also a responsibility. 


My conversation with Anu Hasan on the triggers of temper:

Thursday, February 9, 2017

High-class behavior: Musing on truly ‘classy’ people

My Aunt was 49 when she passed away last October.  Memories of her pervade my mind from time to time, tightly packed and vying for space, akin to water molecules in a cube of ice.  As I begin to zone in on the specifics of some of those memories, the tightly packed moments melt into a free flowing stream of thoughts related to a particular facet of hers.  Very recently, I smiled to myself, thinking of how she always had a teenager’s gawkiness.  She could be totally clumsy with the food on her plate.  She could be standing near the threshold of our house and yet the way she hollered out, “Amma!” could wake my grandma up even if the latter was in the other corner of the house, taking a siesta.  She giggled in a way that made it impossible to distinguish between her and her 12-year old daughter.   Her gait was so rapid, so rushed that it was a wonder that she didn’t trip, fall and end up in a doctor’s office every week.  All these descriptions might evoke just an endearing, childlike person and not a classy person, necessarily.  But to me, she was truly classy, of a different kind.  And I am not even referring to her impeccable sartorial choices or her perennially perfect coiffure.  In my mind, the sheer class that she had, stemmed from something much deeper, something incredibly genuine.

In 2007, I had gotten married through the arranged marriage process. A month after my wedding was my Uncle’s birthday.  My Aunt, my Uncle and their daughter took me and my wife to Savera for dinner. In the presence of my wife, she told me, “Never, ever hesitate to say ‘sorry’ when you are wrong.  It will be important for Nandu (my wife).”  Kindly pause.  And, reread that.  As I reflect on that moment, I realize that she could have spent the better part of dinner either confabulating with my wife or just teasing me.  But she didn’t.  She felt that in the incipient stage of my marriage that I must know to acknowledge my imperfections, have the grace to apologize and learn from my mistakes.  That one line of hers has been one of the guiding principles of my marriage and I can see how “important” it has been for my wife that I acknowledge and introspect whenever I err.  Be it with her choice of words or the timing and thoughtfulness of that gesture, that discussion at Savera is one of several incidents where my Aunt came up with a concoction of something thoughtful and mature.  And to me, that was class, in the most meaningful sense of the term, a lot more meaningful than someone that only possessed an aristocratic mien and nothing deeper. 

That is not to suggest that people from the upper strata of the society that have a dignified bearing, do not have true class.  As a matter of fact, I have been witness to someone that belonged to the upper class – owing to his social and financial status – display true class.  That was my grandpa’s great friend, who was a wealthy industrialist.  My grandpa, on the other hand, lived a very comfortable lifestyle but was nowhere in the league of his friend when it came to wealth.  But it was a difference that existed just on paper, not in either of their minds, which I thought was remarkable, given the fact that their friendship lasted from their middle school years until my grandpa’s death (at the age of 61) in 1994. 

Their relationship makes me think of another trait that I have always associated with class – assuredness.  Both my grandpa and his friend felt so assured of themselves that they had neither insecurities nor the need to vulgarly display wealth.  That sense of contentment with what they had, made them relaxed.  Relaxed in a manner that would let them enjoy the sunshine of happy moments, withstand the storms of turbulent times and let their friendship offer a protective umbrella that prevented each other from getting drenched in the rains of sadness when their family members went through issues, health wise or otherwise.  It also made them thoughtful in ways that beggar belief.  After my Aunt (my grandpa’s second child, after my mother) was born, my grandpa’s friend was supposed to have given him a pep talk that with two daughters, he must start taking savings and investments seriously, and encouraged him to consider small scale industry to supplement his income.  It was advice that my grandpa took seriously and started a small factory that lasted more than 30 years, until after his death too.  Just the thoughtfulness exhibited by his friend (who was then just in his early 30s), instead of just wishing my grandparents on the arrival of a newborn and lavishing them with a gift, is something that makes me feel quite humbled.  

As I reflect on the class that my grandpa and his best mate exhibited, despite their class differences, the more I feel like I should be conscious of my words and actions.  I say this because as I progress in my career, make more money and acquire more tangible assets, it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy these material possessions for what they are.  But I should also never fail to realize that it is those intangible assets – those admirable traits demonstrated by people like my Aunt, my grandpa or his great buddy – whose value never depreciates over time.  As a lover of watches, I might occasionally allow myself the indulgence of a nice timepiece on my wrist.  It should make me feel nice, that’s all.  But the more I wear these acquisitions lightly, the lighter I can feel, hence making me more grounded, more stable.  Again, that stability will lead me to being less self-absorbed and more giving in myriad ways.  These people that I have written about, are sadly no longer with us.  But, in my personal and professional lives, I continue to see people that exhibit graciousness*, generosity and gratitude in equal measure.  To emulate them would be my best bet if my goal were to make an impact on a loved one’s life in the manner of my Aunt, at Savera.  That would be the kind of class that persists, even after someone leaves this world.  That would be the type of class that lingers, even after the watch stops ticking.


* My first version of the write-up had the word "gracefulness" here.  After seeing Anu Warrier's comment below, I feel that "graciousness" is the more appropriate term for what I was trying to convey.  Thank you, Anu!