When Abraham Lincoln was angry at one of his colleagues, he would write a letter, what he called a “hot letter.” Then he would put it away until he calmed down. And he usually ended up not sending it at all.
This strikes me as a wise practice. Almost any time I’ve reacted in anger and sent out an scorching letter, email, or comment on someone’s feed, I’ve regretted it. And it resulted in nothing more than angry and hurt feelings.
Anger can be a useful emotion. It can let us know when something’s wrong in our lives or in our society. But to be used wisely, there has to be a cooling off period, as we decide what we are going to do next and how we’re going to do it. Only then should we take action.
I admire Lincoln’s ability to put a hold on his anger. And I think more of us would be happier right now if we had a growing pile of unsent letters in our desk, unsent emails in our outbox, and unshared comments in our feeds.
I am an avid fan of advice columns. I love the tough love approach that the writers deal out to those who are hoping against hope that common sense will not prevail and they’ll be told to continue on the path of self-delusion and (sometimes) selfishness. Here are some of my favorites from the past few weeks:
- I happened upon my boyfriend’s license and found out that he’d told me a wrong last name. What should I do?
- We live with our mother. Our grand-niece, who is allergic to cats, just had a baby and wants us to put the cats away when she brings the baby over. We’ve refused and now our mother hasn’t seen the baby. Why is everyone mad at us? Our cats are our babies and shouldn’t be penalized.
- Is it acceptable to put on an invitation, “if you did not RSVP but come anyway, please do not eat or drink anything”?
- My in-laws live in another country. Sometimes when I visit, they speak their language instead of English, which I think is rude. How can I convince them not to do that?
The answers are much as you would expect:
- Run away.
- Put your cats up.
- You’re mad because your relatives sometimes want to speak their own language in their home in their own country? How about taking some lessons in their language so you can join in?
Even assuming that some of these questions are just invented for the fun of it, there are some patterns that come through. We do obnoxious or thoughtless or stupid things. People get mad at us. We don’t want to admit or change. We seek out others to validate our choices.
There is an old saying that any lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. And sometimes when we do something and everyone is against us, we’re not a martyr. We’re just wrong. And we all need a person in our lives who will be that tough-love advice columnist.
There is always something inspirational happening at the Olympics. This week it was during the skiathlon. Simen Krueger, a skier from Norway, fell at the beginning of the race. Not only fell, but broke a pole, and had someone else’s ski through his bib. By the time he got up and was handed a new pole, he had lost around 40 seconds, about a century in Olympic terms. No one gave him much hope for doing anything but finishing the race. Not the audience. Not the commentators. Probably, momentarily, not even Krueger. (His name is spelled different ways online.) “I thought it was going to be the worst day of my life with the start I had, when I was lying on the ground with a broken pole and a ski through my bib number,” he said in an interview.
But he started again. And he focused on one thing: Catching up with the last team of skiers. Once he did that, he set another manageable goal, all the way until winning the gold.
Everyone will focus on the gold medal, and that certainly was amazing. But it would be just as amazing if he’d won silver or bronze. Or no medal at all.
He could have quit. He could have wasted energy being angry at others or himself for falling down. He could have thought only of the time he’d lost and how hard it would be now to earn a medal. (This is a big deal in Norway, where the goal is not individual gold but sweeping the medals.) Instead he focused on the one reachable goal (catching up) and did his best to do that.
And that is why he’s my Olympic hero so far.
When I was in high school, I had the biggest crush on Elton John. I listened to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 every week to see how songs like “Rocket Man” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” were faring on the charts. When he appeared on the Cher show, I skipped flag corps practice to see him (with devastating effects on my performance). I did not think it out of the realm of possibility that we would somehow meet and marry.
As I got older, my crush dissipated, but I still liked Elton. I saw him in concert three times. And although I am not as big a fan as I once was, I was definitely interested when he announced his retirement tour and one of the locations was Nashville.
The presale tickets were expensive, and I wasn’t sure I could find anyone who would want to go with me. (We’re talking eight months in advance here.) So while I dillydallied, tickets were sold. Finally, when I revisited the website, there were no sets of two tickets left.
But there was a ticket for one seat. I started to grab it when doubt struck me again. Would I be comfortable sitting by myself? What should I do?
I decided to buy it, but in the minutes that I spent wondering, someone else with more decisiveness grabbed the ticket. I won’t be seeing Elton.
The lesson here is simple. Say yes to opportunities.