Getting Angry Wastes Too Much Energy

There is a wonderful passage in The Boys in the Boat. The book, which tells the story of the University of Washington rowing team in their pursuit of Olympic gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, focuses mostly on a young man named Joe Rantz. Rantz had experienced a horrible childhood. His mother died when he was four years old, and his stepmother began throwing him out of the house around age ten. In the end, he would end up abandoned by his family and end up hunting and foraging for his own survival. His father would eventually intervene, only to abandon Joe again when he moved the entire family.

Asked by his fiancee why he wasn’t mad about all of this, how he seemed to take this betrayal and loss so stoically, he tells her:

“It takes energy to get angry. It eats you up inside. I can’t waste my energy like that and expect to get ahead. When they left, it took everything I had in me just to survive. Now I have to stay focused. I’ve just gotta take care of myself.”

And of course, Rantz was well-served by this strategy. A longshot for making the crew at University of Washington, his team would end up narrowly beating Italy in the 1936 Olympics and winning the gold medal. But even if he hadn’t achieved all that success, had he not “gotten ahead”—to use his term—he still would have been right.

The Stoics saw anger as a destructive, draining weight that we add on top of already difficult situations. Like Rantz, they questioned who can afford to burn up so much energy? Things are tough enough, why put yourself further behind just because it might feel good to yell? Or to carry a grudge? Nobody abandons a family because they didn’t know it was wrong. Nobody is going to stop hurting you because you resent them for it. And no amount of rage will ever change the past.

It’s hard enough to survive life as it is. Getting mad about the unfairness or maddening randomness of it all wastes too much energy. Let’s focus our energy on where it can actually make a difference.

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