I got mad today. The world—the colossal body of which of which I am a mere molecule—behaved in a way that I didn’t like, and it pissed me off.
It wasn’t blind rage. It wasn’t wrath or furor or anything so dramatic.
It was just regular old anger, and here’s what it felt like:
My breath quickened and grew shallow.
The world seemed to dim a little, and everything except what was right in front of me grew blurry and vague.
The muscles in my face, especially around my mouth, became uncomfortably tense. A knot developed in my chest and stomach, and wound tighter and tighter the whole time I was angry. That tension tugged at my extremities and spread out to my limbs, eventually turning me into a restless, wound-up bundle of nerves. My shoulders bunched up and I hunched forward without realizing it, and as this general tightness increased, my movements became choppy and abrupt.
Each sound, and anything that required my attention or crossed into an imaginary radius that I’d imagined myself to inhabit, sent blood rushing to my cheeks and further tightened my straining muscle. The cumulative effect was unpleasant, to say the least.
If you look at these symptoms on their own, without associating them with any particular emotion, you’d think the person experiencing them was on the cusp or in the middle of a medical crisis. These sensations are all physical, all alarming, and all seriously detrimental to existing comfortably in the world.
And what was the reason for them? What was the thing that made me angry and brought on this wave of physiological distress?
The reason is that traffic was moving a little slower than usual.
And what actual measurable impact did this have on my life and my lived experience, besides producing the physical sensations that I called anger?
I got home ten minutes later than I’d hoped.
And what was the measurable result of that? What did I lose by falling short of a completely arbitrary ETA?
I spent ten fewer minutes watching TV with a can of beer resting on my stomach.
That’s it. The only observable impact that the slower traffic had on my day, other than my immediate and unreasonable reaction, was that I spent less time than I otherwise might have engaged in a dull, fruitless activity.
Never mind that there had never been any external guarantee that I’d have those extra ten minutes at all. Never mind that I could easily have been stuck in traffic that was twice as slow and gotten home twenty minutes later than I’d have liked. Never mind that sitting in traffic with nothing but one’s thoughts is arguably a better use of time than drinking and rewatching familiar TV shows.
Something had convinced me that I was entitled to those imaginary ten minutes—that they had belonged to me and had somehow been taken away.
And the angry response? The physical sensations that arose while I was in the throes of slower-than-average travel? The knot in my chest that tightened with every minute not spent at home?
These didn’t arise because of the speed of traffic or the shitty driving of the guy in front of me. There’s no physiological process that causes a person to grimace in anger when their land speed dips below twenty kilometers per hour. The last-minute changing of a light from green to red does not signal the muscles in the chest that they should tighten. Illegal U-turns do not trigger increased blood flow to the face.
If anger is the accumulation of all the nasty feelings I described above, then there was no direct cause for anger in the movement of Toronto’s rush hour traffic.
True, my expectations had been thwarted and reality wasn’t reflecting the results of my earlier mental simulations—but so what?
Why did I allow myself to obsess over the idea that I should arrive home at a specific time? Why did I forget that metropolitan traffic is unpredictable and can’t be relied on to reflect my expectations, except in that it will virtually always be slow? Why did I harbor such unrealistically high hopes for my commute?
It was these expectations that brought on my “anger.” It was the dissonance between the reality I wanted and the reality that was that put a knot in my chest and gave me tunnel vision. It was the desperate need to make reality be what I wanted it to be—a stupid, impossible desire— that put such strain on my nerves.
Slow traffic bears me no ill will, and the only harm that comes of it is the harm that I do to myself by clinging to the hope that things could be otherwise.
Slow traffic does not transgress, it simply is.
If I’m in it, I have to accept that I’m in it, and recognize the folly of trying to will it away.
Maybe next time I’ll spend my commute thinking of better things to do at home than watching TV and drinking beer.