I had a son who was angry. He came out of the womb arguing with me. We called him “Last Word Dan.” It took me decades to learn not to engage. But all those years in between, I thought logic and understanding and love would soften him.
The only angry person I had ever dealt with was my father. He once threw a cup at the wall and I watched in slow motion as the pieces shattered to the ground. As a kid I probably spent the rest of my childhood waiting for him to do it again. He never did. So even though he had a temper, you could melt it with an immediate apology. I learned early it’s better to be happy than to be right.
So it’s no accident that I married Mr. Mellow Man. I never saw him pissed at anything. Maybe annoyed, maybe frustrated, and maybe even close to disturbed but never confrontational and he never raised his voice.
My father died young and I never saw him that angry again. Dan died young, but in his last five years he had surrendered and become sweeter than a raisin. So I’ve had a lot of time tension-free with delicious ease.
Mr. Mellow Man wears a T-shirt that says “Ask Me About Thorium.” If you do, you’re in for a 30-minute lecture about how it’s 92 on the periodic table, how it’s evenly distributed among all nations, how we could build small, safe molten salt reactors, how it could power up the world and how the fossil fuel industry has kept us from doing anything about it.
Now suddenly in his dotage he’s fired up. He mutters in the car, he mutters while we walk the gorgeous Chilmark trails, and lately his mutters have been turning into real anger while we’re watering the garden. Why aren’t people freaking out, he grumbles? Why are they entranced about going into space when instead they should be horrified? The amount of money that could be used to help this planet, the waste of energy, the carbon footprint. They’re joy rides, he said. Why are they acting as if the planet is not on fire? My answer, even though I know his questions are rhetorical, are, we are all in denial, Joel. It’s too overwhelming. And we are hardwired to avoid pain. And we also know not using plastic straws is not gonna do it. You are totally right but you’re preaching to the choir here. Besides, I add, wouldn’t you rather be happy?
To suddenly be with a guy who is snapping, something he never did before, watching him choose misery instead of joy has become understandable but sad. He has always been the happiest, most even-tempered fellow. Lately I find myself saying “You’ve become a curmudgeon. I know you’re not mad at anyone in particular, but you have to deal with this new anger.” And then I heard the perfect story.
There was a monk who lived in a monastery. One day he woke up at the crack of dawn and headed toward a distant lake miles away so he could meditate without another human being nearby. He walked barefoot for a few hours on a muddy trail. Finally, he reached the banks of the lake, rowed a boat and moored it in the middle of the lake. He closed his eyes and started his meditation. He was silently meditating for a couple of hours with no sound other than the gentle ripple of the almost-still water. Suddenly, he felt a jolt of another boat colliding with his boat. He did not want his meditation to get interrupted, so he kept his eyes shut. But felt a sense of anger rising within him. The anger made him open his eyes and he was about to shout at the boatman who disturbed his meditation. However, what he saw made him gasp. The boat next to him was empty and obviously had floated on its own to his boat in the middle of the lake.
It was at this very moment that the monk achieved self-realization. He instantly understood that anger lies within himself. All one needs is a bump of an external source to trigger or provoke it out of him.
I told the story of the monk to my husband and we both agreed it was a perfect teaching.
So a while back when we were driving down-Island trying to figure out how we could win the Possible Dreams auction trip on the Charlotte so we could talk in person to John Kerry (the special presidential envoy for climate) my poor husband started to get riled up again. But this time he caught himself, stopped and said, “Oops. The empty boat.”
“Good catch,” I said. And with as much logic and love and understanding, I added, but how about this? Can you find a way where you can actually be right (which we both know you are) AND be happy?