Two events transpired on a single day early last week. Both were personal and took its toll. Now that I have the benefit of hindsight, I reacted badly and deployed emotion to deal with it when I ought to have responded clinically. That a thin line separates “reacting” to a situation and “responding” to one was not evident to me until then. I do not intend to delve on what happened. Suffice to say, anger took over. I think I now understand what the legendary boxer Mike Tyson meant when he said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Much water has passed under the bridge since then. I’ve had the time to introspect on all of what transpired. A thread binds both events. The system (or the society if you will) that the all of us live in had failed to come to the aid of two people whom I care for deeply. My pleas for help to those who run the system went unheard as well. Instead, it was met with indifference.
It didn’t take me much to conclude the system is broken. It failed all the people who placed their trust in it. Justice did arrive eventually. But to have it delivered, the system had to be subverted by a very angry me. I don’t intend to delve on that either.
As things are, not much has changed. The people who were part of the system and denied justice have been taken care of. But the system continues to be the way it is. Now that I have the perspective of some distance from the issue and can look at the system and the people who live in it, only two kinds of humans inhabit it.
• The first comprise those who operated it and committed a wrong (at least from my perspective). They have since been replaced by another set of people. The system is such it cannot assure the wrongs will not be committed again.
• The second include my allies and me who conspired to subvert the system that justice, at least as we perceive it, was delivered in its own perverted way.
Now, if I dig a few layers deeper, I was horribly angry then because the system did not care to respond when help was needed. Since then, the anger has subsided. But it continues to linger and the questions refuse to go away. Why do I have to be part of a broken system? Why did I have to subvert it to get justice? Why doesn’t the system change?
And, in times like these, even as this dispatch is being written, a dispassionate voice in the head continues to ask questions in the third person. It insists I can only attempt an answer by asking a few tough questions and be honest in the answers. For instance;
• Why are you so angry?
• What are you so angry about?
• What is this beast called anger?
• Why is anger so difficult to let go of?
• Why did anger debilitate you?
• What kind of a force is anger? Is anger necessary? Or ought it be gotten rid of?
To even attempt answers to these questions, the nature of anger had to be first examined—much like a coroner would examine a cadaver to determine the cause of murder. And so, as is now the routine, the post mortem started, as always, in the silence of the morning. Over the last few days, some interesting conversations have ensued between the voices in my head.
“So, how do you feel today?”
You know all about it.
“I do. But I want to hear about it from you.”
Often, the angry voice would pause, sometime it would reel of answers, and at other times mumble something. But the answers couldn’t stand to scrutiny. And the inquiry would continue.
“Haven’t we always agreed that you will never react to any situation, but only respond?”
“May I reiterate, then, what is the thin line that separates reaction and response?”
Yes, please do.
“You react when you are not in control. Reaction is an outcome of fear. But when you respond to a situation, you are the one in charge. Inevitably, when you respond, you are also aware of the possible outcomes of your actions and the decisions are not driven by emotion.”
Yes. We had agreed upon that.
“We had also agreed that it is inevitable every once in a while you will get hit. And that you cannot have a plan all the time. And that there is a science to both landing a punch and taking a punch. When you get punched, you roll with it. We’ve gone to the extent of discussing the physics of it all because you claim to be a man of science, haven’t we?”
Yes, we have.
“But you didn’t roll. Instead, you capitulated to what convention insists upon and took it on the chin like a man. Now, what is ‘like-a-man’ supposed to mean? A clown who reacts, comes back bruised, and can’t stand to fight another day? Or somebody who responds by rolling when the situation insists you must, lose the battle, and wake up the next morning to fight another day so you win the war?”
Much deliberation between both voices in the head later, some pointers emerged. When the punches landed, despite having been coached, the very primitive fight-or-flight instinct got in the way. It triggered a series of biochemical changes in the bloodstream, reason caved in, and fear took over. In the high stakes game of life, this is a strict no-no.
The flight-or-fight response has been the subject of much research and all evidence has it that it does not work in the world we live. Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics is 2002, described why this is the case in his seminal work on the primitive biases we hold.
He demonstrated back then that the fight-or-flight response was originally intended to help humans survive as a species. But it can now work against us because those instincts are outdated. It is incumbent then on all humans as a species to be aware that these biases exist, and work actively at not giving in to them when they play up.
This evidence has been in the public domain for many years now. Much literature exists on the theme. Now, why should somebody who claims to be a rational creature and a man of science then give in what has clearly been defined, in no uncertain terms, as primitive behaviour?
