I heard a friend discussing a newspaper article about babies who had died, forgotten in the backseats of cars on hot days by their mothers—one who was shopping, another who went home and only realized later that her child was missing, and yet another who dropped off one child at daycare while forgetting the baby in the back seat. My friend was outraged at these mothers and kept talking punitively. She said they should be left in hot cars with their hands tied so they couldn’t open a window to experience what their children went through. She spoke with anger, wanting revenge.
I had the opposite reaction. These mothers are punished enough with the deaths of their children and the terrible realization that they were at fault. I can’t imagine living a lifetime of grieving and beating oneself up. These mothers need therapy and compassion.
So what’s the difference? Why was my friend wishing to torture these mothers? There is an impulse of revenge in most of us when we feel outraged. I admit to having felt it…when a car whizzes past me recklessly, scaring me. I hope they crash, and if they indeed do, I am glad; they had it coming. I was reminded of Charles Duhigg’s article, “Why Are We So Angry?” in the January/February 2019 issue of The Atlantic.
Hoping something bad happens to the perpetrator is responding with revenge. This kind of anger is destructive and can escalate into violent confrontations. But there is also righteous anger. Anger can send a message that something really matters. When strong beliefs are at the foundation of a strong reaction, a fruitful dialogue can ensue which acknowledges the legitimacy of the anger and hopefully leads to a resolution. A parent’s angry message means the child has crossed a line. The boss’s angry tone indicates that the job may be at risk. An angry spouse demands more attention.
Anger affects our bodies: testosterone levels increase while cortisol levels decrease, giving the angry person stress relief by the outburst. But anger can become a problem when one has trouble controlling it, causing one to say or do things regretted later. Anger can create positive consequences only if it is rarely expressed; a habitually angry person is often dismissed.
One of my favorite displays of anger was on an episode of National Geographic in which a baby chimp, whose mother refused him her breast, proceeded to have a human-like temper tantrum and then went off sulking. Anger has its place in our evolutionary scheme. It is a strong emotion that makes us feel powerful. An angry person feels righteous and can be seen as competent, more able to handle challenges. A demand made with anger is often dealt with quicker since people prefer not to escalate conflict. Anger demands to be heard now, not postponed; it can command respect, but also fear, fear of escalation and potential harm.
Anger usually doesn’t stop with one interaction; it tends to snowball. I remember an old Russian tale about a boss who yelled at his employee, who in turn came home from work and shouted at his wife, who screamed at the children, who kicked the dog, who bit the man.
Righteous anger in peaceful demonstrations is heard and demands are often recognized and dealt with. But if not acknowledged, it can become violent and vengeful. We experience a need for revenge when we believe justice will not be done or our anger will not be heard and addressed, leading to civil disobedience, walkouts, strikes, riots, or sabotage. Social media uses anger in a variety of ways: it has galvanized disenfranchised groups into positive action, but it has also permitted anger to turn into violence from one individual towards a group and from one group to another.
We are in the midst of unhealthy political processes, where anger at the opposition does not encourage discussion and compromise. If anger is seen as legitimate, demands can be met and the disturbance subsides. If, however, it is not recognized as right or fair, it is met with escalating violence. Legitimate anger can lead to compromise and resolution. Anger based on revenge can lead to disruption and violence. We can better control our individual anger, but when in the midst of an angry mob, we are caught up in the frenzy and act out in ways we would never have permitted ourselves as individuals. So we must become aware of our triggers to anger and our capacity for rational thought and thus rational behavior. Civilization is about controlling our destructive impulses and directing them into civil discourse.
Natasha Josefowitz is the author of more than 20 books. She currently resides at White Sands Retirement Community in La Jolla. Copyright © 2019. Natasha Josefowitz. All rights reserved.