We live in irritating times. Our irritated response to them is natural — or at least understandable. It’s getting worse, says Shunsuke Ando, director of the Japan Association of Anger Management. A booklet he recently published on the subject is titled “How to Control Your Heart and Not Get Irritated.” It exudes calm. Calm, of course, is the remedy, if you have it in you.
Increasingly, we don’t. That, too, is understandable. There is no living calmly with a viral pandemic that has killed more than million worldwide, shredded the global economy, polluted our politics, devastated our social life and shows no sign of ebbing. Some say its depredations have just begun.
Larger consequences aside, COVID-19 keeps us housebound, mocking our balked urge to be out there doing something. It strains families with enforced togetherness. The much-publicized “corona divorce” is more apt to signify sullen antipathy than literal divorce, but its implication is clear: Even people who love each other can stand only so much of each other.
Prolonged school closures widened the generation gap. Ando’s association fielded calls from normally conscientious parents: “I’m afraid I’ll beat the kid!” “Count to six!” is a counselor’s first response. Why six? Research shows the first six seconds of an angry surge are crucial. You see red. You’re capable of anything. Then reason kicks in, and anger yields — more or less, usually. Not completely and not always.
Six seconds, a deep breath. If it were that simple, would we need experts?
There’s nothing more irritating than whining children who simply will not be satisfied, no matter what you do for them, or what perfectly logical and rational reasons you give them for not whining and driving their parents crazy. They don’t want parents, they want magic genies who obey their every command, grant their every wish. We were children ourselves once. We know their feelings. They were never adults, and can’t know ours.
If children are irritable and irritating, they may have cause. A UNICEF report issued last month prompted a UNICEF researcher to comment, “Many of the world’s richest countries … are failing (their) children.” Japan certainly seems to be. The report ranked it 37th among 38 nations surveyed in terms of the “mental well-being” of children, though first in terms of their physical health.
In May 1992, a Black American named Rodney King posed a beguilingly simple question. He’d been beaten by police during riots in Los Angeles, and later, seeking to calm the storm, he pleaded, “Can’t we all get along?”
The question resonates today. The answer to it now, as then, seems to be “no.” Racial tensions and other enormities aside, Ando’s booklet, in a milder key, raises the same question. Can husbands and wives get along? Parents and children? Bosses and staff? Shoppers and store clerks? Individuals and society?
It’s tempting to ask, “If a married couple can’t get along, who can?” If a marriage, supposedly built on love, affection, mutual interests and mutual compatibility, unfolding in a home setting designed by the occupants for their maximum comfort and convenience, can be undone by the merest trivia, what social relationship can’t be? Ando’s example of a marriage-rocking issue seems trivia epitomized: housework. Who does what, when, on whose initiative, at the cost of how much effort?
Much has been written of the lordly husband sprawled on the sofa while the wife scrubs, mops, tidies, cooks and minds the kids. “How dare he?” she fumes, restraining her anger, hoping he’ll notice and offer to help. He doesn’t. She clenches her lips, tightens her grip on herself, her fury building and building — but the husband has a point, too, Ando says. He’s neither stupid nor insensitive. His sensitivities are merely differently oriented. Where she sees dirt and disorder and the need to do something about it, he sees much ado about nothing. Maybe he’s as irritated by her fussing as she is by his indifference.
Ando suggests negotiations, the assignment of set tasks to be done at set times — whatever. If couples war over stuff like this, what hope is there for “getting along” in larger, more impersonal, more hostile, not to say explosive, contexts? But irritation is like that, warping and finally corroding altogether our sense of perspective, of what matters and what doesn’t. When you’re irritated, everything matters — supremely.
Is home a refuge from the workplace, or is the workplace a refuge from home? What if neither is a refuge from either? Imagine you’re a middle-aged, mid-career, mid-level executive. How exasperating your young subordinates are, refusing to sacrifice their private lives for company priorities!
They quit work at quitting time, won’t join office drinking parties, might even bolt to a better job elsewhere, if opportunity knocks. You rose with a different generation under different conditions. You were dedicated, self-denying. When duty called you answered. How can you deal with young people who demand, “What’s in it for me?” Irritably?
Keep your temper in check, or find yourself answering charges of harassment. Decidedly, times have changed.
Junior employees cope with different strains. Their bosses, those to whom they are answerable and who pride themselves on their authority, are in many cases IT-illiterate. Who’s leading who? Telework makes things worse. Bosses don’t like it. They want you at the office, under their eye. The workers, maybe, do like it and see it as the path of the future. The stress builds — and builds.
Take a break. Dine out — if (the pandemic aside) indifferent service doesn’t set you on edge. Surf the social networking sites — but here, Ando says, it’s just people venting their own rage and frustration, deaf and unsympathetic to yours. Well, while you’re online, check out the news — if you can bear it. Rarely has political discourse sunk so low, or its volume risen so high. No wonder everyone’s irritated. Ando’s advice is, “Draw a line between what concerns you and what doesn’t” — sensible as far as it goes, but the nature of the net itself militates against it. Everything concerns everyone. There’s no such line. It’s infuriating.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”