Monday, June 27, 2016

The shoulds that drive our anger

In the last week or so I've had a couple of opportunities to observe anger -- from a relatively safe distance, but obvious nonetheless.

I'm not talking about what we're seeing on the political front these days; I'm just observing fairly normal human interactions (not that they're not tainted by what's happening on the political front, but that's a chicken and egg problem I don't want to go into here.)

The first anger I observed was my own (whenever you're pointing fingers, it's always good to start with yourself, right?): As I've probably mentioned here before, we have an elderly blind diabetic dog in our household. 

This dog, Nemo, was quite adorable as a puppy, and is still pretty easy on the eyes: he's a Polish Sheepdog, white and fluffy, slightly bigger than a Springer Spaniel, a little smaller than an Australian Shepherd.  But he's always been an extremely stubborn dog, and he's never really exhibited the sort of unconditional love that most of us have come to expect from our canine friends. 

Now that he's also gone almost completely deaf he's quite difficult to live with.  He's extremely obstinate, and doesn't trust us to guide him anywhere, even though we're trying to help him find his food, find doors, and save him the inevitable bumps when he runs into things. So the other day we had contractors in the house and we were trying to go outside without letting the dog out, and I pushed him aside with my foot.  And the contractor said, "Don't kick your dog!"

He said it with a laugh -- he could see it wasn't a real kick -- but the observation stung: I don't like to think of myself as someone who kicks dogs.  And I was forced to face the fact that far from being tender with this poor aging helpless creature I am mostly just frustrated by all the constraints he puts on my life.

Around the same time I was in rehearsals for a play, and I saw frequent instances in which the director vented his anger on the actors, something I'd never encountered before on a stage set, and when he later explained the stuff in his private life that was raising his stress levels, it didn't seem to be a particularly convincing justification.

But something I read this morning made me look at both instances again, and what I realized was that the real driving force behind both instances, mine and his, was an unacknowledged should.  In my case, the should takes this sort of shape: I see myself as a kind and loving person, and I've always loved dogs, and dogs have always loved me, and why is it that I have never won the love of this dog, and never been able to control him without occasionally having to forcibly yank or drag him? I should have been better at loving/controlling/managing/acquiring this dog: he exposes my failures as a dog-owner.

For the director, without addressing the stresses in his world outside the stage, I suspect the issues were similar: I'm good at directing, I've always gotten along well with actors, I'm good at polishing up plays, why is it this play isn't coming together smoothly, why can't they just shut up and listen, why is it I didn't catch those flaws in the script myself?  I should have been better at writing/correcting/organizing/casting this whole process: they're exposing my failures as a playwright/director.

So my thought for today is this: behind every rush of anger, there's the hard spike of a should: some expectation we have of ourselves -- not of others -- that we should be better at whatever it is we're doing. Over the years in my life I think parenting has most often been the thing I thought I should have been better at, but there are lots of other triggers in the world.  At any rate, I think that if we can figure out what that should is, accept our own sense of failure and forgive ourselves -- we are, after all, most of us, doing the best we can with what we know -- we'll find the anger dissipates quite quickly.  But we'll see: the proof is in the practice.

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