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Rage Beneficial
By Wayne Biddle
Americans hate each other. There is not only the everyday empirical evidence of wrath along interstate highways, but in the snakepits of real estate, marriage, shopping, pro wrestling, and health insurance. The workplace is of such great category in this regard that it should be acknowledged with care, lest youth once again turn away from gainful employment, as during the infamous Age of Aquarius. Anger seems nowadays just a millionth of an inch beneath every human surface, passive or aggressive, and it will bite your head off, stab you in the back, laugh in your face, leave you twisting in the wind — maybe all at once, and more.

Wayne Biddle, who serves on the faculty of Hopkins' Writing Seminars, is the author of several books and a frequent contributor to Harper's magazine. Yet we know from Aristotle, the only person who ever knew everything, that anger is sometimes excusable. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he laid out five qualifications for forgiveness: "The man who gets angry at the right things and with the right people, and also in the right way and at the right time and for the right length of time, is commended." This is a valuable reminder to keep handy in a wallet, because it never fails to assure you of the appropriateness of your rage.

It took only about 750 years after Aristotle to find an actual cure for anger. Prudentius claimed it in his allegorical verse, the Psychomachia, to be a liberal dose of patience. Prudentius may have plagiarized this nostrum from Aristotle — it was in the very next phrase of the Nicomachean Ethics, following the five easy steps — but Aristotle was not around to bite his head off. Prudentius was a lawyer and politician, writing in Latin to boot, so he was free to proceed fearlessly toward eventual acclaim as a Christian poet.

Another seven centuries or so would pass before the etymological chain coalesced that eventually delivered into American English one of the language's most durable vulgarities of onomatopoeic origin, "pissed off." Flowing out of Old French in the early Middle Ages, the verb finally joined with the adverb on soldiers' lips during World War II. Toilet-mouthed revolutionaries of the 1960s adopted it with relish, and soon even the unhip over-30 set used "P.O.'d" to express their indignations. Not quite as popular today with the younger generation, the phrase is nonetheless still viscerally satisfying to say about the right thing or the right person in the right way at the right time.

There are many similar words, known to everyone, that when yelled through gritted teeth help release frustration. The hypothalamus needs to decompress, adrenaline and cortisol must be diluted, men must lower their testosterone titer, if storms are to be followed by calms. Thus anger increases love, goes the old Italian, of course, proverb, one of the darker secrets of amore being that the two can occur simultaneously to great erotic effect.

This is by no means the only potential benefit of anger. Rationed carefully, it can fuel years of vengeance against the doinks who rise without fail to positions of power in every bureaucracy. For example, let us say your boss receives unsolicited slanderous letters from disgruntled ex-workers once under your authority, never seeks your response, and uses the lies to nix your promotion. Let us also say that those letters are orchestrated by the boss's acquaintance who wants your job. Civilized people throughout history would agree that Aristotle's conditions could be satisfied here. So long live anger in the face of corruption and injustice.

In order to contain American anger, or perhaps in order to profit from it, one profession has grown to Gargantuan proportions. There are more lawyers per square inch in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Like a medical degree — which takes longer to earn and requires being good at math — a law degree is a virtually failsafe guarantor of career security, there being bottomless desperate demand for service regardless of cost. Even writers can be lawyers (and anybody can be a writer). The downside is that lawyers must often immerse themselves in other people's anger, which seldom feels congruent with Aristotle. Of course, far worse, doctors must often immerse themselves in other people's bodies, the only thing that could begin to justify their fees.

Anger — this full-hot horse, wasp, ass with a squib in his breech, bed of nettles, ruin that smashes itself on what it falls — may in fact be the glue of democracy, the one data point we all hold in common, besides Wheel of Fortune. We can always count on finding it in spouses, children, parents, sweethearts, leaders, pets, workmates, playmates, friends, strangers, experts, heroes, authorities, celebrities, and ourselves.

In America when the sun goes down, when the lamps click off and sheets are pulled to chins, we can rest assured that there is plenty of anger across this raw land — anger at them, anger at us, anger at you, anger at me, maybe just anger at the void. Clearly, the same cannot be said of love.

Return to The Seven Deadly Sins ... Lust | Gluttony | Envy | Pride | Sloth | Avarice | Anger
Return to September 2005 Table of Contents

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