It didn’t take too long to get the answer. Fear. So, in much the same way that anger was examined, fear had to be examined as well.
What is fear? End of the day, fear is the inability to come to terms with uncertainty. Not surprising. Because the human mind craves familiarity. That is why we seek to find routines or patterns. But this is as perfect as any set up can get to ensure we either fail or be condemned to mediocrity.
Now, as things are, the fact is this: we live in times where we are compelled to make decisions. This is what makes people fearful. But this much we know—that three kinds of decisions exist.
1. The outcomes are known: for instance, if I bang my head against the wall, it will hurt. So, I decide I will not bang my head against the wall unless I am an idiot.
2. The outcomes are unknown, but the probabilities are known: I switch my laptop on to work. The probability of it springing to life is 99.9%. I know what theme to write on. But if experience is any indicator, I know I cannot predict whether I may be able to finish by 5.00pm today. Anything can go awry—the spectrum covers everything from how I feel or some exigency that may turn out to be more pertinent. I cannot allocate weightages to any of these.
Here, because there is some metric I can go by, I can make an informed decision on whether to complete the task on hand or not.
3. Outcomes are unknown and probabilities are unknown: now, things begin to get interesting. Those familiar with quantum mechanics are familiar with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
To draw a very simple analogy, think of any book, movie, music, or image that you may have seen and liked. What emotion did it evoke in you? Ask somebody else what emotion did any of these evoke in them on their going over it. There is no way you can tell what their answer may be, though the object that the both of you are looking at or listening to is the same.
In much the same way, every event evokes a different response from different people. Why? The evidence is all around us. Consider any news item and listen to how it is interpreted by commentators in newspapers or television stations. Everybody looks at the same event, but has a different point of view. It underscores that we live in uncertain times.
As social media proliferates, more voices of the so-called influencers emerge. All of them sound vociferously different and cannot seem to find common ground around the same event. It is inevitable then that uncertainty takes over. And as uncertainty grows higher, the ability to make decisions gets impaired. In turn, fear mounts and morphs into anger that spills into the streets until people get caught in the crossfire.
From the microscopic to the macroscopic, nothing is exempt—whether it be individuals, organizations that comprise these individuals, political systems that create these organizations like capitalism or dictatorship, the countries in turn that are the outcomes of systems like these, and global platforms like the United Nations (UN) or the World Trade Organization (WTO) that are intended to lubricate relationships between nations, systems and people—all begin to creak in against the might of anger.
When looked at from that perspective, all I can do is simply accept a few things.
1. Accept that anger exists. But much like any other emotion, it is just another emotion. This too shall pass.
2. To ensure it doesn’t keep recurring too often, I should try to reduce what I fear.
3. And to do that, I will have to accept uncertainty is a way of life.
That raises another seemingly complex question. How do you deal with uncertainty when that is apparently what all of us are hard-wired to stay away from?
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers a few pointers in his gentle book, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm.
“As the Buddha said, ‘The past no longer is, the future is not yet here; there is only one moment in which life is available, and that is the present moment’.”
To illustrate what that means in a very contemporary setting, he uses a little anecdote:
“Imagine two astronauts go to the Moon, and while they’re there, there’s an accident and their ship can’t take them back to Earth. They have only enough oxygen for two days. There is no hope of someone coming from Earth in time to rescue them. They have only two days to live. If you were to ask them at that moment, ‘What is your deepest wish?’, they would answer, ‘To be back home walking on our beautiful planet Earth.’”
“That would be enough for them; they wouldn’t want anything else. They wouldn’t think of being the head of a large corporation, a famous celebrity, or the president of the United States. They wouldn’t want anything but to be back here—walking on Earth, enjoying every step, listening to the sounds of nature, or holding the hand of their beloved while contemplating the Moon at night. We should live every day like people who have just been rescued from dying on the Moon. We are on Earth now, and we need to enjoy walking on this precious, beautiful planet.”
“Zen Master Linji said, ‘The miracle is not to walk on water or fire. The miracle is to walk on the Earth.’ I cherish that teaching. I enjoy just walking, even in busy places like airports and railway stations. Walking like that, with each step caressing our Mother Earth, we can inspire other people to do the same. We can enjoy every minute of our lives.”
Charles Assisi is co-founder and director, Founding Fuel.
His Twitter handle is @c_assisi
Comments are welcome@firstname.lastname@example.org