We all experience this heady emotion—anger. This week, we look into the ancient and not-so-ancient wisdom on cooling our hot heads, as well as why it’s important for lawyers to manage anger.
There’s something about this time of year which one might describe as the perfect s***storm of…
… real or mostly imagined deadlines before 2020 hits (THE CLIENT WANTS IT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, wait, is that déjà vu?)…
… workplace fatigue…
… Christmas shopping for a million and one family and friends while elbowing your way through the crowds…
… the feeling that one might not have done enough with one’s life before the new decade hits (Instagram is not real, I repeat—)…
… or simply the thought of spending time with unwelcome distant relatives over pudding (or BBQ prawns, whatever floats your boat).
Basically, it’s the time of year when people are most likely to “lose their shit”. And it’s not just en route to the bathroom. Toilet humour aside, unmanaged anger has serious consequences for ourselves and those around us.
Lawyers, of all people, are familiar with anger. We often trade in anger and deal with its fallout. Some stir it up so their client continues to litigate (though the professional conduct rules say “disallowed!”). Sometimes it’s the client who stirs it up for themselves. Mini confected outrages like, “I can’t believe they drafted such a dumb clause!”, are less than an arm’s length away.
A health warning
“… I say that no plague has done more harm to humankind.”— Seneca, On Anger, (1.2) / page 11
Something that we don’t often think about is that unmanaged anger is dangerous. Anger creates discontent and resentment in the everyday corners of society. At its extreme, anger creates wars, violence, and death.
The Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, and the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca, are clear on the dangers of allowing anger to fester.
“… many people have been injured by anger’s very nature. Many have burst their veins with excessive fury; their shouts, greater than they had strength for, have brought up blood… they have slid back into disease. There is no swifter road to madness. Many have persisted in the frenzy of anger and have never recovered the mind they have banished… ”
— Seneca, On Anger, (2.36) / page 105
There are other great dangers in anger. Aldous Huxley, best known for his dystopian novel Brave New World, wrote about how fear can lead to anger—and that someone in a state of anger can easily be manipulated to believe in something. One only has to consider the political events of the past five years to understand how anger is used in this way.
“… the deliberate induction of fear, rage or anxiety markedly heightens… suggestibility.”
— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, page 80
With this in mind, let’s go through the sources of our anger and how we can get better at managing it.
The font of all anger
Seneca attributed anger to two sources:
“It’s either our ignorance or our arrogance that makes us prone to anger.”— Seneca, On Anger, (2.31) / page 75
There is a third:
“Fear gives life to anger.”— Thích Nhất Hạnh, Anger, page 176
Ignorance is what both Seneca and Thích Nhất Hạnh describe as “wrong perceptions”. We often view the world and the actions of others through our coloured lenses. And this can lead to great misunderstandings. For example, “They did that to annoy me!” or “I can’t believe that driver cut me off on purpose!”. But unless we step into the other person’s shoes, we would never know. Perhaps the driver who cut you off was worrying about something else and didn’t even realise what they did. It’s too easy in an age of self-righteous outrage to jump to our own conclusions and anger.
“… the cause of anger is the sense of having been wronged; but one ought not to trust this sense. Don’t make your move right away, even against what seems overt and plain; sometimes false things give the appearance of truth.”
— Seneca, On Anger, (2.22) / page 47
Anger can come from arrogance, that we are somehow better, smarter or faster than others. This cannot be true in all instances. Are we all going to run as fast as Olympians? It’s something which we as lawyers, who often grow to become prideful, must take on board.
“Prosperity nurtures the angry temperament, when a crowd of yes-men whispers in arrogant ears, ‘Can he talk in that way to you? You’re not taking the measure of your full stature; you sell yourself short,’ and other things that even healthy minds, built on strong foundations from the start, have scarcely resisted.”
— Seneca, On Anger, (2.21) / page 43
As Huxley would agree, fear is one step away from anger. It is contagious when you’re with the wrong crowd. Seneca counsels us to spend our time with “those who are calmest, most easygoing” because “we take on the natures of our associates”. And despite the irony of advice not taken, he suggests that:
“We must flee the forum, the law offices, the courts, and everything that makes our vice fester.”
— Seneca, On Anger, (3.9) / page 145
Thích Nhất Hạnh similarly notes that “if you listen too much to the suffering, the anger of other people, you will be affected”.
What if we can’t flee the law offices or the courts? Then we must learn to understand and manage anger.
Why lawyers need to understand anger
In 2018, two brothers sat in the Supreme Court of Victoria.
One was beetroot red. He looked like he was about to have a heart attack any minute.
The other was seething.
They were angry at each other over their inheritance. Their family owned a successful roofing business in Mildura, rural Victoria. One claimed that the other refused to sign off on financial statements for the business. The other claimed that he was the victim of greed and locked out of the business. It was a classic shareholder oppression case under Part 2F.1 of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth).
