Why do so many people embrace anger?

I’ve been thinking about Steve Bartman. Thinking of him a lot because his 20th anniversary is coming up this fall.

You Chicago Cub fans know all about Bartman.  He was most hated man at Wrigley Field when he interfered with a foul ball Oct. 14, 2003, in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.

The outfielder may not have caught the ball anyway, but the Cubs lost that game. Fans blamed Bartman and cursed him. They threw beer on his head. The Cubs went on to lose the series, causing the anger against Bartman to intensify. He received hate mail and threats against his life.

Bartman endured 13 years of anguish for his innocent mistake that day. Social scientists say long-term anger is debilitating and a danger to long-term health. Most certainly, Cubs fans were sick with their unrelenting anger.

Anti-Bartman vitriol lasted  right up until 2016, when the Cubs finally won a World Series. In a classy move, the Cubs organization gave Bartman a World Series ring as an act of forgiveness and to end his misery.

“I am happy to be reunited with the Cubs family and positively moving forward with my life,” he said.

Baseball. It should be entertainment, an amusing way to pass the time. In a perfect world with perfect people, the game should be a source of fun for a day — like going to a Six Flags theme park.

The Bartman incident shows just how extreme emotions can ruin a good thing.

Maybe we should have listened to Seneca the Younger. He was a Roman philosopher who lived during the time of Christ. He and Christ never met each other as far as we know, but they could have been hugging buddies.

To Seneca, anger was “worthless, even for war.” Seneca thought it was because of cold discipline that the mighty Roman army always won. Even in sporting contests, including baseball, had it been invented then, “it is a mistake to become angry,” Seneca wrote. 

There’s an old saying — “memento mori.” It means, “Everything must die.” All things must pass, including you and I. Seneca might have put it, “Cool your jets.”

“We shouldn’t (merely) control anger, but destroy it entirely,” Seneca wrote in his seminal work, De Ira. That’s because anger “is fundamentally wicked.”

He wrote this about war: “We are mad, not only individually, but nationally. We check manslaughter and isolated murders; but what of war and the much-vaunted crime of genocide?”

Seneca went into detail in his tome, Ad Lucilium epistulae morales: “So we come to this clearest manifestation of insanity — that deeds which rightfully would be punished with a sentence of death when committed by an ordinary man, are suddenly praised and celebrated when committed by a (Roman) general wearing a uniform.”

Why do we love war and anger? It tingles our brains.

Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, we  can probe deep into the human brain. We can watch as anger ‘lights up’ in our brain’s lateral orbitofrontal cortex.

If you don’t own an MRI to see that, use your words instead. A Gallup poll  in 2021 found that 23 percent of adult Americans experienced a lot of anger, up from 18 percent in 2014.

And they’re loving it. As Leon F. Seltzer wrote in Psychology Today, “There’s a perverse pleasure in getting mad. Despite the fact that anger rarely solves anything and frequently makes matters worse between you and the person or situation that incited it, in the moment it still affords you considerable gratification. However unconsciously, self-servingly resorting to anger offers you the “reward” of both comfort and consolation. And it labels the other as perpetrator—and you as victim.

The late Carl Rogers, a 20th-century pioneer of psychotherapy, studied simple kindness, and it earned him the Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions by the American Psychological Association in 1956. His bright idea was to just accept clients on his couch “as they say they are.” 

“Sometimes, the deeper goal is to meet someone on their own terms, to believe their version of the world,” he wrote.

OK, but the approach I’ve accepted since age 12 came from another esteemed source – prime time television.

It was on March 4, 1960, and the ultimate validation came from none other than Rod Serling, the guy who steered me into writing, then eventually onto journalism.

The episode titled, “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” and it changed my life forever.

No quick synopsis can suffice for this masterpiece, but here’s one: A meteor shoots across the sky and the power goes out on Maple Street. A boy named Tommy suggests it’s because invaders from space have taken human form. The neighbors argue and accuse each other, escalating their fears until they become a violent, out-of-control mob.

The final scene is in a spacecraft where alien visitors watch the spectacle of crazed humans running amok on Maple Street. 

Said one alien to another: “Just stop a few of their machines and radios and telephones and lawn mowers … Throw them into darkness for a few hours and then you just sit back and watch the pattern.”

Their takeover of Earth will be easy because there’s a Maple Street in every city.

Serling’s closing thought: “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices — to be found only in the minds of men.”

If you don’t believe this, let your lateral orbitofrontal cortex flicker and consider that game wrecker, Steve Bartman.

There’s a World Series every fall.