Do Snowplows Cause Rage?

There is one common denominator lurking behind every bad day I have ever had—I was externalizing. The internal dialogue in my mind was persistently attributing how I was feeling to events and individuals outside of myself.  When I felt anxious, I attributed my anxiety to a problem I was facing. When I felt angry, I justified my anger by remembering something that someone had said or done. And, a bad day could turn into a bad week. When I have persistently attributed my feelings to an external event, I have shifted responsibility for my behavior onto something or someone else, and I set myself up to behave in a similar way as subsequent circumstances arise.

Notice, I wrote persistently attributed; because it takes persistence to keep a mistaken thought in place. Neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor has demonstrated that when we activate our conditioning to trigger a thought or feeling, that reaction lingers for only 90 seconds. In other words, we must rehearse our mistaken interpretation over and over again; otherwise our thoughts will fade away. Yes, we are always mistaken. Even in the unlikely event that a troubling event did occur exactly as we remember it, and even in the unlikely event that our interpretation of the event is correct—“He did this because…”—we are still wrong. If we are angry, it’s because we chose to be angry.

A simple technique will increase your personal effectiveness and increase your happiness: Simply notice how your internal dialogue attributes how you are feeling to events and individuals outside of your own mind.  Notice too, how common it is for all of us to fall into this trap. Every day, media coverage of events reinforces our choice to make these false attributions.

Consider this recent news story:

Snow plows have been out in full force in Wayne, N.J. since the storm hit. But some people who are digging out claim, some operators are plowing them right back in.

It’s causing snow plow rage.

[Ms. Y’s] husband is a public works employee. She says an angry resident attacked him with a bucket of salt.

“He sees the red face. He sees the anger in the resident. He sees the swinging bucket. And he even says, ‘Roll down that window or I’m going to bust you in the head with it.’ And boom,” she says.

She says the bucket missed her husband but shattered the passenger side window and dented the door of his plow truck.

[Mr. X] allegedly threw the bucket.

[Mr. X] says, “I wasn’t happy for my actions for that day. I was really annoyed at him and coming and plowing me straight in.”

Note: I have redacted names because they are not public figures.

Can the actions of somebody else really cause us to feel anger? To many of us, it certainly seems that way. The event (a careless act of an uncaring snowplow driver) occurs and then our feelings follow. Cause and effect seems certain to us and to most of our allies with whom we share our story. We are the hero of the story, the innocent victim; and even though we may have personally behaved foolishly, our actions were justified.

Clearly we are not responsible for the behavior of the snowplow driver. Indeed, there may be better ways to remove snow from the streets. That being said, we are always 100% responsible for how we choose to react to the events we experience.

We have all been in situations similar to Mr. X where it seemed to us as though we were merely reacting to external events. Yet, as we train our mind, we begin to see that there is a moment of choice, like the moment in which we choose to swing at a baseball pitch thrown to us. In other words, we make the choice to swing; we are not innocent victims.

A colleague says something to you. You watch your mind as it begins to put a negative meaning on what was said. You are now a choice point. From the standpoint of your ego, you have been thrown a fat, juicy pitch; and you are ready to take your best swing: “I’m sick of Joe—he is always talking to me in a hostile tone.” You now can react with what seems to you justifiable harshness or anger—or, you could choose another way. Watching your mind react, you could drop your interpretation of the event.

Going down this latter path, you don’t swing at the pitch. You choose to be happy rather than right. You release your reaction; and within seconds, the incident is over and you are smiling with your colleague. Now, I’m not advising you to stuff your emotions. Stuffing emotions means that you continue to identify with your emotions. Stuffing emotions, you continue to feel like an innocent victim, even when you do not escalate the situation by saying something.

Releasing emotions means you look at what is arising without judgment and you choose to not identify with what is arising. The part of your mind that can make this choice is the part of your mind that brings you peace, love, happiness, and insightful reactions.

Just last week, while digging out my car, I saw the snowplow driver coming down the road to make another pass. I chose to smile internally and wave cheerfully as he pushed back some more snow towards the car. He was doing the job he was paid to do; and given his constraints, he was doing it pretty well.

Yet, I can remember times when I would feel anger at the behavior of snowplow drivers. Looking back, I now understand their behavior didn’t magically reach into my mind to cause my angry thoughts. Oh no, on the days I was angered by their behavior, I was really looking for a scapegoat on which to project the anger that already existed in me. It seemed otherwise to me at the time, but I was simply not ready to accept responsibility for my angry feelings.

