Speak when you are angry and you'll make the best speech you'll ever regret.
-- Dr. Laurence J. Peter, author of The Peter Principle
My new part-time job as an unlicensed email therapist features sporadic hours, no pay and tons of satisfaction.
Here's how it works. A friend or colleague consumed with righteous indignation toward someone who's done them wrong -- a brutal boss, a condescending colleague, a loan-welshing relative -- sends me an unexpurgated draft of an angry email intended for the evil-doer. I delete the personal insults, withering sarcasm and other counterproductive language. Though my client sacrifices the momentary pleasure of directly expressing his/her outrage, he/she is left with an archivable cathartic spew and a straightforward expression of the problem for real-world purposes.
A slight hesitation in reacting to a slight can be life-altering. L.A. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchack recently had to decide whether to sign veteran forward Ron Artest -- a troubled star best known for slugging a fan in 2004, for which he was fined, suspended and pled no contest to assault charges.
Kupchack concluded that the risk was worth taking after reviewing film of a single moment in a 2009 playoff game between the Lakers and Artest's Houston Rockets. Artest responded to a flagrant elbow from Laker uberstar Kobe Bryant with an elbow-throwing gesture -- but didn't actually try to hit Bryant. Though the refs ejected Artest from the game, Kupchack saw the behavior as a sign of mental health, telling Sports Illustrated, "Your immediate reaction as a player would be to react with another elbow -- and Ron didn't do that." That moment of restraint, which led to a five-year, $33 million contract with a championship team, might have been the best move of Artest's career.
The impulse to press the send button on a nasty email or punch out an aggressive opponent in a sports contest is universal. Pema Chodron (nee Deirdre Blomfield), a Manhattan-born, twice-divorced ordained Buddhist nun, identifies the root of the problem as shenpa, a Tibetan word usually translated as "attachment" but which she dubs "urge." Chodron argues that we have a transformative opportunity in those moments when our rage impels us to lash out in retaliation. If we notice the urge even a split second before acting out -- a simple but far from easy task -- we can grab hold of it and try instead to perform some harmless behavior, like forwarding an unsent email to a friend or gesturing after getting elbowed. Repeating this process over time -- like practicing piano scales or doing pushups -- can strengthen our resistance muscles until it becomes more instinctive to observe and restrain than to act out.
Some provocations, of course, will send even the Zennest of us over the edge. My most recent Waterloo came during a surreal exchange with a "customer service" rep from a company which had billed me for a variety of phony phone charges. Her response to my explanation that I'd never heard of her company, much less ordered or used any of its products? "I respect your opinion that you don't owe us for the charges, but I disagree." I won't reprise my exceedingly unenlightened response, but I'm quite happy I didn't run it by a friend in advance.