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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Anger Revisited

If you'll indulge me in a strained metaphor (and in an essay that may seem ripped from the pages of some pop psychology handbook) I'd like to present a clarification on some of my thinking from the last post. The more I went over the topic of "anger" in my mind, the more I realized I needed a model, a concrete example... hopefully something that would appeal to the inner scientist in all of us.

I struck upon the idea of using a molecular model (maybe because Stave It Off friend and Domestic Violence Specialist CC Rider is taking a chemistry class right now. Thanks for the inspiration!) I've chosen to represent Anger with the simple water molecule.

Covalent bonds are made to be broken!

A quick note about the chemistry of water: It is composed of one oxygen (the negatively charged red ball) and two hydrogen atoms (the smaller, positively charged white balls.) These atoms bond together covalently, meaning that they share electrons in their outer "valent" shell. They are attracted to each other because they have opposite charges (like charges repel each other... just like magnets.) Once they've adhered to one other, they tend to attract other water molecules (though the molecular structure remains H20.) They also act as a great solvent for various other molecules, especially things like sugar or salt.

We all know water intimately. It plays a vital role in the ecosystem of our planet. It surrounds us, it's inside us. We are so familiar with it (and its various vaporized or crystallized forms) that we've come to think of it as a kind of prime building block in nature. Many ancient traditions often refer to water as a primary element (along with things like fire, earth, wind, wood, stone, and electricity.) In short, we think of it as atomic (from the Greek, meaning "unable to be cut".) We do not generally recognize its constituent parts, we just recognize it as the old familiar water. When a basement is flooded, no one says, "Oh my god, look at all this oxygen and hydrogen!"

I posit that Anger is like our friend H20. That it is not an atomic, or primary emotional state. I'm suggesting that it is actually made up of two bonded components. Anger is created when Pain (a big red negative atom) bonds with Self-Preservation (two little white positive atoms.)

Anger will wash over us, it will sometimes drown us. It is easy to see how we pass anger through us and into the world without changing its fundamental structure. When we mobilize basic defenses (like displacing our anger toward some other object, or sublimating our anger into artwork) we let water flow out of us and into the world. This helps maintain our own equilibrium, but I think is still less than ideal. When we do this, we are acting as mini anger factories, combining Pain and Self-Preservation into a dangerous substance and then dumping that substance into our environment like a corporate polluter.

What alternatives are there? Some forms of Buddhism (thanks for that link Dingo!) tell us that anger can be avoided by utilizing our own awareness. If we carefully watch the incoming Pain and Self-Preservation atoms, we can prevent them from combining in the first place. This requires self-discipline, practice and a strong commitment in order to be effective. If you, like me, aren't quite there yet, I'm suggesting that there is another alternative that is also difficult, but can be used "after the fact". This isn't a replacement for preventative measures (which are probably preferable... like in medicine.) But I think it can be used when I'm feeling a wellspring of anger and having difficulty remaining collected in a tough situation.

I think that we feel that swell of anger as an onrushing tidal wave... and we are overwhelmed. Anger, like water, threatens to drown us. But it should be remembered that anger, like water, is made up of component atoms. And one key restoring inner peace is to transform anger (rather than release or repress it.) Transforming the anger requires that we change the way we perceive it. Instead of feeling a rush of water, we have to recognize a rush of hydrogen and oxygen. Instead of feeling a flood of anger, we have to recognize a flood of Pain and Self-Preservation instincts. Armed with the knowledge of Anger's atomic formula, we can dissolve the covalent bonds that create the anger reaction. Instead of being swept way by a torrent, we can unlock the bonded ingredients and just feel a surge of co-occurring pain and a need to protect ourselves. These two feelings are far less dangerous than their combined product. When we express that we are hurt, we rarely enrage the people around us. When we express that we feel a need to protect ourselves, we almost never make a rotten situation worse.

There is a price involved in this task however. I think it can be easier to feel anger than it is to feel pain. Actually feeling our pain hurts us, whereas anger seeks to hurt others instead. Anger takes revenge, anger slakes a thirst, anger is righteous, and anger feels good. It takes a great deal of self-restraint to stop yourself from acting on anger. And once you've stopped yourself, many people feel paralyzed. Some people need to walk it off (avoidance) and some people decide to kick and scream about it. But in that moment of paralysis, I think we have an opportunity: An opportunity to name the anger for what it is. If we name the component pieces and truly recognize the pain we feel, and the need to protect ourselves... the anger can be transformed... Just as water can be transformed into oxygen and hydrogen gas using a simple battery.

