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Robert Jaffe

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Is the exteriorisation of angry feelings a good thing or a bad thing?

Years ago there was a fashion that advocated getting angry when you felt angry. It was thought at the time that it was better for the angry person to show and demonstrate their anger than to repress it. Now psychologists have changed their minds and reversed their position. It's now believed by almost all professionals that getting angry when you feel angry makes things much, much worse, both for the person feeling angry and for those around him or her. This issue is related not only to violence, but also to current political polarization. What do you think? What do you feel is the proper way to deal with angry feelings?

Topics: violence

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    May 23 2011: Robert,

    Engaged action is, in my mind, a powerful antidote to angry rhetoric.

    Many believe the Dalai Lama's wisdom is entirely derived from his meditative detachment from anger. I believe it is also derived from his redirection of energy to his cause for peace. Rather than raging against injustice, His Holiness converts his passions by engaging them in constructive actions, such as speaking and writing.

    Bill Ury's observations of large peaceful mediations and transformations achieved by physical movement of, and sometimes between, angry or alienated parties are exceedingly powerful. They transcend emotional or expressive benefits of talk-, rage or pound the punching bag (or gavel) methods with the simple (but elegant) outlet of shared action, something akin to co-physical anger assuagement via energy redirection.

    My personal favorite stories about how this works are from my local basketball court, where a cross-section of citizens that nearly mirrors the United Nations is often fighting for space -- if not working off the angers and injustices of life.

    I must admit, my understandings emerged initially due to my frustrations tripping over all ages of mostly boys and men, while other females opted out of the chaos.

    But I began observing magic in action. I witnessed Somalians playing with Christian pastors, the able-bodied seeing how good the disabled play, college-class super-jocks showing clumsy kids how to improve, Bosnian, Ethiopian, Asian and other immigrants teaming up with blacks and whites who aren't. With only occasional fleeting altercations when excitements peak.

    And yes, now more girls and women play, too. Relational changes are abetted by court-side conversations, during which casual talk opens eyes and minds to the "Other."

    My frustrated passions were delightfully transformed months ago: A Muslim girl in hajib, dress and tattered patent-leather dress shoes challenged me to a half-court shooting contest. (Yes, she won.)

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      May 24 2011: Hello, Andrea. Wish I had access to your magical basketball court. What a great idea. I read your post carefully and thought about what you say. I would think that the Dalai Lama has long since entirely mastered his own capacity to become angered, and may well have done so in the manner you describe - by redirecting energies that might otherwise have fostered anger into much more constructive endeavors. But by now that must be a habit for him. And of course, for you and I and others here, that's something we'd all like to do, a personal goal. And many of us will make progress in that way and ultimately attain some degree of success. But what about all the angry people around us, whom we have to work with, when we don't have a magical basketball court available? How do we get them to comprehend even a portion of the advantages that accrue from changing into a non-angry person? To feel their way into the betterness of a non-angry life? I would tend to think that in order to accomplish something like that we do have to be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat, so to speak, to demonstrate to them in short order - through a small, on-the-spot, highly limited transformation of a tiny aspect of their anger into a (to them) obviously useful and pleasant "different state" related directly to a solution of the conflict in which they find themselves at the moment we meet them. Which we could then use to get them thinking seriously about long-term change. I have no magic solutions, but better minds than mine, such as Bill Ury and others, have been mulling this over for quite some time. Sooner or later I do believe we'll get somewhere.
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        May 24 2011: Hi Robert,

        To build on your thoughts re: Dalai Lama mastering the art of redirecting energies, I think we can, too with practice. Perhaps similar to the suggestion Bill Ury made in his closing comments in his “From No to Yes” talk: that the audience start by reaching out to someone different. A first step to experience the magic he observes in his global work and I observe on my local BB court.

        While redirecting our energies, we can also model the practice of it to others who might be observing.

        I think of young men at my Y who were once pretty brutal. At one point they targeted me, throwing footballs at me. (More on that: http://bit.ly/mMdfTx) They've mellowed.

        Still, I noticed a new player harass a young woman who works at the Y, demanding a quarter. His comments sexually aggressive.

        My impulse was to call him out. Which I did, pulling my “woman” than my “mom” card out in my on-the-spot attempt to pull a rabbit out of the hat. The full magical effect didn't take in the moment. But it did distract him and a friend with him.

        His friend, stunned (or scared) by this mom-figure going toe-to-toe with his bully buddy, told the bully to back down.

        As I reflected about how I could have been more effective, I tried to construe a "positive agitation,” similar to what I've used in work. I try to quickly engage people, but NOT via offending, humiliating or gas-lighting.

        The next time I went to the Y I brought two quarters. I was in the middle of a busy court when I saw him and called him over. He looked befuddled, but came. I pitched the quarters to him, telling him in a friendly but firm voice to use them to stop harassing. I haven’t seen him bother anyone since.

        I don’t know how long his attitude will hold, but it’s something. And, if nothing else, gave me a chance to practice transforming my own anger by engaging in an effort to elicit pro-social change while accessing something of a "double-dose" of exercise-induced endorphins.


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