A boy called me a whore. He couldn’t have been older than 15. The reason: I brushed against the side-mirror of the scooter he was riding pillion on while crossing a road peppered with potholes, and the rider had to swerve a little. The teen, with a mask strapped below his chin, gesticulated wildly and even turned back to glare at me from some distance away.
The sad thing is these kinds of incidents are quite common. It doesn’t take much for people to lose their cool and start spewing obscenities. Consumed by an underlying rage, we have never been a tolerant lot. A banal, inconsequential thing can send us over the edge. Worse, those in power have always brandished their authority by raising their voices.
I remember a traffic police yelling at my dad in Durbarmarg, Kathmandu. We had just stopped to get some ice-cream and had parked the car by the road for five minutes. I was barely seven and thought the man would harm my dad—the way he kept repeating the same thing over and over—“Will you give me your license or should I puncture the tires?”—was menacing. I still think about that incident every time I see policemen argue with the public, which is all too often. They rarely ever speak properly, grunting and huffing unnecessarily. The public, in return, doesn’t relent easily either.
The outpouring of aggression seems to get worse by the day. Political discourses drip with sarcasm and rage. Social issues have extremists fighting nasty battles complete with name-calling and rape/death threats. The online debates (if you can call them that) and comments on the Rupa Sunar-Saraswati Pradhan controversy will make you want to scoop your eyeballs out and give them a vigorous scrub. Oh, the blasphemy.
Neuroscientist R Douglas Fields, in his book ‘Why We Snap’, says we are more prone to lose it when it’s a matter of life, family, honor, our freedom, territory, resources or social justice. Stressful situations, he writes, can initiate an automatic rage response. Thanks to our evolutionary past, he adds, under the right circumstances, anyone can lash out violently. The neural circuits that helped our ancestors protect themselves and survive recognize and respond to dangers in our current environment as well.
Anger, historically, might have been necessary for survival but today, I feel, it’s more an assertion of power and our inability to accept even an iota of responsibility in any wrong. Articles on anger management and how it affects our bodies claim people are busier and thus strapped for time which predisposes them to anger when things don’t go their way. But does anger serve a purpose? Or do we worsen our situations by reacting like lunatics? Are harsh words necessary to convey a message?
I, for one, stop listening when someone’s voice goes above a certain decibel. I’m sure that’s true for most of us. Tell me something in a controlled tone and I’m receptive to what you are saying. Say the same thing, in a higher pitch and throw in a few gestures, eye roll, headshake, and the like, and, in my head, I’ve made you out to be a dumb, illogical person and switched off my senses.
That doesn’t mean I don’t fight anger with anger. But over time, I’m learning to control my emotions because all arguing with an angry person does is get me riled up. It’s a disruptive force. As clichéd as it sounds, deep breaths help. As does picturing myself with a puffy red face and saucer-sized eyes. I have used that technique a gazillion times to calm down.
My father once said being angry is like having poison and hoping the other person will die. The line might have been copied from somewhere but he was also speaking from experience. These days, he prefers to keep quiet and listen rather than retaliate in anger and further upset himself. Let it go, seems to be his mantra. It’s a stark contrast to a man whose self-righteousness never let him back down from an argument.
Apparently, research backs his claims too (though it for sure wasn’t what was on his mind when he had his Buddha moment). Studies have shown that anger can cause physiological changes that affect blood pressure, heart rate and digestion. Chronic anger has even been linked to heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems.
The problem with us these days is we are rarely, if ever, trying to make a point. The focus is largely on proving the other person wrong or belittling them. Paul Bloom, in the book ‘Against Empathy’, says we feel empathy most for those who are similar to us and not at all for those who are different, distant, or anonymous. Perhaps it’s a lack of empathy that’s the source of all the anger that fuel conflicts these days. When the Covid-19 pandemic has made it obvious that life can be fickle, gone at the blink of an eye, aren’t we better off being a little more compassionate and a lot less angry?