I can forget my love libraries because I so often find myself working in them. I can momentarily lose the sense of wonder.
Monday, however, I found myself enraptured again with the idea of the library. Meandering around Bryant Park, one of my favorite spaces in Manhattan, I stumbled upon their outdoor Reading Room. I pursued the magazines (Self, People, Lucky) and newspapers, hanging on their beautiful wooden rods with little interest until finding a bookshelf of classics.
I settled on Seneca, Roman tutor to the young Nero, and author of a variety of dialogues on practical philosophy. Having just returned from a visit to the Forum in Rome earlier this June, I was curious about the variety of of thoughts that space inspired. Here’s the line that finally sold me on the book,
“Here the Stoic philosopher outlines his thoughts on how to live in a troubled world.”
Yes, that’s what we need, something practical that acknowledges the challenging landscape in which we find ourselves.
I found a chair that allowed me to both watch folks settle on the lawn in preparation for the film showing at sunset and view the top 10 floors of the Empire State Building..I settled into his fascinating chapter on Anger that I will share with you now.
Surprisingly, Seneca sounded far more like a modern day psychiatrist than an ancient roman musing on daily life.
Oh, he knew anger so well. He remarks how anger is one of those few passions that ignites in a moment versus over time, unlike greed or sloth that can embed slowly in our experience.
Anger erupts and often works to destroy the beholder.
I think sex can be the same way, but he steered clear of that one. It’s an important omission because sex seems to have within it a destructive force that somehow creates life. Anger does not seem to create the same life- it seems to destroy.
He disagrees with Aristotle that anger ought to be cut out of our experience. I would agree with Seneca here. Anger fueled so many liberations and revolutions- it helps us set new standards and not put up with poor treatment in our personal as well as political lives.
Seneca thinks, however, that we would benefit from managing our anger better. I would agree with this one too.
We can feel so powerful when we are angry. So inebriated with our own righteousness and self-importance that thoughts of patience, kindness, and consequences seem remote and even inaccessible. In anger, we can take down our own house.
Orwell demonstrates this in his “Two Minutes of Hate” scene in 1984. He talked about how people could, within 30 seconds, experience “a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces with a sledgehammer…”
Then he noted how quickly the target of that rage could be turned,
“And yet that rage that one felt was abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.”
This I believe is one of our most valuable lessons for conflict. People's rage can be directed by leaders...think of Troy. 50,000 Greeks leaving their families to cross the Aegean Sea just satisfy their king's greedy desire to take Troy. The kings and military leaders ignite the rage and direct it.
People were pawns and in many ways still are.
Next time you are angry, consider what or who might benefit from your rage? rarely, will it be you.
For personal anger, Seneca offers a solution. His solution does not eliminating the cause of anger, rather addresses what to do when anger appears….It’s a sensible solution, one that can save us weeks of trying to “fix” things after we’ve let our rage have center stage.
Just wait it out.
“No one keeps himself waiting when the greatest cure for anger is to wait, so that the initial passions anger engenders may die down, and the fog that shrouds the mind subsides, or becomes less thick. Some of the affronts that were sweeping you off your feet will lose their edge in an hour, not just in a day or disappear all together.”
Anger and the Body
Here's a take on Anger by modern day psychiatrist, Dr. Brian Weiss, supporting Seneca's claim from a physiological perspective. Anger does not serve us.
Weiss says anger creates "damaging chemicals in our body that adversely affect our stomach lining, our blood pressure, the blood vessels of the heart and head, our endocrine glands, our immune system and so on."
He also points out that our TV programs and movies glorify anger...serving up angry people as role models. Captain Kirk in Star Trek never had a happy day. The anger is often positioned as "righteous" and therefore permissible and even admirable. Regardless of how anger is portrayed around us, it rarely serves our physiology, our relationships or our larger goals. It can be manipulated by those more in control of themselves. I really don't like the idea of being a tornado that someone or something else directs.
One caveat here on anger. I have found, through my coach trainings on how to help people have breakthroughs that anger can be used as a force to change behavior. For example, you get so angry about your weight you say angrily, "that's it, no more. I am taking my power back and deciding to be in charge." This turning point often arrived at with anger can get someone who has been smoking for 20 years to go cold turkey. This would be guiding the tornado into some useful activity. Getting fed up with a bad relationship, unhappy work environment, or a health condition can be used as the momentum for true change.
But we have to know the difference between self-righteous anger and anger that has the power to change our lives for the better.
Orwell, George. 1984 (Signet Classics). Signet Book, n.d.
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Dialogues and Letters. London; New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Weiss, Brian L. Messages from the Masters: Tapping into the Power of Love. New York: Warner Books, 2001.