The cure was very simple—I had to understand what really was the cause and what really was the effect. Again, the snowplow driver didn’t magically reach into my mind and steal my peace. On the contrary, my restless mind reached into the world to find the guilty party for my decision to not be peaceful. In other words, in my mind, I made a decision to be angry. That decision was the cause of my interpretation of the behavior of the driver; my interpretation and the feelings that accompanied it were the effects of my decision to be angry.

Your experience of a situation can be transformed instantly when you understand what is really the cause and what is really the effect.  If a cause no longer exists because it is dropped, the effects must disappear. Often a smile will cross your face; immediately, you will be able to release your emotions as you realize that you are not upset for the reason you think.


10 Responses to Do Snowplows Cause Rage?

  1. Glenn says:

    so true, yet so difficult to practice. Yet intentional practice, discipline, is the path toward peace…

    “…acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. “

  2. Thanks, Glenn. This can be a difficult path but the good news is that it is a simple path. And so our practice includes watching our mind resist the simplicity of what we are asked to do.

  3. Bob Gast says:

    Very wise words that have been echoed repeatedly for a long time by many wise people. Thank You for the relevant reminder!

    The fact that we can understand that our thoughts and reactions are indeed choices does not mutually exclude our right, ability and responsibility to change those things which initially caused the illusion that we had no control over unseen beliefs.

    Until this discernment is made, many will dismiss your wise counsel as impossible.

  4. Thanks, Bob. You are exactly to the point–none of this precludes taking appropriate action in the world. There may be, for example, better ways to plow a street. After all a private contractor who clears your driveway doesn’t push the snow up against your garage.

  5. Steve P says:

    We can do with alot less rage in response to everyday events in the world. I trust there is no implication here that rage in never an appropriate response to rarer human actions on the extreme end of the spectrum. (One need only review the darker sides to human history).

  6. Thanks, Steve. Very interesting question. Did Sophie Scholl have to be in a rage to oppose Hitler? Did Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg have to be in a rage in order to attempt to assassinate Hitler? Or could “life” have called forth their actions without rage, but with clear seeing of what was being asked of them?

  7. Steve P says:

    Excellent questions (points) Barry. The evidence seems to indicate an absence of rage in the manner of their actions (choices made after rational contemplation). I would be surprised though, if rage was not an initial emotional response they both shared when first becoming aware of the atrocities which subsequently spurred them to action. (I find the differences in their choices of actions interesting as well).
    I guess my question is whether or not rage should always be considered a “mistaken thought” (even within that initial 90 second period, after which we must feed it for it to persist)? I don’t know. A buddhist monk seems less likely to experience rage in response to extreme events than just about anyone, but a buddhist monk is also less likely to respond to events the way Scholl or Stauffenberg did. Perhaps I’m mistaken that in releasing the emotion too soon one risks failing to take an action one should.

  8. Steve,

    Personally I find that whenever I begin with a thought of rage, I do not respond appropriately. What usually happens is that I do nothing.

    I guess I do believe that a thought of rage is always wrong-minded. However once we have wrong-minded reaction, we then face another choice point and another and another. So we can switch to our right mind at any time. Looking back it may then seem as though that the initial reaction was a necessary step in the process, but was it?

  9. Bob Gast says:

    Maybe another way to frame the conversation is:

    “Do Snowplows Cause Rage?” – the answer is no, we have the choice to be angry or enraged and it is often because of unchallenged beliefs. This is a matter of awareness.

    The real question, per Steve, might be:

    “Is the choice to become angry or enraged at Snowplows, or other things we observe in the world or that happen to us, an appropriate response? Further, does this response which we have chosen provide the basis for action in the world?”

    Just my thoughts 🙂

  10. Frankvv says:

    Excellent discussion! I had a similar experience with anger myself the other day when the snow plough driver closed up the end of my driveway with two feet of very heavy snow that I had just spent ½ an hour clearing away. I did catch the anger bellowing up inside me and I did, under my breath drop a four letter word. But then I got myself back in control of my emotions. After all, the snow plough driver was just doing his job – clearing the street. It is an unfortunate consequence that the process closed up the driveway and undid all my hard work. But with a little deep breathing (from the shoveling) I was able to push myself back into a “c’est la vie” state of mind. The person attacking the snow driver probably got a small moment of feeling better as his ego was being satisfied. But then reality probably set in and I’m sure regret followed. In our litigious society, it is a wonder that the truck driver didn’t sue the homeowner for his “revenge” (maybe that is pending). In my mind that would be just feeding the truck drivers ego the same way that the home owner fed his when he swung the salt pail. My wife has a great position on lawsuits that I love; ‘Suing generates sewage”, but I digress.

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