Blowing off steam

Blowing off steam

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We all have them and we can laugh about them — later. In the moment, they are the shortening fuse that converts us from rational people capable of responding to any challenges into people who can’t control the frustration boiling inside us.

Recently, I visited with a friend who couldn’t get through a security gate on the way to a party. She had to wait as several people working at a gated community discussed whether to admit the car in front of her.

My friend is a brilliant person who is capable of erudite speeches, has keen insights and is informed about a wide range of subjects. She is among the most charming people in a room — most of the time.

Sitting in a line that came to a complete standstill, however, she “lost it.” She walked up to the glass partition, shouted at the security guards and demanded that they let her enter a party that would last for hours.

Even in the moment, she says, she could see herself saying things out of intense frustration, but she couldn’t regain control.

Those raw and exposed moments can be — and often are — the subjects of YouTube videos, as people around the action whip out their phones to chronicle someone who reached the point of no return in his or her actions.

From what I understand, our fuses get shorter during the summer months. It’s an ironic time for us to become so irate, when we dial back the pressure and take trips to our national parks, to Niagara Falls, or to a college or high school reunion. Maybe the heat shortens the fuse or speeds up the travel from when the fuse is lit to when it triggers us to react in a way we would just as soon avoid?

To some degree we need moments to blow off steam, to let it go and to release the toxins that have built up in us over the preceding days, weeks, months or, in some cases, years. Letting go of the control we maintain over ourselves through all the hundreds or thousands of nuisances and annoyances can cleanse us and restore our equanimity in a way that yoga classes, deep-breathing exercises or a repetition of a mantra like “serenity now” doesn’t quite cover.

To be clear, I’m not talking about those moments when someone commits some grievous act but, rather, the times when those of us with considerable calm suddenly throw spirited temper tantrums that are visual or verbal displays, without injuries to anyone other than our pride.

In those contained but still surprising displays, is it possible to stop the reaction before we start flapping our arms, jumping up and down, banging on glass doors, or unintentionally releasing saliva when we make our anger-laden point about the inconvenience someone is causing?

Generally, I’ve found that a lit fuse finds its mark, no matter how many James Bond movies I’ve seen where he stops a detonation with 007 seconds left.

So, who lights our fuses? I think it’s people on either extreme: those we know incredibly well, who have a talent for throwing darts at our anger bull’s-eye; and those people we may interact with only once, whose commitment to a process keeps us from accomplishing some task.

Then again, no one can light our fuse if we didn’t let them. We bear responsibility for a lit fuse because we ultimately sit in the control rooms of our brains, like those characters in the animated movie “Inside Out.” So, when the red guy in our brains takes over and he starts stomping our feet and demands that the car in front of us should “go, go, go,” what’s the solution?

Maybe if we anticipate laughing afterward, we can short-circuit that red guy and neither laugh at him nor with him, but laugh about what he might have done.