Seeing Red

My Anger Jacket

There's a story about the rabbi who controlled his emotions by donning an anger jacket. I heard about it a week after a run-in with a sociopath. I wish I'd known about the anger jacket sooner. 

Rabbi Shalom Rosner tells us about it in a weekly 'parsha' podcast. (The 'parsha' is what Jews read at services on Saturday morning). By the time I heard the story my trauma, a game of chicken on a side-street, had dissipated. The encounter didn't bother me anymore. 

The rabbi tells the story of the prophet Moshe getting angry at the Jewish people. He's able to wait before he speaks, able to calm himself down before criticizing them.* 

Think before you speak. Be grounded. 

The rabbi then gets to our intervention, repeating a yarn about a revered sage who worked hard not to express his rage (not to his children, spouse, students, etc.) without first putting on a special jacket that hung hidden away in his bedroom closet. After taking the trouble to remove himself from the situation to find the jacket, taking off whatever jacket he had on, because he was a jacket-wearing rabbi, and replacing it with the anger jacket, he had cooled down. He never said anything untoward, nothing regrettable, not while under the calming influence of the anger jacket. 

The anger jacket is a behavioral solution to an socio-emotional-behavioral problem.

Many of us tell ourselves we're not angry people, then lo and behold, we find that we are! Truly tested, the best of anger managers lose their Zen, probably several times in a lifetime. They will unleash that adrenaline, sometimes at someone who is at really at fault, sometimes at an innocent. 

It is very much about where we're at: hormones, neurotransmitters, hunger, sleeplessness, stress, situations. We have all of that unconsciously working with and against us. Lacking as much testosterone women, for example, can be less arousable, hence less angry than men, so estrogen can work in their favor. But not always. What goes up, biologically, must come down.  

Driving a crew of seat-belted/car-seated children in a big white SUV affectionately called the airplane, having navigated arguments about who sits where, wondering where I will park when we get to our destination (FD awaits), I see an oncoming automobile. It will be tight. There is no convenient place to pull over. This is a city side street.

I do my best and stop. I have not pulled over enough, however, for this maniac, a driver who determines to teach me a lesson. He speeds straight at me, threatening a head-on collision, then swerves away just in time to avoid it, side-swiping my back fender in the process. He drives off. 

I jump out of the airplane aghast, very angry. It is a new car and I have already initiated it in a parking garage, hit a pole. The man is half-way down the street. When he sees me chase after him o foot he stops and gets out, too. Not to be intimidated by a woman, real man that he is, he approaches and proceeds to blame me for what happened. I am not cool. I express my incredulity at his driving. Insulted, not to be criticized or out-raged (I was loud), he blames my driving (female) and threatens to tell insurance it was my fault. It is my word against his.

I snap a pic of his plate. He snaps a pic of mine.

I yell some more. What was he thinking. There are five children in the car! He asks me what I had been thinking, and did I even have a drivers license? I shouldn't. 

I withdraw to the car, shaken, leaving him standing on the street. The kids are supportive but confused. What happened? Who was that guy? Why were you yelling?

We arrive at the park and review the damage to the car. One of the kids suggests we get some white paint, you know, just paint over the new black scratches on my shiny white car. Kids are the best.

Thinking back on it, a guy speeds at you on a side street threatening to hit you head-on, you do not confront this person, even after the damage is done. Do we have to experience this to know it? No. It is an oft-visited topic in a therapist's world, talking about avoiding altercations with threatening people. Retreat, avoid. Get away.

And yet. 

How is one supposed to remember this under the influence of so much adrenaline? How can we be cognizant of our anger when all we see and feel, all that we are, is anger? The need to discharge the excess, to reduce what we sublimely refer to as a negative emotion is the only thing that seems to matter.  There is no other way to return to who we are, to our natural state of juggling emotional states. We can't even juggle. There is no juggling, no room or time to breathe.

Clearly I won't do this again, I say to myself as I return to the car to face five mind-boggled children (although they were fine, didn't even make much mention of it to their parents). There will be no more confronting potentially violent people, or anyone, really, in a sharp tone. I tell myself.

That man could have pulled out a gun and shot me. 

A religious person would say that if we put the Old Mighty in front of us all of the time, if we recognized that He/She is in charge and has got this, basically, we can accept everything. We can accept that we have been wronged and let it go. We can add that therapeutic pause to our social relationships. We might avoid screaming at a sociopath in front of our grandchildren.

The rabbi, when he searches for his jacket, is adding that therapeutic pause and he knows it. 

I'll take a look around in the closet, see what I've got.


*Matot 31:14,  מטות לא:יד

P.S. We need that thing that clears the brain, the cross-word puzzle, the Paint By Number*, reading, learning, bird or weather-watching. Star-gazing. Not when we're driving, but in general these things help. The idea of art, being an artist, each of us in our own way, but having not even been able to make good stick figures when it counts, I prefer guides, paint by number. Winnie's Picks might be worth checking out if you're looking for something chill. One day we'll talk about photography.


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