Two lives were irrevocably changed earlier this month during a soccer game played in an ordinary recreational league. A forty-six year old referee was punched in the head by a seventeen year old player after the referee called a foul on him. A decent man is dead, and the teenager may spend many years in jail with violent criminals.
Something basic is missing in our upbringing and in our education. We do not understand a basic truth: we do not have to treat seriously every thought that arises. The teenage soccer player had an angry outburst, probably not his first outburst, but no one ever taught him that he could choose to ignore his own angry thinking.
Family members of the dead referee “called on athletes around the world … to hold their tempers in check so another family doesn’t have to suffer.” Anyone who has ever driven in rush hour traffic, watched a sporting event, or had an argument knows that tempers are often not held in check. Tempers flare, and to us it seems that external circumstances are the cause of the outbursts.
Who among us has not experienced anger? Most of us stop short of violence, but we can’t say we are always proud of the ways we react. Holding our tempers in check isn’t a leveraged way to deal with angry thoughts—soon or later the pot boils over. Suppose there is a way to turn off the flame on the stove.
Holding tempers in check is a strategy that is based upon the belief that angry reactions are normal in human beings. While they may be common, they are not normal. Human beings fly into an angry state when they misunderstand the nature of where their feelings comes from.
Allow me to share a recent personal example.
I average about 60 flights a year; and because I fly frequently, I choose to “opt-out” at the airport TSA security lines. That means instead of passing through scanners of dubious safety, I experience a thorough pat-down. Sometimes a thorough pat-down becomes an aggressive pat-down. Last week I had an aggressive pat-down. First the TSA agent asked me to bend my head (no, I was not taller than he was). Next he asked me to spread my legs farther apart as he crudely “patted” me. At several points, it appeared to me that the TSA agent escalated his aggression against me. I felt anger welling up.
If the only tool at my disposal was to hold my temper in check, I might’ve lost it. I might’ve refused to cooperate any further and asked to speak to his supervisor. Most people would understand if I told them I became angrier each time the agent became more aggressive. But I did not become angrier, and not because I’m saintly (far from it). I wish I could tell you that I was thinking compassionate thoughts about the TSA agent, but I wasn’t.
Instead, what happened was something like this. Each time an angry thought arose, I understood that the anger was rising inside me—due to my thinking. My angry feelings were not being caused by the TSA agent. Because I understood this, each time an angry thought arose it vanished almost as quickly as it appeared. I didn’t follow each angry thought with a string of angry justifications. The whole process required no effort on my part. It was as though understanding made the choice for me.
In other words, there is a difference between thinking “I am angry” and thinking “I am angry because I am being treated badly by a thuggish man.” Unencumbered by a story, the former thought passes quickly; the latter thought with its story escalates quickly.
I want you to follow along with this a little bit more because I’m making an important distinction. I was not happy about the aggressive pat-down, but I didn’t grit my teeth and control my anger either. Again, had I tried to keep my anger in check, I may have lost the battle. Instead of controlling my anger, I understood that my anger was being brought to me via my thinking; my anger was not being caused by the TSA agent. This understanding made all the difference.
In my experience, controlling emotions doesn’t work. Our thinking is always causing our emotions; understanding this truth provides the freedom to make better choices.
If I am making it sound easy, well, it is easy—until we are in the grip of our thinking. In the grip of our thinking we are certain that our emotions are generated by the circumstances we are in. That’s when we behave in ways that range from embarrassing to dangerous.
Michael Neill asks and then answers a metaphorical question: “Do you need to practice not stepping on the accelerator of your car if you’d like to slow down? Not really—because as soon as you notice that you’re the one stepping on the accelerator, you can stop any time you like.”
When we choose to allow anger to flare up, we are simply and stubbornly claiming that our thinking is being hijacked by external circumstances. It’s like claiming our foot is not on the accelerator.
The antidote for letting our anger getting the best of us is not holding our temper in check—efforts to control our anger will fail us at critical times. Instead, with surprisingly little effort, freedom of choice comes from understanding that we are never upset for the reason we think.