When I was small, I was a part of a boisterous extended family in which shouting was the norm. Being an introvert by nature (and a person with acute hearing), the noise at family gatherings was a challenge for me to manage. I was even more challenged when anger crept into the shouting. When the tone changed, usually because the angry person had a bit too much to drink, fear took over and I would get as far away as a small child could. Managing someone’s anger (and my own) took decades for me to learn. And in fact, I majored in communications in college just so I could properly learn how to say what I needed to say, especially with those I love.
Through the years, I’ve never lost my fascination with how and why people speak to each other the way they do. I’ve always known that words have power and so I’ve tried, with varying success, to avoid being hurtful even when angry.
Now modern scientific research confirms what we’ve intuitively known. Our hearts and brains react differently when we have angry or loving encounters. Stress hormones release during angry encounters (fight or flight) and bonding hormones release in loving encounters. Energy also moves from within us to outside of us amplifying the reaction between two people and that energy is further amplified as it travels with the words we use.
But the ancient wisdom found in all faith traditions has been teaching us these lessons for millennia. The following is a story I came across that has one of the most beautiful explanations of why we shout in anger that I’ve come across so far.
A Hindu teacher who was visiting the river Ganges to bathe saw a family shouting at each other in anger. He turned to his disciples and asked, “Why do people shout at each other when they are angry?”
The disciples thought for a while then one of them said, “We shout because we lose our calm.”
The teacher asked, “But why shout when the other person is right next to you? You can just as well tell him what you have to say in a soft manner.” More disciples offered other answers but none were satisfactory.
Finally the teacher explained, “’When two people are angry with each other their hearts become distant. To cover that distance they must shout to be able to hear each other. The angrier they become, the stronger they will have to shout to cover the distance growing greater between them.” The teacher continued, “When two people disagree but remember their love, they don’t shout at each other but talk softly because their hearts are still very close. The distance between them is either very small or nonexistent.”
He looked at his disciples and said, “So when you argue do not let your hearts get distant and do not say words that create distance. Otherwise there will come a day when the distance is so great that you will not find the path to return.”
Anger is a necessary emotion. It tells us when an important boundary has been crossed. But destructive anger not only damages relationships, it damages us. Destructive anger teaches nothing, isolates us, and can lead to a kind of self-righteousness that shuts down any real listening or learning.
Think about how much angry shouting is going on in our society these days: in relationships, on television, in social media, in Congress. Daily we encounter hurtful words shouted in anger that are creating vast distances between us.
If we don’t soon begin to close the distance we will not find the path to return.