Filing away the rage

Originally posted on July 22, 2011

The internet has a strange effect on people. Its promised anonymity prompts people to speak their minds without restraint. Its easy access prompts immediate response, particularly when a person is worked into a fury. The more contentious the topic, the more likely a flame war will spark. Such is the nature of the internet that the flame war spreads not just across the original thread, but across the blog, eventually burning its way onto other sites. Soon one trivial post unleashes a dozen or so wild fires, each with their own intense hatred, bitterness, and frothy self-righteousness.

By now people should have learned to temper their anger, but the submit button tempts better than Lucifer. Posts might as well get submitted automatically because there is no way people will not write the most skewering rant and send it.

We are all guilty of writing a comment we knew we ought not post and later regretted. We all fall prey to that desire to put someone in their place. We all assume at some point that we are right because dammit we are and to hell with how the comment makes anyone feel. And within 24 hours we are defending or walking back that stupid little outrage that we could have kept to ourselves.

Years ago I stumbled onto a solution to this problem. I could explain it, but Mark Twain does a much better job of it:

You receive a letter. You read it. It will be tolerably sure to produce one of three results: (1) pleasure, (2) displeasure, (3) indifference. I do not need to say anything about Nos. 1 and 3. Everybody knows what to do with those breeds of letters. It is breed No. 2 that I am after. It is the one that is loaded up with trouble.

When you get an exasperating letter, what happens? If you are young you answer it promptly, instantly, and mail the thing you have written. At forty what do you do? By that time you have found out that a letter written in a passion is a mistake in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, that it usually wrongs two persons and always wrongs one—yourself. You have grown weary of wronging yourself and repenting, so you manacle, you fetter, you log-chain the frantic impulse to write a pulverizing answer. You will wait a day or die. But in the mean time what do you do?

Why, if it is about dinner time you sit at table in a deep distraction all through the meal. You try to throw it off and help do the talking. You get a start three of four times but conversation dies on your lips every time. Your mind isn’t on it, your heart isn’t in it. You give up and subside into a bottomless deep of silence permanently. People must speak to you two or three times to get your attention, and then say it over again to make you understand.

This kind of thing goes on all the rest of the evening. Nobody can interest you in anything. You are useless, a depressing influence, a burden. You go to bed at last, but at three in the morning you are as wide awake as you were in the beginning.

Thus we see what you have been doing for nine hours—on the outside. But what were you doing on the inside? You were writing letters in your mind. And enjoying it, that is quiet true, that is not to be denied. You have been flaying your correspondent alive with your incorporeal pen. You have been braining him, disemboweling him, carving him into little bits, and then—doing it all over again. For nine hours.

It was wasted time, for you had no intention of putting any of this insanity on paper and mailing it. Yes, you know that and confess it, but what were you to do? Where was your remedy? Will anybody contend that a man can say to such masterful anger as that., ‘Go, and be obeyed’?

No, he cannot. That is certainly true. Well then, what is he to do? I will explain by the suggestion contained in my opening paragraph. During the nine hours he has written as many as forty-seven furious letters—in his mind. If he had put just one of them on paper it would have brought him relief, saved him eight hours of trouble, and given him an hour’s red-hot pleasure besides.

He is not to mail this letter. He understands that. And so he can turn on the whole volume of his wrath. There is no harm. He is only writing to get the bile out. So to speak, he is a volcano. Imagining himself erupting does no good. He must open up his crater and pour out in reality his intolerable charge of lava if he would get relief.

Before he has filled his first sheet sometimes the relief is there. He degenerates into good nature from that point.

Sometimes the load is so hot and so great that one writes as many as three letters before he gets down to a mailable one, a very angry one, a less angry one, and an argumentative one with hot embers in it here and there. He pigeonholes these and then does one of two things—dismisses the whole matter from his mind or writes the proper sort of letter and mails it.

To this day I lose my balance and send an overwarm letter—or more frequently a telegram—two or three times a year. But that is better than doing it hundred times a year, as I used to do years ago. Perhaps I write about as many as ever, but I pigeonhole them. They ought not to be thrown away. Such a letter a year or so old is as good as a sermon to the man who wrote it. It makes him feel small and shabby but—well, that wears off. Any sermon does. But the sermon does some little good anyway. An old cold letter like that makes you wonder how you could ever have got into such a rage about nothing. — The Selected Letters of Mark Twain, pg. 164-165

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