10 Eternal Truths About Anger, and How to Overcome It

I’ve accrued these 10 pearls of wisdom on the subject of anger from great or inspired minds during a decade of clinical work, writing, and lecturing on the topic, and offer them here for your considered perusal.

Think of them as “furnishings of the mind.” Those that resonate, I’d advise you to commit to memory, stick them on the fridge, sing them in the shower, teach them to your kids, or sanctimoniously quote them at the water cooler. Those that don’t, I’d advise you read again, more closely.

1. “Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry, for anger dwells in the bosom of fools.” — Ecclesiastes 7:9

This is sometimes attributed to Einstein, but was in fact authored more than 2000 years before his time by no less than Solomon the Wise, who, if you believe, was inspired by God. In any case, the quote is bold and true: Angry judgments are foolish, aggression is foolhardy, revenge is folly, and an angry errand is a fool’s errand. But hang on, iseveryone in whose bosom anger dwells a fool? Wouldn’t that make us all fools? Benjamin Franklin clarifies this somewhat:

2. “He is a fool who cannot be angry; but he is a wise man who will not.” — Benjamin Franklin

Ignorance is an empty cure for anger: You cannot be angry if you don’t understand the insult, never discover the betrayal, or simply aren’t aware of the social norm a person breached, but only because you are a fool. On the other hand, if you are well aware of a transgression, yet instead of becoming angry simply accept or fix it, forgive it, work around it, or merely find it amusing, surely you have the better part of wisdom. A mother who doesn’t notice her son stealing the extra cookie has been duped; if she sees nothing wrong with it, she is soft. The wise mother calmly turns the page of her newspaper, rolls her eyes, and says, “Put it back.”

3. “There are two things a person should never get angry at, what they can help and what they cannot.” — Plato

Perhaps Plato might have saved words if he had just said, “don’t get angry at anything,” but his serenity creed suggests a neat little decision tree: If what you’re angry about can be fixed, then fix it; if it cannot, then don’t waste energy on it. Ever the idealist, Plato exorcises the morality from anger, and reframes it as ineffectual problem-solving. This misses the point somewhat, from the angry person’s perspective: The angry truck driver knows that the existence of bad driving cannot be helped; he knows that the particular instance of bad driving he had to swerve around cannot be helped; but he will honk his horn just the same. He is protesting, not problem-solving. Plato’s aphorism shows this for what it is.

4. “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.”— Marcus Aurelius

How many times do I hear the same thing from couples? “It started over the silliest thing.”The consequences of anger often so far outgrow their relatively humble origins that the original disagreement becomes almost a moot point. How many duels have been fought for the roll of an eye, how many wars for an insult? “An eye for an eye,” believe it or not, was actually a humanitarian reform at the time, because the human universal is to return injury with interest (and then some). Anger is a biological doomsday machine and its consequences are designed to be more grievous than its causes. But so are the other guy’s. And therein lies the problem.

5. “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.” — Ancient Chinese Proverb

A beautiful image. Doing some small thing, anything, is better than simply whining and complaining, and this idea is neatly conveyed. But the image also hints at the ignorance of the angry (who are “in the dark”); the futility of getting angry (cursing does not “illuminate” the situation); and the irrationality of anger (it makes no sense to reprimand the darkness). The candle image is a happy contrast, and brings to mind the old Buddhist saying, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle without diminishing its life:Happiness is not diminished by being shared.”

6. “Keep cool; anger is not an argument.” — Daniel Webster

Au contraire. The “appeal to spite” is a logical fallacy with its own Wikipedia entry. Leonardo da Vinci remarked that “where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge.” The same applies today to the use of capitals and exclamation marks in text messages. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher, astutely observed that, “in any controversy, the instant we feel angry, we have already ceased striving for Truth, and begun striving for Ourselves.” The bottom line, according to Desmond Tutu: “Don’t raise your voice; improve your argument.”

7. “He who angers you conquers you.” — Elizabeth Kenny

This is nowhere better encapsulated than in Mohammad Ali’s famous rope-a-dope against George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” title fight. It is well known that he tired out his heavier opponent; it is less well known that he deliberately taunted him: “Is that all ya got? You have no punch. You can’t hit. You’re swinging like a sissy. You’re missing. Let me see ya box!” He was baiting the bear. Foreman, infuriated, continued to swing big taxing punches to the point of exhaustion and eventually became little more than a punching bag for the ever-ready Ali.

In my own life, at a smaller scale, I recall an incident in the 8th grade when we were shown a documentary on the planets during class. Breaking the monotonous narrative, a voice cried out, “Sir, is that Uranus?” I’m convinced that had the teacher merely rolled his eyes and said, “Very original…” or something of the sort, the boy would have felt embarrassed and piped down. But instead, the teacher fell into a rage, turning tomato red and dragging the boy out of the room by his collar. The teacher had been baited. Whatever punishment that kid received for his irreverence, it was surely worth it, for that teacher had revealed a weakness in our eyes that he would never quite live down.

8. “Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.”Hanlon’s Razor

Is the towel my husband left on the bathroom floor a sign of disrespect or merely of sloppiness? Did my friend from high school deliberately snub me, or just fail to recognize me? Was I short-changed because the sales clerk tried to swindle me, or because he’s bad at math? Did my tennis partner intentionally cheat on the line call or genuinely get it wrong? Malice assumes a more troubling motive; when in doubt, assume incompetence. But keep notes.

9. “Just remember: there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything, and the wrong way is to keep trying to make everyone else do it the right way.” — Colonel Potter, M*A*S*H

Micromanagers, control freaks, perfectionists, and dictators, take note! The colonel evades the question of how one arbitrates on right and wrong in the first place. But George Carlin asks a humorous but poignant question in this regard:

10. “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” — George Carlin

Of course the idiot in question thinks you’re the maniac, and the maniac thinks you’re the idiot. Man (or woman) is the measure of all things. Anger is self-righteous. Angry individuals think they know the right way to do everything and drive everyone else mad in the process. The cure for self-righteousness? A good dose of philosophy, anthropology, and travel. (Oh, and read The Anger Fallacy(link is external).)