The Virtuous Life: Tranquility

by Brett on May 11, 2008 · 16 comments

in A Man's Life, On Virtue, The Virtuous Life

This is the eleventh post in a series about living Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues.

“TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”

Every day we encounter a thousand little annoyances. Some jerk cuts us off on the way to work, we get a flat tire, someone takes our lunch out of the fridge, and so on. While each incident is seemingly small, they burrow under our skin and fester there. The mundane indignities of life threaten to snuff the very life out of us. We can soon find ourselves exploding at the smallest irritations. We become angry all the time.

In Western society, anger has sometimes been associated with toughness and manliness. We secretly applaud the hothead who finally loses it on the nincompoop who screwed him over. But anger is often a blustery cover for a man who is insecure and weak and has no other recourse to solve his problems and make his point. Truly manliness means being as coolheaded and unflappable as possible no matter what the situation.

Many men use two equally detrimental methods to deal with their anger. Some seek cantharis by giving their anger free reign. But this only magnifies the anger and can have negative consequences for both the angry man and those around him. Other men try to stuff their anger deep down inside. This buried anger eats at their insides and transforms them into bitter and cynical men.

Why seek tranquility?

Anger is one of the key primal passions that you must learn who how to harness. Harnessing your anger will give you strength to reign in your other carnal tendencies. It will also help you make decisions rationally. When you’re angry, you’re not thinking clearly. You may make rash decisions that you will later regret.

Not all anger is without merit. When you learn to harness your anger, you can begin to use anger as a tool. Righteous anger, properly channeled and employed, can drive a man to fight personal, societal, and global wrongs. But when faced with “trifles and accidents common or unavoidable,” the virtue of tranquility must prevail.

Frequent anger is bad for your health. We may think of anger as an emotion, but it affects your physical body as much as your mind. No matter what triggers your anger, whether something truly threatening like a push from an angry drunk, or something small like a billing error from your cell phone provider, your nervous system reacts the same way:

    Levels of hormones, like cortisol, increase.
    Your breathing gets faster.
    Your pulse gets faster.
    Your blood pressure rises.
    As you heat up, you begin to sweat.
    Your pupils dilate.
    You may notice sudden headaches.

In prehistoric times this “fight or flight” reaction was enormously helpful. It put you on hyper-alert so that you were ready to take action, whether that was putting up your dukes or high tailing it out there. These days, your body gets all hyped up but then has no outlet to channel this energy into.
Frequently triggering anger’s hormones hurts your heart. Studies have found that men who have normal blood pressure, but high levels of anger are more likely to develop coronary artery disease or have a heart attack. Men who lose their temper the most are three times as likely to have a heart attack as the least angry. Young men, even without a family history of heart disease, who quickly react to stress with anger, are at three times the normal risk of developing premature heart disease and five times more likely to have an early heart attack than their more tranquil peers. Angry men are also more prone to depression and other negative behaviors.

Anger hurts those around you. If you want others to respect and trust you, you must learn how to control your temper. If you explode at every little thing, your co-workers, friends, and family will start to walk on egg shells around you. They’ll constantly fear setting off your temper and feel insecure in your presence. The harm your anger can cause is well-illustrated by the following story:

A BAG OF NAILS

Once upon a time there was a little boy with a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he should hammer a nail in the fence. The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. But gradually, the number of daily nails dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

Finally the first day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He proudly told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence.

“You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out, it won’t matter how many times you say ‘I’m sorry’, the wound is still there.”

Harnessing Your Anger and Practicing Tranquility

A lot of “anger management” gurus recommend that when you get angry, you should count to 100 or take deep breaths before reacting. I don’t think these methods are effective; once anger takes a hold of you, there’s no way you’re going to sit there and twiddle your thumbs before taking action. Instead, you must train your mind to deal with anger before you are confronted with it. You must change your whole mindset, so when irritations beset you, you are ready and prepared to meet them calmly.

Change your perspective on life. Although you may not be conscious of it, the reason you get angry at life’s little annoyances, is that you believe life is supposed to go smoothly. Therefore, when things don’t go your way, you experience this as an irritating deviation from the norm. You must settle in your mind the fact that the nature of life is frustrating and chaotic. When things fall into place, that is the true deviation. Dispense with your unrealistic expectations for life and you will find it far easier to roll with the punches.

Change your perspective on yourself. While some say the root of anger is fear, I believe the heart of anger is selfishness. The angriest of men not only believe life should go smoothly for them, they DEMAND that it does. Angry men feel morally superior to others and thus believe that people should consistently agree, respect, and appreciate them, always kowtowing to their wishes. When this fails to happen, the angry man is hurt and channels this disappointment into anger. The angry man believes that it is okay for others to suffer life’s indignities, but not him. To alleviate anger, you must get off your high horse.

