Who Are You Really Mad At?

Walking around, you will often hear people complaining about one thing or another. Claiming that someone was doing something intentionally just to tick them off. Though occasionally this may be the case, our perception of the situation does play a big role in how upset we become. These situations remind me of a portion of the story, “The Empty Boat,” written by Chuang Tzu.

If a man is crossing a river
and an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
even though he be a bad-tempered man,
he will not become angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
he will shout to him to steer clear.
And if the shout is not heard, he will shout again and yet again,
and begin cursing —
all because there is somebody in that boat.
Yet, if the boat were empty,
he would not be shouting
and he would not be angry.

We often become upset at people when we perceive them to have wronged us. We think their actions were counter-productive to our own ends. When there is no one to blame, we will often just let it go. Consider it wrong place, wrong time, or just bad luck. Why is it that we become so upset, and what can we do about it? Shuang Tzu states,

If you can empty your own boat
crossing the river of the world,
no one will oppose you,
no one will seek to harm you.

The vast majority of the time we become upset at someone is because they are there. At a certain level, we are venting our frustration with ourselves out on them. To illustrate this point, imagine getting an 89.57 as your final grade. You ask your teacher to change it and they respond, “I’m sorry, I can’t raise your grade you have already completed every assignment and extra-credit work.” You may become upset and claim that your teacher was working against you. You are yelling at the person in the other boat. Then, when you stop and take a moment and really look at what is going on, you will see that it isn’t personal. On average, any full time faculty member teaches four classes with a minimum of eight students each, as well as working on research in their area of expertise. madAt a bare minimum, they are grading 32 papers/assignments to calculate final grades. You are not upset with them for not raising your grade, you are upset with yourself for not having worked harder throughout the semester to ensure you get an A. This is an academic example, but you could also see it as the cashier at the grocery store who forgets to bag a can of diced tomatoes that you bought for dinner tonight. Instead of instantly blaming her for overseeing a small can, realize she must bag close to a thousand items on any given day; she wasn’t targeting you intentionally. It’s just another empty boat flowing down the river.
When we let go of our unnecessary frustrations with the world and claim responsibility, life becomes a whole lot more pleasant. You know the seeds you sow and what crops you will grow. To stay with the boat metaphor. Realize what creek you are going down, and be prepared, or you might just find yourself without a paddle, and the only one responsible is yourself.

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