The Philosophy of Anger – Your House is Burning

“The essence of good is a certain kind of reasoned choice; just as the essence of evil is another kind. What about externals, then? They are only the raw material for our reasoned choice, which finds its own good or evil in working with them. How will it find the good? Not by marvelling at the material! For if judgements about the material are straight that makes our choices good, but if those judgments are twisted, our choices turn bad.” – Epictetus

If we start our day by stubbing our toes, we subconsciously make one of two decisions.

One – We decide today will be horrible, based on the fact we’ve erred before even leaving our bedroom – and we’re right to think so.

Two – We decide to allow our anger to fade away with the physical discomfort and make a note to be more cautious going forward – and we’re right to think so.

Whichever way we chose to deal with that moment of anger can’t be wrong because both are reactions to a sudden event based on who we are as people. Anger is an external factor in this context. It was not triggered by you – you are the recipient of it. Reactions at the moment are justified based on what’s come to be normal over time.

Let’s reframe external anger to the perspective of something material – removing the abstract of psychological context in exchange for a physically relatable one – eliminating emotional filtering.

Suppose anger can be represented as your house is on fire. You are safe on your front lawn, watching the blaze. You may or may not have started the fire but it doesn’t matter. What matters is what’s in front of you. Your mind is racing with how to feel about the situation or what to do. By now you realize it is not much you can do. The house is doomed, and no amount of water will save it.

Now suppose you again have two options.

One – you decide to let the anger swell up in you, and you pick up a piece of wood off the ground and toss it into the fire just for the sake of taking some part of what has happened into your own hand. Because you realize it won’t make any difference other than making you feel a little better by willingly participating in the result.

Two – You can surrender to the event, sit on the lawn and watch the blaze burn itself out. You still feel angry, but you know acting on that anger will change nothing.

Which of these is the better option? On one hand, the first at least makes you a willing part of the fate of the house by allowing your anger to express itself in throwing the wood onto the blaze. On the other hand, you are still angry, and you decide to sit on the lawn, realizing you are unable to change the outcome.

The better of these two options may seem obvious, but the reasoning may not be what you expect.

If we act out our anger in a small and relatively insignificant way like throwing a piece of wood into an already burning building, we think that it won’t make a difference. The flames have all the fuel they need to burn the house down and there is no stopping them. What difference could one piece of wood make?

But that rationality is flawed. It does make a difference, even if we fail to see it with our eyes.

If we give in to the anger and throw it at the building in the form of that small piece of wood we’ll feel more in control, but in the time it took us to throw the wood we’ve just added fuel to the anger that is the burning building. It’s not the equivalent of the time it took to throw, but of the amount of burning energy the wood itself contained. In effect, we’ve added time to the blaze several times greater than the few seconds it took to throw in order to satisfy our need to have some level of control over the blaze of external anger.

This metaphor can be used in any situation in life involving anger. The burning house could be our boss, a co-worker, or even ourselves. We may not have a great degree of control over where it comes from, or when. But we do have the ability to make the choice of stepping back and observing what cannot be changed, even if we feel angry – or we can throw the piece of wood into the flames, believing it doesn’t matter in the end.

The choice, as well as the consequences of them, are ours to make, then endure.

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