Redirected aggression, or why I read the Chronicle
Recently, we extended our subscription for the Chronicle of Higher Education. I feel like such a dork or poser getting this at home. But the simple fact is that I work in academia for a reason, mainly because I like the enterprise. Having a publication targeted on something I enjoy is pretty cool when it comes down to it. I never fail to find at least two or three great pieces in every issue.
I usually don’t have time to read The Chronicle Review that comes with the paper. I think I’m now about 5.3 years behind in my New Yorker reading, so the last thing I need is more articles on general and interesting topics to divert my attention. For some reason, I started reading the October 5 edition, however, and stumbled across an article by David Barash on redirected aggression (sorry, not free). It’s a great piece, the gist of it being that when subjected to pain or stress, mammals show signs of physical effects such as adrenal gland enlargement and/or ulcers. No big secret there. The interesting insight is that if there’s a release for the stress that the physical effects disappear. The most common way to get rid of stress or pain is simply to pass it on to someone else. Barash gives many examples of this, the most obvious being the Iraq invasion. Our national hurt over 9/11 demanded release, and while Iraq had nothing to do with the attack, it was an ideal release for the aggression we felt, at least speaking broadly, since many of us would exempt ourselves from those who sought blood atonement.
At any rate, this article made me think about my own life. For many years (into my 30s), I played two very violent sports, rugby and hockey. I knew at the time that part of the attraction was that they sanctioned the release of large amounts of aggression. Mad about something? Nothing like driving an opposing player into the glass or upending someone with a savage hip check to get the stress out. Far from being illegal or immoral, such acts are encouraged in the context of a hockey game. Rugby’s even better at this. I recently watched the World Cup, and I pined to get back out there and beat the crap out of others while having it beaten out of me. What’s interesting about rugby is that there are strict rules about how one expresses the rage. For example, it’s fine to step on someone in a ruck, crushing their ribs, head, or whatever gets in the way. However, it’s not OK to extend a tackle as it goes out of bounds so that the guy lands on a water cooler. Or so the ref told me.
Being a parent has introduced me to the concept of anger management in ways I had not previously experienced. Children, even though we love them dearly, can be deeply frustrating sometimes. Reading this article reminded me that I need to direct my need to vent away from them and into other channels. That’s a simple insight that is very, very hard to realize in practice. With age comes a certain wisdom, so I no longer need the energy and violence of rugby or hockey to relieve stress, but I do realize that activities such as gardening and cycling are channels for this excess negative energy. Turning over dirt, sprinting up hills, squishing garden pests that eat my veggies, pushing myself to ride a given route faster and faster: these are all ways of channeling stress away from me in healthy and productive ways.
God help me if Manhattan ever gets an ice rink. The pull may be irresistible …