Friday, June 18, 2010

Change Lives: Control Your Anger

Flashing Red Lights and Cars Askew In My Bike Lane: Instant Visceral Reaction

If someone maintains a calm rationality from the moment another person offends them until after the offender has moved on, and continues to maintain that calm in the aftermath, I would say that person has control over their anger in a very powerful way. If, on the other hand, a person decides to try to control their anger after being offended, but relinquishes that control when the other person flies off the handle, I would say that person does not have control over their anger. 

If someone gives you the finger and you give them one back, you're both on the same level, and it doesn't really matter if one of you is driving a gold-plated Humvee with spinner rims and the other is on a vintage Italian road bike. He did it first, he's bigger than me, he started it, he's...whatever, those are all excuses for why you let your anger rule the exchange.

I expect people I meet to be human: sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes angry, lonely, hungry, dehydrated, occasionally whacko nutballs. To expect any different is to live in a dream world. I expect a few drivers to be dehydrated pissed-off nutballs. Oh look, there's today's whacko nutball. He looks a little altered, in fact. Meth? Beer? Beer and meth? That's interesting, he's just noticed me, is flashing his bright lights, is crossing the center line, honking, and heading straight toward me. Just another day in the human race on planet Earth. 

I also expect that people affect each other just by the experience of bumping into each other. Part of the unique fabric of each of those experiences is what we're riding or driving when it happens, what we're wearing, what we say, what we do, how we act, how we feel later, what we remember about the meeting. I believe strongly that in order to diminish the probability of our various potential destructive ends (war, famine, crime, pollution...) and increase the probability of our various potentially constructive mutual projects bearing fruit (cities, art, the Internet, writing, technology, music, architecture, actual fruit trees), we need to control our anger to enable the possibility that the fabric of our experiences of encountering one another may be educational, enjoyable, edifying, rich, sometimes beautiful, or interesting. 

When you enable a positive meeting like that by controlling your anger in an emotionally challenging situation, you have the potential to change lives for the better: yours, the other person's, and people who happen to be watching. And if you don't, you don't, by the way. All of your good work, all of your brilliant ideas, all of your humanitarian intent and egalitarian ways vanish in a puff of angry gray smoke when you blow your top in response to another blown top. And you've reinforced the top-blowing instinct for the next go-around. 

If your standard reaction is to flip people off, you should not be shocked when you see middle fingers all around you. If your standard reaction is to reply to anger with anger, then you can expect to inhabit an angry world.

Attention, those who reply to anger with more anger: your indignation at the angry world around you is disingenuous.

It requires true strength to manage the power of your anger. I am not always up to the task, I admit. I expect myself to be human, too. But I also hold myself to this standard: if I am sincere about doing my own small part to make things better and not make them worse, I will do everything I can to learn to control my anger, because I know that I have the potential to change lives for the better when I manage to do so.

With that in mind, I suggest to you again: when you are wronged, for example when you are cycling and the driver of a car commits a typical human error, reply to that wrong with a wave, a smile, or a kind word, maintain that posture throughout the encounter and in its aftermath. You will not have made a bad situation worse, you may have actually made it better, and you may have even changed lives for the better by controlling your anger. 

"I encountered a stupid driver, so I replied as a stupid cyclist" doesn't cut it for me anymore. In my skewed little conception of reality, it's better to control your anger and ride on happily. Perhaps one or two others will ride away from you happier than they were. Perhaps. Get up. Go ride.


  1. excellent - couldn't agree more.
    i like to think that i have it under control most of the time.
    the true test comes (and quite often as a cyclist) when your life is put at risk other people's actions...


  2. Very on target. I noticed my motorists improved noticeably when I started practicing it. About the wave, I have concluded waves are not wise if the motorist has already passed. In a rear view mirror, a friendly open-handed wave can be mistaken for a flip off. I DO wave when I am ahead (thanks for letting me in) or heading toward a motorist. I ALWAYS wave when I see my concrete guys headed my way and they almost always wave back.

  3. "And you've reinforced the top-blowing instinct for the next go-around."

    This is so very true -- and a good reminder. Thanks :) This sort of idea is something I've been trying to work on lately, because I've found that over the past few years I've let myself fall into a habit of being crabby and negative a lot.

    It's good to think of cycling as another means for feeding the good parts of the soul.

  4. placid casual - in that moment of realization that I have survived a near-miss, I like to reflect on still being alive. Only survivors have the opportunity to be angry or happy.

    Steve A - I find a vigorous side-to-side motion usually helps distinguish waving from the bird. I find that lawn guys wave back 100% of the time.

    kokorozashi - Yeah, I wanted to emphasize the instinctive part, anger as a primitive and deep-seated response evolved over millennia when we were stronger creatures living in rougher times. Cycling helps me to concentrate on setting that aside as I'm covering the miles, developing higher brain functions than "Og smash with rock/stick".

  5. Great post! Absolutely right :) even in the scariest of moments, I still think that laughing out loud releases that 'toxic' adrenaline (which would make you get off your bike and start an argument) and rises above the crazy drivers' stupidity... it makes you feel better about yourself as a human being if you can raise above anger and instead feel pity for the angry chap/lady's obtuse life eheh!

  6. naturallycyclingmanchester / LC - Thanks! I think it may require practice, in the sense of zazen or some types of martial arts (Aikido just to name one), a repeated and careful practice of overcoming the hormonal dump and hard-wired fight-or-flight, even kill-or-be-killed, response that occurs when we feel threatened or insulted. The rhythms and fresh air of cycling serve as a good setting for me for practicing that sort of control.


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