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There Is Nothing Wrong With Anger

It's what you do with it that matters.

Many years ago, before I went to medical school, I had the chance to visit New York City, a much bigger city than Boston, my hometown. I marveled at the skyscrapers and the density of noise and people. Walking down the street, I recall feeling the energy and excitement of the place. My eyes wandered for a moment and made contact with another person standing in front of a building. He was taller and more muscular than me, wearing a white tank top that seemed to purposefully display his gym-jacked arms and shoulders.

“What you looking at?” he sneered.

In the blink of an eye, my brain registered that this stranger, at whom I’d simply glanced, was threatening me. His posture looked menacing, his eyes widened and his muscles appeared to tense and ripple.

In the next blink of an eye, part of me began to feel angry. Who was this guy to say anything to me, a complete stranger? But I had other things to do rather than engage this person. I wanted to dismiss any thought in his mind that I posed a threat because I didn’t want or need a fight. And besides, I was half his size.

“Nothing,” I replied, trying to defuse what was clearly a threatening remark.

“Who you calling nothing?” he menaced. He was looking to escalate, but I wasn’t interested. Intuitively, I chose to move out of what he perceived as his territorial boundary, picked up my pace, looked away, and said no more. But the fact that this man said anything to me made me angry.

This simple exchange may sound familiar. When faced with a threat of any kind, it is human nature to either confront or run away, approach or avoid—what we commonly call “fight or flight.” In mere milliseconds, my brain registered a huge number of factors: New York City was terra incognita and I was a tourist; this man had large, tattoo-emblazoned biceps and; I had tickets for a Broadway show that night that I didn’t want to miss due to a street fight over “nothing.”

The other man’s brain was also assessing quickly that I was in fact not a threat to him, simply a curious spectator, and it was safe to magnify his angry and menacing response, “Who you calling nothing?” His words kept the distance between us, his body stance a signal to move on, and I took that option, looked away, and kept walking.

Once clear of a threat, we usually put these instances out of our minds. But I began to wonder what exactly it was that made him angry, and then what made me afraid. After all, I hadn’t yelled at him or brandished a weapon. He hadn’t actually moved one of his ferocious-looking muscles.

Then, I realized it was quite simple. It was his emotional state—his anger. His anger, more than his words, signaled instantly, “Shove off man. Your glance is not welcome here.” What had I done to elicit anger in this stranger? Somehow the way I looked at him, the movement of my body, the words I spoke, combined to influence his response.

Often, people will smile when you catch their gaze. But sometimes, for a host of reasons, some people respond from a place of anger-fueled hostility. What got them there rarely has to do directly with you, but emerges as a response to you. You just happened upon them at an inopportune moment and they reacted coolly or aggressively just because you looked them in the eye, took a parking spot they wanted, or even tried to be friendly. But when we do face these encounters, we also come to witness a great natural force, one that we all have ticking inside of us: anger.

I believe we have the ability to transform anger, once a primitive force of potential destruction and injury, into a powerful and beneficial resource. When we learn to outsmart our anger, we can unlock the infinite potential we have inside all of us. But first, we must get to know this powerhouse of an emotion. I will be exploring anger over the next few weeks.

There’s nothing wrong with anger. It’s what you do with it that matters.

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