Commute Diary #3: Anger is a Secondary Emotion
But finally, I’ve got some real help — from brain science! A zine I edited a few months ago has had a major impact on my commute. It’s called This is Your Brain on Anger, and it’s by by Dr. Faith Harper, a counselor in San Antonio who wrote it as part of the wind-up to her 2017 book with us, Unfuck Your Brain (you’ll hear more about that one later!). Like I said last time, I get pissed off a lot while I’m biking, which is not exactly the emotional state I’m going for in life, and also doesn’t exactly inspire me to make great choices in traffic.
Anyway, the gist of this zine is that anger is by definition always a secondary emotion—we use it in place of whatever we’re actually feeling that isn’t as culturally or personally acceptable. Like, say, the terror of a truck grille all up in your face, or the hurt of getting callously brushed aside by someone texting in luxury SUV—both literally in the road and metaphorically in your rapidly gentrifying city.
“Anger is a secondary emotion” has become my mantra on the road. It’s sort of helpful in forestalling my own anger… though once I’m mad, I pretty much forget everything but that ’til later. Most of all, it changes my response to someone else’s anger. When I hear a horn blare, or feel the whoosh of air as a car zooms past me too close and fast, I think “secondary emotion.” Wondering what they’re actually feeling and taking out on me is weirdly soothing. My reflex to respond by flipping someone off, blowing them a kiss, or yelling something sarcastic or crass dissipates completely when I can imagine that what they’re feeling is something other than murderous psychopathy.
In reality, almost nobody on the road actually hates me personally and wants to kill or maim me. I’m not so enlightened that I can excuse or even really forgive reckless or callous driving—don’t people realize they’re behind the wheel of a two-ton weapon? But it’s nice to learn that I can at least feel some compassion for someone’s bad choices and reactions, and prevent myself from ruining my own day by reacting in kind.