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The purpose of anger from a family trip gone awry

<h6>Photo Courtesy of Lillian Chen</h6>
Photo Courtesy of Lillian Chen

This fall break, my family and I took a trip to San Diego — a brief escape after seven months of quarantining in Houston. Our intention was to visit a city we had friends and fond memories in. I wish I could say we had a good time. But the trip was, to be frank, 90 percent a disaster. Mostly because of me.

During this trip, I let my anger get the best of me, which led to some serious self-reflection on where this anger came from. Since then, and with the help of Hidden Brain’s podcast “The Logic of Rage,” I have come to understand that even though my angry reaction felt justified at the time, it was not a productive reaction to the injustice I may have felt.

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We may all be feeling higher levels of agitation at this time, especially after a heavy, protest-filled summer. What’s more, the daily news bombards us with angry messages from our country’s president. As students, we face additional challenges that threaten to rock our emotions: for example, rejections from a more selective hiring team this year, or an unideal midterm grade. Even the recent update from President Eisgruber about holding off on announcing next semester plans may sound negative to some ears.

Nonetheless, noticing where our anger stems from is key to identifying our justice barometer, as well as understanding how to process our pent-up frustrations. More importantly, though, understanding the purpose of rage enables us to better appreciate others around us.

My frustration began on our first day of the trip, when my parents got brunch while I was taking a yoga class. A family trip meant doing things together. So why didn’t they wait for me before they ate? But I let it pass. When I met up with them at the beach later and saw them looking through WeChat, it made me a little frustrated. Why were they not being present and enjoying the ocean? But again, I moved on. “Let them do what they want,” I thought to myself. “I will enjoy this trip myself.”

As we were driving to Coronado Beach for our first “family” activity, I told my parents I was planning to take two dance classes that night and asked if they could drive me there. I did not expect they would deny my innocent request. They interpreted my action as a sign that I did not want to spend time with them. When I said that I wanted to go because I never get the chance to check out San Diego dance studios, they continued to refuse.

Something snapped in me. I don’t know what made me respond the way I did, but as my father came to a stop, I opened the car door and leapt out. I kept walking on the side of the highway, even when I saw my parent’s car drive by. I was so determined to walk the 11 miles to the dance studio if I had to. My body swirled with adrenaline. Only after two hours of walking uphill under the blazing sun did I collapse under a tree.

Under the shade, I fumed at the thought of my parents. My anger had consumed my brain.

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Another hour later, I finally called them. I told them they could abandon me if they wanted, but I deserved those dance classes. I would not have my freedom restricted! I was willing to throw my life away for what I believed was fair. I was ready to … 

Suddenly, I heard my mother on the phone speak. She agreed to my wishes. I stopped talking.

In a matter of seconds, I broke down crying. I was not going to be homeless anymore. I still had my family.

It took some time before I gathered the courage to ask them to pick me up. I felt so guilty. Like a bully who had just forced my parents to bend their will for me. In the end, my anger won, but I did not feel good about it.

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I was afraid this scene proved I was an innately wrathful person. That something was wrong with me. I was scared of what I could do to my parents.

So in an attempt to understand why I experienced this episode of “red rage” during my family vacation, I listened to a Hidden Brain podcast on “The Logic of Rage.”

Through the examples and stories on the podcast episode, I was able to see how anger, like our other emotions, has a vital function in our lives. According to the neuroscientist Douglas Fields, we experience a “red rage” when our most basic needs are threatened. The episode mentioned a story of a kind, quiet woman who was robbed. When the robbers took her money and other valuables, she obediently let them. But when they tried to take her camera, something she used to make a living with, she immediately thrashed out. She physically wrestled the robbers to regain her camera, even when they had a gun pointed to her head.

This podcast made me reflect on my own experiences with anger, and what my reactions signaled about my moral compass. Although my dad told me I was never an “angry child,” and bragged to his friends about how happy I was when I was young, he was wrong. I did experience anger as a kid.

In first grade, after I saw my friend get completely rejected by her crush in public, I kicked the boy hard in his most tender spot. Reflecting on that day, I realize that I had a strong sense of where the line of equality was for me: I believed, if my friend treated someone as special, they ought to have treated her the same way.

As the Hidden Brain states, anger is a signal. It shows others, but more importantly our own self, where our borders of justice are. It strongly notifies us: this is what you value. This is what you need. This is what you have to have, in order to feel like this world is safe enough, good enough, and fair enough for you to live in it. Anger is our justice compass.

However, although our anger can be based on value-driven reasons, it can cause us to go too far. The demand for justice is what leads people to kill others who have killed their own family members. Or even murder the people who simply insulted them. At what point must we forgive our victimizers and let go of our need for justice? The world is never 100 percent fair, and the only way we can live through it without exerting excessive time and energy on getting “even” is by adjusting our expectations.

Living a life of forgiveness is ultimately for ourselves. Resentment is simply poison that we drink believing it will fix us. But it rarely ever does. Anger will make us feel vindicated, but it will not set us free.

I recognize that my parents will not always do the fair thing. They will try to do what’s right, but they will sometimes not understand or agree with my boundaries of justice. But if I were to choose between being an angry, justice-seeking daughter, or a loving, forgiving one, I’d rather be the latter.

All is not lost when we get angry, though, because even regret and guilt can motivate us to become better.

Ironically, I want to thank my mind (and Hidden Brain) for helping me understand the uses of my angry fire, so I can avoid kindling it in the future. My reflection on my anger (and not my anger itself) made me realize I need to change myself. Or else I’ll permanently destroy my connections to the people I love most.

The next time I get angry, I hope I can remember that, while anger is justified, it is not what makes me a better, kinder person. At a time when I’m already feeling enough despair and dislike for the way things are, I should be preparing my heart for where things are going.

And when I’m not quite there yet, I hope I can find a show on empathy to pass the time.

Lillian Chen is a senior currently residing in Houston, Texas. She can be reached at lillianc@princeton.edu.

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