Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Onions, Omelets, and Angry People

I've recently had occasion to write about angry people, and how to deal with them--or not, as your choice may be. In this article reposted from my robertrister.com blog I'll share my thoughts on finding the good in angry people, and when I personally can and I personally can't.

Everybody gets angry now and then. It's a natural part of the human condition, but it's not an emotion that is healthy to foster. In the Christian tradition, St. Paul is cited as telling the Ephesian Christians "Be angry, but do not sin." In both the Jewish and Muslim traditions, the same admonition comes from a psalm attributed to David, speaking to his son Absalom, "anger" sometimes translated as "trembling."

The way "sinning" was explained to me by my mom and dad way back when is that a sin is falling short of the mark. It's not some awful thing that you do that forces God to reach into the cosmic cash register to pay a fine. It's just something you aren't able to do on your own for which you need help.

People who get angry all the time, or most of the time, or at what appears to the rest of us to be the "wrong" time, are sinning. I don't think that means God is going to zap them. But I do believe that inappropriate anger, especially when we are the target of it, is a signal for concern. It's not a matter of right or wrong or sin. It's a matter of living well with troubled people--or not.

There are a couple of ways of trying to deal with angry people that don't work for me. One is what I'll call the onion approach. Just as one can peel layers off an onion to get down to its core, one can eventually get down to the essential goodness of a human being. An example of the onion approach was once shared with me by a television producer who was looking (as strange as it may seem now) for my financial backing for his two-hour drama.

A beloved Baptist minister was known for giving spiritual guidance to thousands of parishioners. He became a friend of the rich and famous. One day he was invited to give the invocation at a major (US) college football game involving two teams from Florida. Then he quickly drove home, bludgeoned his wife to death and dismembered her body, but made it back to his box seats for the half-time show and the second half of the game.

Surely this pastor had been a model citizen for 90% of that Saturday. He probably was a shining example of Christian deportment for 99.999% of his adult life. Except for that murdering his wife part. There are certain kinds of behaviors that cancel out other good in a person. Murder is one of them. I can't imagine a "good" meth dealer, either.

But what if someone has a psychological disorder? If that psychological disorder involves inflicting unprovoked harm on others--not just disproportionate response, but plotting and scheming to cause harm on innocents, especially if it's a regular thing--then I'd say what you have is a disordered person.

There is no diamond lurking in the lump of coal, even if there are times the person is pleasant or seductive or "necessary" to you. And it's important to remember that every onion is not ours to peel. If you are dealing with one of those screaming meanies I've been writing about, don't play amateur psychologist. Get yourself out of an abusive relationship before it becomes worse.

There's also a dysfunctional way of dealing with angry people I call the "omelet" approach. It's sort of like making an omelet from farm-fresh eggs (or homemade silky tofu, if your ideal omelet is vegan), veggies you just harvested from your garden, and a dead rat.

Personally, if there's a dead rat in my omelet, I'm not going to eat around the edges. I have to toss the whole thing out. That's the case with certain one-time behaviors. When an angry person becomes violent with you, even if it's just once, the relationship needs to end.

And if you see that angry person harming others, don't assume you won't be next. Why don't we all avoid angry people?

Sometimes it is a calculation. We need an angry person in our life for some reason, and we calculate that the probability of getting whatever we need from them (money, shelter, connections, a job) is higher than the probability of being harmed by them (not getting the money we need anyway, getting kicked out of the house or the angry person not paying the mortgage or the rent, being turned on by the friend, getting fired). We decide what we are likely to get and what we can afford to lose and take our chances.

This is a fundamentally unhealthy relationship. Any relationship that diminishes your ability to fend for yourself is bad for you. Sometimes it is a projection. We have our own emotional issues that we don't deal with by flying into rages or plotting harm to others. We just pretend everything is OK.

This also leads to an unhealthy relationship. If you pooh-pooh an angry person, you certainly aren't helping them, and you're only setting yourself up for a harder break-up later. If your life is handed your a significant other or a caregiver who is like an onion (you need to look for the good deep down) or who is like an omelet (you just want to nibble around the edges of your relationship), look for alternatives. A different significant other, a different home, a different job, or a different and real friend may be exactly what you need. It sometimes takes real courage to move away from angry, crazy people, but it's always best not to feel the need to peel back the layers or look for the good parts of your relationships.

Oh--I did say something about finding the good in angry people. Here's my suggestion. If you feel the need to find good in people who hurt you and who hurt others, at least make sure you don't depend on them. It's always best to find your self-sufficiency, or at least to live out your dependencies with people who don't need you to depend on them but who are kind to you anyway.

Image credit: "Stripey the Crab" via Wikimedia Commons

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