A Sideways Glance with Richard Bogartz: The source of anger?

Thursday, May 06, 2021

What follows is conjecture; I’ve no formal training in clinical psychology. Decades ago, waiting for help in an Amherst center bank, my attention was drawn to a customer raging at a teller. The heat and decibels astonished me. I watched. Then, epiphany. Suddenly I realized no bank business could have generated such intensity. I concluded that the customer brought the anger with them and the hapless teller was simply a convenient dumping ground.

By training I scoff at certainty based on miniscule evidence, but I’ve learned to trust my intuition. Such trusting began decades ago when I overheard two students arguing and reciprocally insulting so vigorously and so long that I concluded they could not possibly be friends. I wondered why they’d continue to interact? Then intuition whispered that, despite inconsistent physical appearances, they must be siblings. I inquired. Indeed, siblings.

Back to portable anger. The bank customer is packing anger while doing chores. What produces such anger? What triggered the dump? Of course, I don’t know. But it’s fun to conjecture. Not knowing invites the fun of speculation. (In teaching consciousness, I’d proudly announce to my students that they would hear me say “I don’t know” more frequently than any other professor at the university. I believe they did.)

In 1939, Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, and Sears published their frustration — aggression hypothesis: frustration often leads to aggressive behavior. Perhaps the bank customer was frustrated at home or at work. Bank customer: indiscriminate lashing out; inappropriate target; intense belligerence, loss of decorum. Others, elsewhere: bar fights; road rage; mass shootings. What might be going on?

Assume frustration results from constraint that prevents goal attainment. What are constraints? The essence of constraint is physical or mental limits, boundaries. The lines we can’t or mustn’t cross. Words we mustn’t utter. Things we can’t do because our knowledge is limited, our resources insufficient, our abilities inadequate. Limitations on our self-concept, how we must or mustn’t think of ourselves. Who we mustn’t love. The ways we can’t move.

Research suggests that sadness, guilt, anxiety and fear underlie anger. Does constraint underlie these? Is constraint the actual root of anger? Is the function of anger to mentally and emotionally amplify struggling when one is figuratively or literally tied up, bound?

Nature adores a boundary. The manifest world exhibits boundaries everywhere. Our best understanding of material things is that they are made of discrete particle-waves, however much they appear to be continuous. Boundaries are also essential to everyday freedom. I can: drool at the moon (don’t tell anyone), free from ridicule, because my space is bounded by opaque walls; drive safely down a busy road because the double line boundary protects and frees me as it constrains my path; reserve seats to bind my place, freeing me from concern over space as it delimits my eventual location. Boundaries limit freedom, enable freedom, or do both.

Much unhappiness is rooted in constraint, boundedness. But anger doesn’t occur in every situation of unhappiness. At least not at the surface. Sometimes the initially angry struggle to escape unhappiness fails, the person gives up, and instead we see passivity. Quiet desperation. Some believe we sometimes succumb to learned helplessness, and the result is depression. Perhaps anger, as negative as it seems, is the person still struggling against the ties that bind, struggling to escape constraints, struggling to be free, not yet ready to give up.

If we can cope with only so much constraint before we go into full blown anger, it might take a relatively minor event to trigger a major explosion. One last turn of the screw. One additional constraint too many. Did this happen at the bank? If happiness comes with freedom, and constraints produce unhappiness, what about the notion that children need structure. As suggested above, boundaries can enable freedom. Children don’t need structure as constraint. They need structure for the freedom that structure enables. Playtime is richer when we aren’t distracted by homework we’ve procrastinated. Constraining ambient noise levels, as in a library, enhances focus, perception, and creativity. Bedtime requirements enhance waking experience.

It has been my good fortune to have learned transcendental meditation about 50 years ago. Over time, TM reveals that your core is without boundaries and enables you to enter a state of boundlessness, completely free of thoughts. Boundlessness can become a natural concomitant of everyday life such that even as one lives in a world of boundaries one remains established in freedom.

Richard S. Bogartz is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.