December 10, 2019

The Advantages of Being ‘Slow to Anger’

One of the important primary directives of being an observant Jew is to follow in God’s footsteps by elevating ourselves to become holy. To accomplish this goal, we must understand the characteristics of a holy person. These are best described in the famous “Thirteen Attributes of God.”

The Thirteen Attributes are based on two verses in Exodus and we recite them before the Torah reading on festivals: “The Lord! The Lord! God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth, preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and who cleanses but does not cleanse completely, recalling the iniquity of parents upon children and grandchildren, to the third and fourth generations.”

For the common man, these are lofty and difficult qualities to achieve and maintain. What if we concentrate on one attribute at a time? Let us closely look at what it means to be “slow to anger.” There are abundant lessons we can learn from the opposite view of being quick to anger. How many marriages could be saved; how many prison sentences avoided; how many accidents circumvented; and how many feelings would not be hurt if people could control their anger? Examine almost any conflict and you will find in the root cause someone who could not control his or her temper.

If some political leaders had better control of their emotional outbursts, and if they were more forgiving and tolerant, the world probably would be a better place.

But how do we control ourselves? Our actions almost always are the results of our first perceptions of situations. Emotions and preconceived opinions play strong roles in triggering responses to unpleasant situations or events. Awareness of this should force us to take a step back and try to better understand the consequences of becoming angry. When the situation merits, we sometimes can put aside our negativity and move on. In other cases, we need to examine in a more logical manner the event that made us angry. Can we repair the damage? Would an apology heal the pain? Are we exaggerating a problem we easily can resolve through discussion and negotiation?

“Our actions almost always are the result of our first perceptions of situations.”

We also need to understand the consequences of anger. A close companion of mine had an expensive sports car. One time, a truck driver — who probably did not see my friend’s small car in his blind spot — cut off my friend. Quick to anger, he followed the truck and decided to “pay back” the driver by cutting in front of the vehicle and making an obscene gesture. In his zeal to get even, he didn’t see the slowed traffic in front of him. He was unable to stop in time, and his beautiful car was destroyed.

My boss, for whom I have worked more than 25 years, often gets angry at his computer technician because the computer crashes. No matter how often I try to make him understand that no computer is perfect and there always will be conflicts with software updates, drivers and connected peripherals, he still gets mad. Not only does he ruin his own day, but he makes his trusted employee feel miserable and degraded, as well.

If we better understand the end results of being quick to anger, perhaps that would help us achieve better self-control the next time an upsetting situation arises. We must make a concentrated effort to understand what makes us angry, and what we can do to modify our behavior. The rewards are abundant: Our lives and those close to us will be less stressful and less stressed. We will have taken an important step in achieving holiness.

To quote Peter Blair Henry, dean emeritus of New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, “I’m generally slow to anger, quick to forgive, and I take in information before making decisions. So no matter how controversial the decision, my general demeanor is to put on a white lab coat and gloves and look at the evidence, weigh the arguments and see what makes sense.”

And now, to end, a little anger management humor:

Husband: When I get mad at you, you never fight back. How do you control your anger?

Wife: I clean the toilet bowl.

Husband: How does that help?

Wife: I use your toothbrush.

Paul Starr is a retired systems analyst living in Montreal. He is a member of an Orthodox congregation.