Me: They didn’t deliver my New York Times today. Second day in a row.
Mother: Those bastards!
Me: They’re not bastards, Mom. At worst, they’re incompetent.
Mother: They’re bastards!
I changed subjects politely but quickly.
I understood her sentiments perfectly. I had grown up in a household and in an extended family where the primary emotion, almost all of the time about almost everything, was anger. There were love and the usual parade of family feeling, but anger was always near the surface. For my father it usually grew into rage. Uncles and aunts and their offspring were the same. Family with whom my parents associated most comfortably were usually angry about something. I have one first cousin who had a long list of business establishments where he was no longer welcome owing to displays of anger. An uncle was the same. He would drive miles out of his way because there were shops, even banks, that would no longer take his money, thanks to fits of anger, often over some minor slight, just as often over nothing.
When one grows up that way, there are two likely directions to take: become mightily passive about the behavior of others, or inherit what one thought was normal anger as one’s one primary emotion. I did the latter. However, I found it uncomfortable being angry much of the time, and usually after angry behavior I felt silly, childish, contrite. I had to apologize a lot. Apology, of course, can be good, but it is tedious for self and others when one must appear frequently hat in hand, begging forgiveness of someone who had the misfortune to get in the way of my family-learned anger.
Family-learned, I say, not family-caused. I do not blame my anger on anyone but myself. Once one realizes that people are reacting badly to it, the mature and wise course is to find a way to change it. That took years, but it came. It came after divorce, after coming out as a gay man, when I found myself in therapy with a psychologist who had me read Albert Ellis’s fine little book, How to Keep People from Pushing Your Buttons. Ellis’s insights developed in and from his intellectual invention, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, REBT, the cornerstone of a fine blog I recommend to my readers, jvbgetsrational, a periodic exploration of the ins and outs of REBT.
My push-able buttons ceded to others control over my behavior, even to the angry extended family I had largely left behind, even over parents who, although physically absent, were emotionally ever-present. Of course, I cannot blame others for their control. I gave it to them, letting those who were manipulative work magic on me that they and I rarely knew they were working. But my therapist, Roger, showed me a different way. I didn’t need to change them, their emotions, their behaviors, just my perceptions about my own life. Much earlier I had learned, but not internalized, Viktor Frankl’s lesson that the last human freedom was the ability to find one’s own way, to assign one’s own meanings to the events of life. I had learned the lesson, but did not understand it. I had thought it applied to the horrifying kinds of choices one had to make in the concentration camps, from which Frankl’s logotherapy was born. And I thought it was about others, not about me. Of course it did apply to heavyweight misery and to others, but it applied equally to me and to the ordinary trials that all of us face, which sometimes we approach—without ever saying so, of course—as if they were ordeals comparable to those of Frankl, or Elie Wiesel, or any of the other death camp inmates, survivors and murdered victims alike.
I learned finally, thanks to Roger, that most of the troubles I faced really were trivial and manageable, not eights or nines on a scale of one to ten, but maybe twos and threes. For an individual, a ten, a truly awful event, might be more like being fed alive feet first into an industrial wood chipper, or having to choose, like fictional Sophie Zawistowski, in a death camp moment, which of one’s children will survive. But dealing with divorce, coming out, angry kids, work stress, loss of income, loss of prestige, these were not, as they had seemed, awful at all, just, at most, damned inconvenient, unpleasant but not unbearable. The best evidence that they are not unbearable is that we bear them. We survive, and if we are wise we assign rational and helpful meanings to such events. When we approach them rationally we grow from them, and they do not defeat us, even if they hurt us, even if they change us.
And change us they will, one hopes for the better, for we learn from our survival how to persist yet again, and we teach, if we are diligent, those about us how they, too, might survive. We teach our children, our coworkers, our clients, our students, the people whom we care about, the people whom we meet. We teach that when life seems awful—and truly it can be awful, albeit rarely—, usually it is at worst unpleasant. We define what events mean to us rather than finding ourselves defined by them. We control our thinking and thus our feelings. Anger goes away. People who might have seemed like bastards are just ordinary folk like you and me, no better, no worse, and life and the universe, even if they will never be truly and wholly excellent and altogether compliant to my wishes, are pretty darned good after all. I like that. I can live with that.