May 30, 2007

An Experiment in Anger: First Results

Driving along for several miles this morning on neighborhood streets and a highway, I willed myself to fall into a bygone pattern of irritability and find reasons to be angry at other drivers. It was amazingly easy, a reflex that had gone into retirement but was ready to re-emerge; and soon it became an exaggeration, a parody, of the old behavior. I found that I could get angry at literally everything. Another car passing me, a driver talking on the phone in the car behind me, even a totally innocent pickup truck waiting at a stop sign. I could even become angry, with the same effortlessness, when something I approved of happened; for instance, when I joined the shorter of two lanes waiting at a red light, I was irritated at the ineptitude of the drivers on the long line. I wasn’t yelling. I was quietly cursing, making an effort to keep up a string of profanity for the experiment’s sake (and only I could hear it, of course). I brought up the bitter words with a feeling almost like nostalgia: So this is what it used to be like!

I felt as if I had overlaid a filter of irrationality upon every aspect of my experience. I knew I could undo it in the blink of an eye, and it grieved me to think that there are many people who go through their lives wearing this filter, their minds poisoned by thoughts they learned so long ago they don’t realize they’re unnecessary. (I want to make clear that my former behavior and worldview were not this unhealthy; what I achieved today was a distillation of one mode of feeling. I was repeating over and over, in every moment, a feeling I would only have had intermittently in real life.)

I tried to sense, inside myself, how authentic these feelings of irritable anger were, and to my relief I sensed that I had to work at them; they were an act, though a convincing one based in remembered experience.

Driving home in the other direction, it was the easiest thing in the world to drop the angry pose and to feel once again the calm and optimism that has dominated my state of mind lately. The angry state of those few miles seemed ridiculous, valueless, artificial, alien, and obsolete. I couldn’t imagine why I would want to feel that way.