"In peace there's nothing so becomes a man,

As modest stillness and humility;

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger:

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;

Now set the teeth, and stretch the nostril wide,

Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit

To his full height! On, on, you noblest English."

Henry V. Act III,  Scene 1.

Anger is a symptom of unhappiness. The Buddha noted, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Anger can span from frustration to rage and usually implies an unfulfilled expectation or need. Anger carries with it a desire for harm or revenge. Suppressed or unexpressed anger is a great accelerator of aging. As we mentioned earlier it is like driving down the interstate with one foot slammed down on the gas and the other foot pushing on the brake. You may be traveling close to the speed limit but everything is working at cross purposes. Unexpressed anger can be turned inward and cause physiological problems such as hypertension, sleep disturbance and heart disease and psychological problems such as passive-aggressive tendencies (indirectly getting back at others) and depression.

According to legend, two monks were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. Coming around the bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection. "Come on, girl," said the first monk. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud. The second monk did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. "We monks don't go near females," he said. "It is dangerous. Why did you do that?" "I left the girl there," the first monk said. "Are you still carrying her?"

Generally our choices for dealing with anger amount to expressing the anger or redirecting and re-channeling the energy it has aroused. If we can honestly express our feelings of anger in a manner that is both assertive and respectful, then the negative energy can dissipate. Another approach is to modify the response to an anger-provoking stimulus. Since anger is a form of emotional reflex we need to recognize our need to turn it into a deliberate and thoughtful response rather than a destructive reaction. Mark Twain wrote in Pudd’nhead Wilson, “When angry, count four; when very angry, swear.” Taking several slow deep breaths and using calming imagery or phrases can help. The goal is to avoid putting negative emotions into action.

Another antidote to anger is patience. Going back to the ancient formula that angry frustration is expectations divided by reality, we can appreciate that most of our emotional problems and negative emotions stem from our inability to accept things the way they are. In other words, we will never have all our expectations fully met and we need constructive ways to address these disappointments. Patience is the ability to fully and openly accept whatever happens. The legendary U.C.L.A. basketball coach John Wooden noted that “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.” Most problems are inside our head and cultivating patience opens the door to understanding and a heart of compassion. As the 8th century Buddhist scholar Shantideva says in “The Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life” which is sometimes called “Entering the Path of Enlightenment:”

If something can be remedied
Why be unhappy about it?
And if there is no remedy for it,
There is still no point in being unhappy.

This approach does not imply weakness or passive inactivity. It means that we consciously address what we can remedy rather than reacting blindly through a rage of uncontrolled emotions. 

You are reading

The Art and Science of Aging Well

How Our Bodies Age, Part 4

Changes occur in our kidneys and blood. What difference does all this make?

How Our Bodies Age (Part 3)

What changes in our nervous system occur as we get older?

How Our Body Ages, Part 2

How do our hearts, lungs, and gut normally age?