Whether it’s Achilles’ sustained rage in Homer’s Iliad, Dylan Thomas’s raging against “the dying of the light,” or the railing against a litany of social injustices by the rap-metal band Rage Against the Machine, rage seems to be all the rage these days. One need not look far for additional, more immediate examples: rage is common on our roads, Rage is the title of Bob Woodward’s bestselling biography of Donald Trump, rage has been repeatedly unleashed on American streets in recent months in response to accusations of police abuse and court negligence, and rage has certainly been a prime motivator for many voters both prior and in reaction to this week’s elections.
In his novel The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon perfectly describes rage as “when the red mist comes down.” Red here is symbolic of hot-bloodedness and wrath while the mist represents the fog that envelops a rager’s temporary loss of rationality and causes poor decision making. Aristotle comments on the necessity of managing and channeling one’s rage toward a productive end: “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” It seems to me, as a people and a body politic, we have lost our sense of justifiable rage and have begun to exercise it much too liberally so that we rage at the slightest provocation or injustice.
I’m not being judgmental. I’m a longtime rager myself. For much of my life, anger and rage have been the twin engines driving many of my thoughts and behaviors. Many of my family members and friends can cite plentiful examples of my moments of uncontrolled rage. My fist has lost its share of childish, meaningless, and unwinnable battles with walls, windows, and doors. My mother occasionally reminds me of a temper tantrum I unleashed on a decorative bird cage as a child (Disclaimer: No actual bird was injured.). My quick temper is one of my most shameful traits. It doesn’t happen very often, but once I let it out of its cage, I immediately regret it and wish I were a better person; however, I no longer promise I’ll never let it happen again. Doing so would be a waste of time as I know it will inevitably flare again. I may as well apologize for having curly hair or brown eyes. It’s part of the complex dynamic that is me.
When I was a father of young children and as I continue as a teacher, I believe it’s useful for my charges to get a glimpse of my red mist every once and awhile. It keeps them on their toes and compliant. A little crazy goes a long way. But in my personal life, as I continue to age and my personal mortality draws increasingly imminent and less abstract, I find myself reducing the number of things that are actually worth getting so worked up over. Becoming a grandparent has much improved my sense of priorities, and there are few, if any, aggravations for which a picture of my granddaughter isn’t the perfect antidote.
Going forward, I hope to exercise my rage according to Aristotle’s standards, directed to the right person, in the right degree, at the right time, and for the right purpose.
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