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:


Zola said...

Ram Murali :"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"

For some reason that made me laugh like hell and I became nostalgic at the same time. My son used to do that a helluva lot.

But it was a cleverly disguised slower one.

You've really anticipated the reader's state of mind with 'rest assured that I'm not going to pontificate on the benefits of yoga" and that's a cracker of an analogy. Highly representative of your writing which conjures up images and glues the reader.

Sometimes it may be a blessing to have a temper rather than one of sow rages which builds over time and causes seething resentment. Well thats my problem and needs much reflection like what went into this article.

Great writing !

Anu Warrier said...

I'd much rather have a burst of temper than someone silently stewing over a perceived injustice, or worse, holding a grudge for years.

thappad se dar nahin lagta saab :) I can take temper, I can't take temper tantrums.

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker / Anu - thank you for your comments. You have both raised an interesting point about "seething resentment" and "silently stewing over a perceived injustice."

So, I added one line in the last paragraph of my write-up (see text in bold below) - 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.

I sincerely feel like there are certain core elements of one's being that one must be protective about. That is where a bit of calmness in expressing one's anger is even worth it, from what I have seen. Outside of certain things that truly define me as a person, I really have gotten more tolerant of something rude or offensive. You both will remember the nasty comments that led to my exiting Rangan's blog. As offensive as those comments were, it was not something that really riled me up to the point that I felt the need to have an outburst. It mattered but just didn't matter enough. That's what I was getting at in the last paragraph. To internalize when it's not a big deal and to calmly express feelings when hurt or offended are really the only two ways that I would give myself license for.

I'd love to hear your thoughts more on this...

Anu Warrier said...

When I'm angry, Ram, I advise you not to come near me with 'a mature conversation that addresses what disturbs, bothers or offends you.'

Seriously. :)

No one has the 'right' to lose their tempers. But since when have feelings become 'rights'? I think you conflate two things. Is it good to always keep losing your temper? No. If everything is going to make you angry, or lose your temper, you have a serious problem and you need to be working on it.

But if you lose your temper once in a while, at least speaking for myself, I'm perfectly okay having you blow up, and dealing with the fall out. If I lose my temper, I expect my husband to know what is driving that anger, and work with me to deal with whatever it is that is causing that emotion.

I'm not perfect. I'm flawed and honestly, I'm okay with being flawed. My life is messy, complicated, confusing; it's filled with laughter and tears, anger and yes, fights, lots of love and trust. And underlying all of it, there's a respect for each other as individuals, not just as husband or wife. I will never, even in anger, insult my husband, or speak down to him. I do not play games, do not manipulate. But if I'm angry about something, I will either go away until I calm down (in which case, do NOT follow me to 'deal with it'), or I will blow up. If undeserved, I *will* apologise. No conditions.

Of course, all this goes back to my previous comment - if I'm going to be touchy about everything, then the problem is me. If I'm getting angry at something or somebody at odd points, then I'm human. I'm perfectly fine being human. I do not aspire to a halo. :) [Long thesis. Sorry!]

Ram Murali said...

Anu - Some very, very deep and thoughtful remarks there. Thank you.
When I wrote about the "mature conversation," I referred to that as a better solution for the person who is angry. The conversation has to be initiated by the person who is angry (not the other person) as a way of expressing hurt or offense. I don't know if it works for everyone but it certainly has for me. When someone says something offensive, I try to see if I can converse in a mature manner about what is hurting me. There are times when that doesn't happen, when I react impulsively. When that happens, I genuinely feel bad for having hurt someone with my words or how loud I was.

"No one has the 'right' to lose their tempers. But since when have feelings become 'rights'?"
--> Fair point. What I was trying to express, and maybe I didn't do a good job of, was to say that anger is that feeling that is evoked within when something or someone hurts, offends or insults us. We have every right to have that "feeling" of anger. But if temper is the "expression of anger," then I don't want to think that I have the "right" to exhibit short-tempered behavior. Because it honestly breaks my heart to see someone tell me later that my temper was too much to take. That's what I wrote about earlier when I said that I don't want to feel less loved because of that.

"I do not aspire to a halo. :)"
--> Ha ha! From my perspective, I have had enough temper tantrums in my youth and even my adult years (to a lesser extent) to ensure that I will never get a halo even when I am 80! But my intent is to set a tall enough goal that even if I don't reach it, I - and more importantly, my loved ones - can get comfort out of the fact that I am continually working towards becoming a better person and that the temper tantrums are few and far between and also not completely unreasonable.

Zola said...

Ha Ha Havent heard Anu's voice but its coming through loud and clear in her comment:) Way to go Anu !

Zola said...

Ram : Was wondering where you get all the emotional and nervous energy to do such introspection. Simply awesome !

When I do introspection its basically to wallow in self pity and conjure up an imaginary scenario which will never happen.

Ram Murali said...

Thank you, Ravishanker. I once told Anu Hasan that I find writing to be "cathartic." It sometimes is :)