Change Your Perspective on Others. When you mess up or treat someone badly, you often feel bad and find the reason for your offensive behavior. You think things like, “Man, I shouldn’t have yelled at him like that. I haven’t been getting a lot of sleep lately and I really feel ragged.” Or “I shouldn’t have cut off that guy, but I have to get to that appointment on time or I might get fired.” Yet, when others do similar things to us, we bubble over with anger, never thinking that they might have done those things for the same reasons we did them. People make mistakes just like you do. Give others the same amount of leniency you lavish on yourself. People aren’t out to get you. They’re having a bad day or they weren’t raised with the right manners. Stop taking it personally.

Kill Your Anger with Logic

Anger, even when justified, often becomes highly irrational. Therefore, the antidote to anger is logic. You must train your mind to rationally think through the things that happen to you before choosing the proper reaction.
Be conscious of your anger and what is causing it. Anger often blinds our minds to the real root of what is bothering us. We often flip out at the closest target or the most recent trigger of our anger, when the underlying cause of the anger is deeper or lies somewhere else. You must develop the strength to be able to sit with your anger and sort through it. Once you can rationally examine your anger, you can find the root cause and address it. Part of what makes us so angry is not truly understanding what is pissing us off. Think about when a plane is delayed. When no reason is given for the delay, people get more angry than if a legitimate reason is cited. Understanding the reasons for your anger will help you defuse it. You can then rationally, but assertively rectify the situation.

Be willing to admit that you are the cause of your anger. The reason that traffic makes you so angry, is that you left home 10 minutes to late. The reason you’re mad that you wife keeps nagging you about mowing the lawn, is that you keep putting it off.

Learn to ask yourself this question: is this situation something I can change or something I cannot change? If the situation or person which is angering you is something you can change, then there is no reason to be angry. Channel your energy into coming up with a plan to solve the problem. If the situation or person is something you cannot change, again, there is no reason to be angry. There’s nothing you can do about it, so there is no reason to get all bent out of shape. Men are natural problem solvers; we want to come up with a solution for everything. But manliness also means learning to accept and come to a peace with that which we cannot change.

Sources:

WebMD

APA

Menweb

Anger and Aversion

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mark May 11, 2008 at 9:00 pm

I apologize if this turns to be a double post, but my first one didn’t seem to go through:

Excellent blog post. This issue is one I’ve been becoming more aware of in myself and have been addressing recently. My main frustration is the little things in life. A favorite example is when someone blocks up the whole isle at the supermarket and just stares at you as you are waiting for them to move to make your way through. Those types of things get to me… a little less now than before. When there’s a person that clearly has responsibility for what is going on, yet I can blame their incompetence for the problem, I tend to really lose my tranquility. This I wish to change and am slowly accepting the fact that not everyone is as self-aware when in public. I’m downright anal when it comes to ensuring that I don’t get in anyones way. So, my duty to myself is to not allow such difference to affect my joy and tranquility.

Thankfully, I did get my dad’s incredible tranquility when things truly matter. The bigger the situation, the more severe the damage might be if anger were to enter into the equation, the more calm I turn out to be. I don’t even get angry if something truly big happens where anger would only make it bigger. I am thankful to my father for providing that type of role model behavior to me. In these circumstances he manages to zone in on the problem and instead of anger gets deep motivation and focus to tackle it and solve the issue.

I need to practice more of the former and the more I do so, I will attain a more consistent and fulfilling tranquility.

Again, thanks for the post. I love this series and will miss it when we get to 13… perhaps you may consider a refresher of one of them every 4 weeks after this initial series is done, so that we can always keep reminded. I would actually love to help with that if you’d take some help… if you can check my e-mail from this post, feel free to e-mail me. otherwise let me know and I’ll contact you directly with my e-mail so we can talk. Cheers!

2 Andrew is getting fit May 11, 2008 at 11:21 pm

I love the story. It’s one I will use.

3 Raj May 12, 2008 at 12:20 am

I think I have some anger issues and I find this post really helpful. If I can follow the tips given here, I think it would reduce the chances of me suffering from high blood pressure in my 30s by at least 50%.

Btw, just wanted to let you know that clicking on the picture in the post leads to a 404 page.

4 Trey Morgan May 12, 2008 at 4:37 am

Stumbled across your blog. Really enjoyed looking around. Very good stuff here.

Blessings

5 Santa May 12, 2008 at 8:03 am

The story of the boy and the nails is really a great example. I may use it in the future, but I do believe that even though people have been hurt by anger and words said in anger, there is still room for restoration. Love covers a multitude of sins and I’ve seen it first hand with people who were so angry at one another then become the best of friends because of sincere apology. Even my own parents who went through a 3 year separation and almost ended up marrying other people, somehow they came back together and their marriage is now stronger.