For the curious, shareholder oppression cases at the small business level are generally of two varieties. The script goes like this:
A variation on the theme #1: The family squabble — Two (or more) siblings inherit a business and a significant amount of money. They can’t decide on who gets to control what. Often, there are ill-feelings about the token family bum who wants to party forever, enjoy all the upsides and none of the downsides (of working).
A variation on the theme #2: Best biz buddies gone sour — One business partner convinces the other to take a holiday to “relax”. When they get back from their holiday, they realise that they’ve been locked out. All the physical locks and online banking passwords have changed. They all end up in court.
Back to the two brothers. A few months after the hearing, I caught up with a former colleague:
“Do you know what happened with that Mildura roofing case?”
“No, what happened?”
“One brother killed the other… and their mother.”
It is alleged that the younger brother shot his mother, who he felt sided with his older brother. He then drove 125 kilometres over the border to New South Wales, shot his brother and then attempted to shoot himself.
From a shareholder oppression case, it became a criminal case across two jurisdictions.
You can read the news report here.
As Seneca said:
“Money exhausts the law courts, sets fathers and children at odds, mixes poisons, hands over swords to murderers just as much as to soldiers.”
— Seneca, On Anger, (3.33) / page 183
As lawyers, we are frequently surrounded by anger due to the work we do. And if we’re not careful, we can internalise anger and end up spreading it around.
“When someone does not know how to handle his own suffering, he allows it to spill all over the people around him. When you suffer, you make people around you suffer… This is why we have to learn how to handle our suffering, so we won’t spread it everywhere.”
— Thích Nhất Hạnh, Anger, page 36
Wisdom on finding your cool
Here’s some wisdom on collectively finding our cool.
#1. Recognise your triggers
We know that some things set us off.
For the overachievers, Seneca tells us that we should know our limits. We should avoid taking on too much at once—at least not more than we can bear. When you take on too much, this is what happens:
“Fortune is not so partial to anyone as to make every path easy when we are attempting many things. The result is that when some things fall out opposite to our intent, we lose patience with both people and things and get angry for the most trivial reasons, with a person, with a task, with a place, with Fortune, with ourselves.”
— Seneca, On Anger, (3.6) / page 131
As already mentioned above, Seneca also tells us to choose our company with the calmest. Also, he cautions that we watch out for physical exhaustion, thirst, and hunger (= hangry).
#2. Take care of your anger
We can do this by cultivating mindfulness and reflection.
When we feel anger rising, Thích Nhất Hạnh suggests that we immediately pay attention to it like a mother cradles a child—and to focus on our breathing in, and out. When we do this, anger gradually dispels.
Seneca suggests that we should reflect on our day before bedtime:
“‘Which of your offences have you cured today? Which fault have you blocked? In what area are you better?’ Anger will abate and become more temperate if it knows that it must come before a judge every day.”
— Seneca, On Anger, (3.36) / page 189
#3. Practice gratitude
We should also practice gratitude, as Thích Nhất Hạnh notes that peace ultimately comes from within us. Gratitude is an important way of keeping things in perspective.
One tip is to write down five things that you’re grateful for before you head to bed each day. Studies show that people who do this, even a few times each week, are more optimistic and feel better about their lives. It also means anger has less space to take hold.
#4. Laugh at yourself
In a nutshell, let’s stop taking ourselves so seriously. Seneca suggested that we all laugh at ourselves. Our importance (or lack thereof) isn’t so critical in the grand scheme of things.
#5. Be kind to yourself and others
We don’t cut people enough slack these days. Everything is about efficiency, everything needs to happen now! It’s a breeding ground for anger.
A common problem I see is when senior lawyers take it out on junior lawyers for not getting things perfect when no one was born perfect from Day 1. And we will never be perfect. However, when we make petty anger the industry standard, everyone feels like they can be rude to everyone else, whenever they want.
It’s time to start being kind to ourselves—and others.
#6. Realise that life is short
Alright, life is too short to get angry. Seneca had this one figured out—it’s in the realm of philosophy, after all:
“Soon we’ll spit out our life’s breath. For the moment, while we still draw it, while we’re in the human world, let’s cherish our humanity. Let’s not be a source of fear or danger to anyone. Let’s cast scorn on injuries, harms, insults, and taunts; let’s put up with brief annoyances. As they say, the moment we turn and look behind us, death stands right there.”
— Seneca, On Anger, (3.43) / page 205
- Thích Nhất Hạnh, Anger: Buddhist wisdom for cooling the flames (2001).
- Seneca, “On Anger” as published in How to Keep Your Cool by Princeton University Press (2019).
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1959).