“There are two things a person should never be angry at, what they can help, and what they cannot.” ~ Plato
From Plato’s quote, it seems pretty clear when we should become angry…never.
In an ideal world, that might be possible, but I haven’t met anyone who never becomes angry.
Instead of taking this quote literally, I look at it as an opportunity to reflect on what causes us to become angry. There are two things that cause us anger: things we can help and things we cannot.
Let’s discuss why it doesn’t help to get angry at things first. If there’s something we can do about it, then let’s take some action to remedy the situation. Alternatively, if there’s nothing we can do, then what purpose does the anger serve?
There are two actions we can take to resolve anger: taking some action to help, or surrendering to the situation when there’s nothing we can do. Surrender is generally seen as a negative reaction, when we’ve given up. However, with a slight adjustment in perspective, it’s possible to see surrender in a new light.
Surrender is a willingness to let things be as they are. The term “Islam” from the religion actually means to surrender, or submission to the will of God. While many Western Christians will argue this is a negative thing, it’s actually meant as an action to bring peace.
In the Western world, we have the idea that we can fix everything, and that if we only try harder, the world can be shaped in our image. Sometimes the act of letting go is stronger than holding on to a rigid idea of how the world should be.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve been sitting around thinking about why I’m angry at someone or something, doing absolutely nothing about it. I’m not even thinking of potential solutions, I’m just thinking about the situation that caused me to be mad. It serves me no purpose though, and I just end up stuck in a bad mood.
What good does it do us to remember some event that pissed us off? We might feel some sense of self-righteousness about it, and get some enjoyment from playing the victim in our own personal tragedy (ironically hearing this at first usually makes us even madder, so don’t try telling someone stuck in anger they are getting some benefit from it!).
Most people don’t realize they get unconscious satisfaction from having people feel sorry for them. This can be other people, or ourselves; it’s actually not an important distinction to make where it comes from.
By having a story that we tell someone, it feeds that part of ourselves which craves attention. It doesn’t matter if this attention is negative and we’re only getting it because something “bad” has happened, because it’s better than no attention at all.
The worst thing in life is to be ignored. Just look at the celebrity culture, and how some stars will feed the negative narrative around themselves—intentionally or not—so they remain in the news.
We think this only happens with children that misbehave, but this carries onto adulthood when it’s not resolved in adolescence; it’s just that the methods usually become more subtle.
This is especially obvious in the media as I already mentioned, when celebrities will create a story surrounding themselves in order to get media coverage. Any good publicist knows that even “bad” news is better than no news.
This applies collectively with us in the media as well as on a personal level. For those of us that derive our sense of self from the stories we tell ourselves and others, it’s necessary to have some drama fueling it.
Once we realize, however, that our essential Being is not dependent upon what people think of us, we can become self-validating. When we derive our sense of self from the stories we tell ourselves and others though, we will continue to seek validation from the outside.
Eventually, this gets tiring for most people, when they’re tugged this way and that by the relative ups and downs. This is the root cause of why we like to remain angry at things that we cannot help. It feeds the victim identity, which derives our sense of self.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve tried to pull others into my drama by telling them a story about how I felt wronged by someone, and how mad I was at another person. At the time, I rarely realized what I was doing because I was so emotionally charged, but looking back, I can see there was a part of me wanting to hold onto the anger so that I’d get additional attention.
What about, however, the times when there is some action we can take to fix a situation? Plato has said there’s no point remaining angry here as well. While not specifically stated in this quote, the implication is that if there’s something you can do to not remain angry, just do it!
It’s easy to sit around and tell ourselves stories that feed the victim identity even when there’s something we can do, so it’s important to be aware we can easily allow ourselves to fall into that old trap. I know that sometimes I become paralyzed with an overload of emotions, and often I will remain stuck in “analysis paralysis” because it’s more comfortable to think than to feel for me.
Even when there is some action that has become clear to me, it feels safer to keep the steps I can take in my head as theory, as opposed to putting them into action in the physical world. It takes courage to act though and is the only way we can move forward.
When taking those thoughts and putting them into actionable steps we stop considering and start acting on, it’s necessary to want to resolve the anger, seeing the futility of remaining angry. It’s helpful to look back at our past experiences to realize this since it’s much more difficult to do in the moment when we’re not thinking clearly.
For most of us, suffering is our greatest teacher. By that, I mean that once we realize that holding onto anger is actually much more painful than the uncertainty of taking action, we’re more likely to make a change in our lives.
Until we’ve come to the point that we can no longer live with ourselves dwelling on the anger that’s been holding us back in some victim identity, we’re unlikely to live a different way. However, once we’ve had this realization, the choice is simple: keep suffering, or make a change.
We often don’t realize the level of uncomfortableness that suffering is causing us, as long as things are “good enough.” Oftentimes it takes hitting rock bottom to see how bad things have gotten, and then we’re willing to do literally anything.
I’m reminded of a perverted science experiment many of us are familiar with; when a frog is placed in a pot of room temperature water set to boil, it doesn’t jump out as the temperature steadily increases to boiling because the change is gradual enough to not cause alarm. The frog is then boiled alive because it doesn’t realize the water is heating up outside of it.
For many of us, it’s easier to hold onto our anger as it begins to boil inside of us because that uncomfortableness is familiar, and easier to deal with than the uncertainty of taking new action to resolve the situation.
We must be willing to no longer live with the status quo, and that’s something that cannot be taught; it can only be found for oneself. It can help to be dropped into a metaphorical pot of boiling water, but that’s not necessary for everyone. Many people become sick and tired of being sick and tired, and can change that way too. Either way, the end result is the same, whether it’s gradual or sudden. The worst thing we can do is become complacent and numb to the pain.
The world almost seems designed to either distract us from our pain, or to soothe us into believing it’s okay to feel that way. Whether we temporarily distract ourselves externally from the painful feelings, or if we temporarily are able to convince ourselves everything is okay, we are missing the obvious fact: we are allowing ourselves to be boiled to death.
This keeps us stuck in purgatory where no change is possible. Accepting anger for the things we cannot help and also for those we can.
So while it may not be possible in the real world to never get angry as Plato suggests, once we become aware of the futility of remaining angry at things, it’s much easier to let that sh*t go.