I don’t get angry as often as I used to, and even when I do, I usually can think my way through it and into better thoughts. Age, effort and targeted reading have helped me keep life’s challenges in perspective. That ability was recently challenged by an unexpected tax liability.
Whenever something doesn’t go right and introduces negative disruption to our lives, as this tax bill did, the natural reaction is anger. We feel slighted, wronged – victimized. Someone or something deserves our wrath. In this case, it was the IRS and politicians who create tax structures that stifle small business owners. I don’t want to whine or bore you with the details; I’ll just say that my troubles involve pass-through businesses.
As my accountant delivered the bad news, I became aware of my physical reaction to it. I felt a chill and tingling through my arms. My breathing became slightly more shallow and quicker. My eyes narrowed. These are perfectly natural biological impulses. Like our ancestors facing a saber-toothed tiger, when we experience anger, we are subconsciously experiencing a fight-or-flight response, and our body is preparing for that action.
In this way, anger is a good thing. When something is not right, we should fix it, if we can. If our children anger us because they are misbehaving at a dinner party, we need to act on that anger and do our best to correct the situation. If someone cuts us off on the freeway, however, it’s likely that there is nothing we can do to correct that situation. Sure, we can send them a message that we are unhappy, but what does that really accomplish? If they care what we think, they probably feel bad enough already. If they don’t care, they’re likely to respond with anger, which just escalates the potential negativity of the situation.
Too often, we misplace and overuse our anger, because we forget its main purpose – to alert us to evaluate a situation for correction. Again, in the case of the misbehaving child, there is a chance for correction, but that is not true of the traffic situation. Unfortunately, because we forget anger’s main purpose, we spend way too much time being angry about things we can’t change.
Maybe our favorite team makes a mistake that costs them an important game. I’ve seen people break furniture and throw things at the television screen during football games. How does that correct the situation? I once saw a church league softball player use his bat on his car after a frustrating game. Unless he was truly working on his swing, the only thing he was accomplishing was further anger when he realized the damage he had done.
Sometimes, we’re mad, but not mad enough to do anything about the cause of our anger. In these situations that we’re unwilling to change, anger accomplishes nothing. I see this a lot with relationships. We date people who are a constant irritation to us, but instead of finding a new place for our affection, we continue to expose ourselves to irritation. The same can be said of people who get angry at the weather. Throughout this past long Nebraska winter, I heard people declare, “This weather ticks me off,” and various less delicate phrases. Since the only way to change the weather is to move to a more agreeable climate, if you are unwilling to do that, you should probably just button up and shut up.
As absurd as most causes of anger is the justification we often use with its expression – I just needed to vent, to get it out. This is three-year-old, I-need-a-nap behavior. Because we’re unhappy, we need to negatively affect the environment around us. I once heard a colleague describe a perpetually angry manager we shared as a “fart in an elevator.” Don’t be that guy.
I had to remind myself of all of this as I faced the reality of my tax situation. My anger had alerted me to evaluate a situation for improvement. Since I cannot change tax law to improve my situation, and I’m unwilling to work as a W2 employee, acceptance trumped anger. And, since I don’t want to have the same social effect on my environment as flatulence, I reached for my checkbook and prepared for the next challenge.