6 Manny May 12, 2008 at 11:56 am

This is an excellent post in an excellent series! I got turned onto this blog site mainly because of the virtuous life series that was ongoing. The virtue of tranquility really hits home for me because I have a tendency to let a lot of little annoyances bother me. And, when they bother me, they fester inside to the point where I have a boiling pot of water inside of me, exploding at any moment when someone or something taps the lid off. Little things like getting cut off in traffic and inconsiderate shoppers at the grocery store would sit in my mind because I have been expecting a utopian world where everyone is considerate and polite to everyone else. For me, changing my perspective would make a huge difference in how I react (or don’t react) to these things. I surely do not want to continue letting these trivial things bother me to the point where I have to stress myself out unnecessarily. It is very unhealthy physically, mentally, and socially.

Thanks for a very well written post, one that I will refer to many times going forward.

7 Brett May 12, 2008 at 11:57 am

@Mark-I have the same problem….I get angry at the little things, but I can be surprisingly calm when there are big issues to deal with. It’s kind of strange, that the little annoyances in life are what can really make you lose it.

I’d like to hear more about what you have in mind for re-visiting the BF virtues. Feel free to email me: brettmckay@gmail.com

I think I might start doing “Lessons in Manliness” posts on Mondays. Different snapshots of men in history doing the right thing. We’ll see.

@Santa-I actually always think the same thing about the “nails” story. True forgiveness can patch up the holes, almost like they were never there.

8 derek markham May 12, 2008 at 2:55 pm

Just found you.

Lots of good stuff here – I’ll be back.

9 Rodney Hampton May 12, 2008 at 5:38 pm

Tony Robbins says every time you are overcome by anger it is really because some internal rule you have has been violated. I find this to be true.

10 Gary Slaughter May 12, 2008 at 6:31 pm

I used to have the same problem. Crisis, calm and level-headed. Stuck drawer or tangled coat hangers, raving lunatic. I partly blame Disney cartoons, giving personalities to doorknobs, cars, hats, etc.

As a survivor of the Baby Boomer generation, I think many of us were led astray by the pop psych matra, “It’s better to vent your feelings or they’ll explode like a pressure cooker.” Some years ago I found a better way, stop applying heat to it!!!!” Get over it. It’s a disappointment, not the end of the world.

Around the same time my father gave me some good advice when I was obsessing about something shortly after my divorce. He told me that every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting begins with the Serenity Prayer. After I thought about it, I realized there is a great deal of wisdom in those three lines:
Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things that I can;
And the Wisdom to know the difference.

I think one sure way to learn to keep your temper is see a video of yourself when you’re in full rant. Once you realized what you look like you’d never lose it again. Remember, James Bond (by this I mean Sean Connery) never lost his cool. For that matter, neither did Dr. Lecter.

11 Alex May 12, 2008 at 9:53 pm

I’m amazed at how curbing my anger has changed my life. Emotional intelligence and rational emotive behavior therapy works wonders! Basically, knowing your emotions, and how to influence them. For example, let’s say you get yelled at for no apparent reason from somebody just because they were having a bad day. Maybe they were attacking you or your integrity. Whatever the case, most people would react with a fair amount of anger back. One of the things REBT teaches you is that it’s not the actions/events that cause your emotion it is the irrational beliefs that cause them (i.e. I should never be yelled at.). Great read all around, might want to proofread before you post though…

12 Gary Slaughter May 13, 2008 at 1:56 pm

Anger is a brief madness. – Horace, 20 B.C.

13 kevin March 20, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Man this hits close to home .I’ve had a bad temper for years . I’ve destroyed furniture, cars and walls over stupid crap like not being able to find something or spilling something or hitting my hand on something . Thankfully I have not done that in a few years , Im in my 40s now and mayby I’m mellowing with age . Looking back on it I still feel stupid about it . Now if you’ll excuse me ,,,,,,, I’m gonna go kick my own ass .

14 Pranav August 18, 2010 at 8:39 am

Wonderful. Just so true and logical.

15 Matthew April 17, 2013 at 9:12 am

Thanks for the post. The little things get to me sometimes. And instead of saying something I would regret, I try to step away and process it, sometimes shutdown. I agree that the best way to tackle unwanted anger is through prevention, which means changing my ideas (thoughts). My thinking is what produces my emotions and certain ideas are the triggers. Either accepting I cannot change or control something or simply not wanting to expend the energy to get mad also works. Getting mad can be so draining. Thanks for the mention of breaking an internal rule. That is somebody not living up to my expectation, not acting according to my plan.

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