So (extending the metaphor,) what is the battery? What is the source of power that breaks the covalent bonds of Pain and Self-Preservation? I don't think it's anything mystical or difficult. I think it's just a desire to deal with the component parts rather than the combined reaction... I think it comes naturally if you want it to. If you are willing to try it, to use patience, and let yourself feel some pain, maybe even cry about it... I think it works without any magic battery. Maybe there is an energy, but it is created by our own hearts and minds trying to create a more peaceful and forgiving world.

(PS... I'm a social worker, not a chemist, so I apologize if I oversimplified or misrepresented any hard science for the purpose of this piece.)


Friday, July 27, 2007

Weekly Ponder


1. Men and women who exist in relationships have a tendency to provoke anxiety, anger, insecurity, hurt feelings, etc. in each other.

2. All people have unique methods of dealing with/expressing those emotions. There may be some gender-based commonalities however. For example, men seem to gravitate toward fight or flight responses (i.e. blow up at the person or run away from the situation.)

3. Men are much more likely to commit acts of domestic violence (for a variety of reasons including socialization, access to power, relative physical strength, capacity for physical violence, desire to be "in control" of situations, etc.)

4. As a reasonable and responsible man, I don't ever want to commit acts of violence (domestic or otherwise.) Therefore, I push myself to exorcise my anger and frustration in non-violent ways.

5. I have recently learned that an act of avoidance (e.g. running away from a potential fight) is perceived by some as an act of violence! I have justified "flight behavior" in the past because it seemed intuitively that neither party can be hurt by it. However, that relies on my sense that we are individuals with inalienable responsibility for own self-care. If I instead viewed our human relationships as more important entities than our individual selves... it leads me to the conclusion that avoidance can be a violent act toward those relationship bonds.

If this is true, what is the appropriate method for expressing/exercising anger as a man? Do we just choose the lesser of evils? Do we indulge our pent-up anger, but attempt to do so in prearranged, sanctioned ways? What do you, the Stave It Off readership, do?

Late Update:
I realize that step 5 is where I lose most people. It is a very unintuitive leap... and I'm not sure I agree with it completely myself. It's requires you to consider the possibility that the bonds of a relationship have a value that is equal to our own sense of self (ego definition.) And that is a radical position to take. Most of the people I know would never devalue their sense of self enough to take this position seriously. And it's okay if that's how you feel... you can still contribute an answer to the question.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

World Record

I believe I set a modern-day world record this morning. While still managing to get to work on time, I hit the snooze button nine (9!!) times between the hours of 7:00 am and 8:30 am. That rocks and you know it. Don't even try to deny me on this one. Y'all are probably sitting at work today (or else your unemployed asses are sitting on the couch) thinking... "Man, I wish I could have hit snooze nine times this morning. I only got two lousy snoozes." Well... all I can say is, sucks to be you.

Also: over in the Audio Snack Bar: Brook Benton's Rainy Night in Georgia.
Great Song or Greatest Song Ever?


Monday, July 23, 2007

Homemade High School Reunion

I spent Saturday night sitting around a table with Andres, Mark, and my father. I made lasagna, garlic bread and salad, and we drank some of Mark's homebrewed ESB. Olaiya and Cher cleared out after dinner and left us boys to sit around and bullshit.

One of my mother's favorite reminiscences involves how all my friends learned how to "be men" by sitting around our dining room table with my dad, playing poker and staying up as late as we could. A better writer would remember (or invent) some examples of the very important kinds of things we talked about, or how we learned about human behavior and our own character through the rituals of the poker table. And that stuff is probably even true.

But for Saturday night, it was enough to be in the company of those guys... to laugh about events long past and present day. And it was good to hear my dad joking with Mark about homemade napalm and ammonium nitrate disasters... And with Andres about the perils of working for Micro$oft.

Bob will off soon... back to Mexico. So we probably won't have the chance to do it again, but maybe I'll have to invite some guys over for a poker game sooner rather than later. I do miss hanging in til the river on a game of hi-lo seven card stud... raising like a maniac to chase off the weak of heart... just hoping to filch half the pot by guessing which way everyone else is going.


Saturday, July 07, 2007

Summer Idylls

I pulled my guitar from out of the corner for the second time this month... this time to record a tune called Island Life. It's meant to capture that lazy Summer loungy feel. It reminds me of the music we listened to as we whiled away the days at a swanky outdoor pool called Breach Candy in Bombay, India.

Click here to hear the song.

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