“If my parents had both been bull moose, they would have locked antlers long ago and starved. Growing up in a scarred household, I often feared abandonment and prayed to die first. Fortunately, that was not to be but, conditioned by 17 years of ‘experience,’ I exulted on the train that carried me from Alexandria to Atlanta. A quarter and a half later when I flunked out of Georgia Tech’s civil engineering curriculum, I enlisted. The army’s drill sergeants were preferable to the hornets in our Virginia hive.” Skip Eisiminger
Skip the B.S.
By Skip Eisiminger
“Man with chip on shoulder is blockhead.”—Pseudo-Confucius
“[Anger is] one of the sinews of the soul . . . .”—Thomas Fuller
CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—8/12/2013—Many of us of a certain age are familiar with the twisted images: Bobby Knight throwing a chair, Billy Martin kicking dirt on the umpire’s shoes, Afghans hurling stones at a Russian jet swooping over their ridgeline, and my father’s gorgonian stare—OK, so you don’t know the last one, and perhaps it’s just as well. But having survived several stony transmutations, I think I understand a thing or two about wrath served hot or cold.
In a nutshell, here is what I know: my anger often arises from an inflated sense of myself or a deflated view of another. Sometimes I let off steam because there’s no one to stop me, but the metaphor is stupid because venting just makes me angrier. However, it is true that the narrower the tolerances, the greater the heat. Stomping away from the source, not on it, therefore, cools the brain. Pulling garden weeds also helps: it forces me out of the house where anger usually originates and grounds the raging ions.
In most cases, anger is best suppressed because it’s savagely contagious. In 2003, my sister was traveling in the south of India with her Protestant theology professor and several other American students. The group of nine had hired a Hindu driver to take them to Mysore. On a back road in a predominantly Hindu area, they came upon a train of Muslims following a draped body on an ox cart. Rather than slowing and waiting for the procession to pass, the driver mashed his horn and elbowed his van through the mostly elderly mourners, knocking a few in a muddy ditch. The Muslims responded by striking the vehicle with their fists and shouting obscenities. When the students’ displeasure with their driver had subsided, the professor calmly said, “Anger’s storm may douse the lamp of reason, and that will be on the test.”
But as Thomas Randolph suggested almost 400 years ago, anger can be “a whetstone” on which to steel one’s courage and determination. However, if the sword is pressed too long or hard on the wheel, the temper may be lost.
That was not the case in the quarter-finals of soccer’s 2011 Women’s World Cup. The American captain used palpable anger over a referee’s bad call to motivate her team though they were one player short and a goal down. In the game’s waning seconds, the American left wing sent the ball arcing 40 yards over several Brazilian defenders squarely to the captain’s forehead who buried the ball in the goal mouth. Missing that call was the best thing the Australian official could have done to aid the American cause.
It’s been observed that the equal-rights and civil-rights movements were two instances of collecting millennia of futile anger and channeling it into something productive. Gay and lesbian Americans are doing much the same to gain their long-denied rights to adopt children and marry. It’s a slow process, but it’s essentially what Georg Hegel was recommending when he wrote of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” in a different context.
Take a woman’s right to an abortion: if the Left’s “abortion on demand” is more than the center is willing to accept, and no abortion under any circumstances is what the Right desires, perhaps the center can be convinced to terminate pregnancies in cases of rape or incest. It’s a case of two steps forward and one back, a progressive synthesis.
I mentioned my father at the start of this rant, but Mother deserves equal billing: put it this way, if they had both been bull moose, they would have locked antlers long ago and starved. Growing up in a scarred household, I often feared abandonment and prayed to die first. Fortunately, that was not to be but, conditioned by 17 years of “experience,” I exulted on the train that carried me from Alexandria to Atlanta. A quarter and a half later, when I flunked out of Georgia Tech’s civil engineering curriculum, I enlisted. The army’s drill sergeants were preferable to the hornets in our Virginia hive.
When I returned from Germany four years later, I had a good cut woman in my corner—my wife. In the meanwhile, neither parent had mastered the mute or moot buttons. Dad’s igneous stare had softened somewhat, but Mother’s tongue still snapped like a wet towel on her husband’s bare buttocks.
One night, in front of my puzzled and frightened bride, Mother reignited her anger over being left behind with me when I was three. But Dad’s orders for the war in Germany had been cut, and he wanted to see his brother in California for perhaps the last time. He had already said good-bye to Mother, me, and the rest of his family, so he hitch-hiked from airport to airport across the country to California. Along the way, he and his Civil Air Patrol pilot made a forced landing in the Sonoran Desert. Had Mother been along, the threesome most certainly would have died. As it was, the twosome lopped off the arm of a saguaro on their take-off once the carburetor had thawed.
Mother knew all that, but she had distilled her wormwood for fully 60 years, and I do believe she found it intoxicating even as it was blinding. Without the fights, Mother and Dad would have died of boredom. She gave him a piece of her mind almost every day, and by the end, there was very little left.
So what have I learned about marital quarreling over five decades?
Like the Roman aide whose job was to remind the emperor that he might be mortal, I have to remind myself that I might be wrong. Frequently that’s what I discover as I paraphrase my spouse’s position. Too often I have found myself like one of the blind men fighting over the binoculars. But if I’m convinced of the position I’ve taken, I’ll concede the petty stuff while avoiding the ad feminems. These concessions might be followed by a sentence beginning, “Yes, but . . . .” Defensive though conciliatory, it’s a step toward a ceasefire. It also helps to ask, “Am I trying to notch a win or locate the truth?” Before collapsing from exhaustion, I often suggest a stroll. That avoids uncomfortable eye contact while we’re shuffling along in the same direction. Tossing a Frisbee is also helpful.
Note: The image used to illustrate this column derives from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Angry_man.jpg.