Small Helps Modulate Anger

I’ll begin with a confession: I’m intensely reactive, both to positive and negative events. Especially to people-generated events. I become quickly ecstatic in response to the kind, thoughtful, considerate, generous act of a friend. And conversely, I can become enraged if I feel overlooked, slighted or unfairly criticized. Luckily, I express the positive responses–though the expression is toned down—and not the negative. Those enter me like torpedoes, and remain buried within, festering and fulminating for much, much too long.

Until today, I haven’t found a way to modulate this reactivity. Which is a painful admission, given my meditation and chi gong practices. It’s not that these practices don’t help. If I sit and meditate for 20 minutes, as I breathe deeply in and out, I begin to feel calmer and more centered. But 15 minutes after I stand up and go about my life again, the shrapnel begins scraping away at my insides.

Recently, however, small opened the door for a modulated response. I was hurt by a decision about Christmas my son and his wife had made: they decided that we should celebrate early, so they could go away over the holiday itself.

Ever since my son was a toddler, Christmas has been a festive and important event. At first, I’m sure for him it was all about the presents. But Christmas quickly became a time to recite “The Night Before Christmas,” to read Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” and to celebrate with family and friends.

One pre-Christmas night, I was sitting at the dinner table with my son and two granddaughters when I learned the news about their being away for Christmas. I don’t remember what I replied, but I can still feel the bullet entering. By the time I got home, I was in full wounded-rage psycho-drama: nobody cares about me, after all my devotion, how can they treat me like that? From now on, I’ll just go away for Christmas. And on and on and on.

After a good spell of this, it occurred to me that my son and his wife might have a deep reason for their decision. Her sister is quite ill, and her father and step-mother are caring for her. They won’t be able to participate in much of a Christmas celebration this year. Perhaps that is why my son and his wife have decided to go away over the holiday.

The moment this thought floated into my head, my rage quieted. It didn’t matter whether or not my explanation was valid. But somehow, this one empathic thought had calmed the emotional storm. I was still hurt. I was still disappointed. But I could deal with those gentler emotions. I no longer felt as if a major battle were being waged within me.

The next time I catch myself in one of my wounded-rage responses, I’m going to remember to think small. I’ll conjure one modulating explanation for whatever has so offended me, allowing myself to cool down the fire in my belly, and return to more rational—and generous—thinking.

In France

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