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Anger Kills

Anger literally killed my grandfather. I mean literally literally here, not figuratively: My grandfather Harry G. Duntemann got furiously angry, and he died. This is one reason I’ve tried all my life to be good-natured and upbeat, and not let piddly shit (a wonderful term I learned from my father) get me worked up. This worked better some times than others. (Once it almost didn’t work at all. I’ll get to that.) Practice does help. However, in the wake of the election, a lot of people whose friendship I value are making themselves violently angry over something that may be unfortunate but can’t be changed. This is a bad idea. It could kill you.

Consider Harry Duntemann 1892-1956. He was a banker, fastidious and careful, with a tidy bungalow on Chicago’s North Side, a wife he loved, and two kids. One was a model child. The other was my father. Both he and his son were veterans of the World Wars, which is one reason I mention them today. My grandfather, in fact, won a medal for capturing two German soldiers in France all by himself, by faking the sounds of several men on patrol and demanding that they come out with their hands up. They did. He played them good and proper, and nobody got hurt.

He had an anger problem. Things bothered him when they didn’t go his way. Family legend (which I’ve mentioned here before) holds that my father comprised most of the things that didn’t go his way. His anger isn’t completely inexplicable. Harry worked in a bank, and was for a time the chief teller at the First National Bank of Chicago. You don’t get to do jobs like that if you’re sloppy, and if you spot errors, you track them down like rats and kill them.

Harry was the sort of man who really shouldn’t retire, but retire he did, at age 62. He bought a lot in tony Sauganash and had a fancy new house built. I honestly don’t know what he did with his time. He golfed, and taught me how to do simple things with tools when I was barely four. He worked in his garden and his vegetable patch. My guess: He was bored, and what might not have bothered him when he oversaw the teller line at Chicago’s biggest bank now preyed on his mostly idle mind.

One day in August 1956 a couple of neighborhood punks vandalized his almost-new garage, and he caugfht them in the act. He yelled at them, and they mocked him. He yelled more. They mocked more. Finally he just turned around, marched into his house, sat down in his big easy chair…

…and died.

He was healthy, a lifetime nonsmoker, trim, not diabetic, and not much of a drinker. I suspect he was more active in retirement than he had been during his working life. He had no history of heart disease. He had no history of anything. Anything, that is, but anger.

I ignited a smallish firestorm on Facebook yesterday when I exhorted people who were angry over the election to just let it go. Most of them seemed to think that “letting it go” meant “accepting it” or even condoning it. Maybe in some circles it does. I don’t know. To me it means something else entirely, something that may well have saved my life.

As my long-time readers know, I lost my publishing company in 2002. It didn’t die a natural death. I can’t tell you more than that for various reasons, but Keith and I didn’t see it coming, and it hit us hard. I put on a brave face and did my best. Once I was home all day, though, it just ate at me. I was soon unable to sleep, to the point that I was beginning to hallucinate. To say I was angry doesn’t capture it. Depression is anger turned inward, and I became depressed.

I had a lot of conversations with Bishop Elijah of the Old Catholic Church of San Francisco. He was getting worried about me, and in late 2002 he Fedexed me a little stock of consecrated oil, and told me quite sternly to anoint myself. I did. (After I did, I laughed. Would Jesus haved used FedX? Of course He would. Jesus used what He had on hand to do the job He had to do. Catholicism is sacramental, but also practical.) Elijah diagnosed me pretty accurately when he said: You’re hoping for a better yesterday. You won’t get it. Let it go.

It took awhile. It took longer, in fact, than Bishop Elijah had left on this Earth, and I struggled with it for years after he died in 2005. The company wasn’t piddly shit. It was the finest thing I had ever done. How could I let it go?

I thought of my grandfather Harry every so often. And eventually it hit me: Those little snots didn’t kill him, as I had thought all my life. They played him, and he killed himself with his own anger. “Letting it go” cooked down to protecting myself from myself. I’ll never get my company back, but I can now see it from enough of a height to keep my emotional mind from dominating the memory. I learned a lot as a publisher. I made friends, and money, and reputation. I supervised the creation of a lot of damned fine books, and won awards. Losing it was bad, but life around me was good. (Carol especially.) I could choose to obsess, and probably die before my time, or I could recognize the damage my anger could do and turn the other way. I’m not sure how better to describe it. It was a deliberate shift of emotional attention from my loss to new challenges.

This isn’t just a theory of mine. Anger kills by keeping the body awash in cortisol, which causes inflammation of the arteries. The inflammation causes loose lipids to collect in arterial plaques, which eventually block an artery and cause an infarction. Plug the wrong artery at the wrong time, and you’re over.

Anger is a swindle. It doesn’t matter if it’s “righteous anger,” whateverthehell that is. Anger promises the vindication of frustration and disappointment, and delivers misery and early death. When I’ve seen people online turning bright purple with fury the last couple of days, that’s what I see: Good people being played by the desire for a better yesterday. It won’t kill most of them. It may well kill a few. It will lose them friends. It will make other people avoid them. It may prompt them to eat and drink too much. It is basically making them miserable, to no benefit whatsoever.

When I say “let it go” these days, I mean what I said above: Protect yourself from yourself. Call a truce between the two warring hemispheres of your brain. Turn to something else, something you can change, something that may earn out the effort you put into it with knowledge, skill, and accomplishment.

Believe me on this one: There is no better yesterday. Don’t go down that road.

You may never come back.


  1. Edward Hanley says:

    Absolutely true. Forgiveness is something you do for yourself; it doesn’t affect anyone else. (Except that you may be nicer to them.) I went through the same turmoil as you, losing a multi-million dollar patented product to some sharp industry insiders playing me as an amateur. The symptoms of anger killing you slowly are horrible, horrible. Interesting parallel: it was something my pastor said in a sermon one Sunday that made me realize I had no choice but to forgive and let it go. Unfortunately I forgave the whole pack of ne’er-do-wells so suddenly, once I’d made the decision, that my body chemistry changed quickly, dramatically. It was almost like an out-of-body thing, feeling like I had two personalities, and one of them had died. The angry one HAD died, and nowadays I can’t stay angry about anything for more than a few minutes. Something kicks in and reminds me that I’d stepped back onto that railroad track again, in front of a barreling freight train behind me.

    1. Forgiveness is a difficult and subtle business, but it’s strongly related to anger, in that anger generally remains (often repressed and hidden but still corrosive) until forgiveness happens.

      I see the ability to forgive and get on with life as a strong proxy for essential sanity.

      There’s another part to this whole business, about the release of anger once it happens, that I’ve had some experience with and will write about as time allows.

  2. George Tirebiter says:

    Good thoughts Jeff.

    The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given:

    “Anger and hate are like you drinking poison and hoping the other guy dies.”

    1. Heh. Some political tantrums I’ve seen online were so fundamentally silly that my only risk would be dying of laughter.

  3. Tim Field says:


  4. Gibson Turley says:

    I’m passing along this little gem from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr.Rowan Williams 2007 Easter service:

    “If we can accept the unwelcome picture of us and our world that Good Friday offers, we are in the strangest way, set free to hear what Easter says.

    Give up the struggle to be innocent and the hope that God will proclaim that you were right and everyone else wrong. Simply ask for whatever healing it is that you need, whatever grace and hope you need to be free, then step towards your neighbour; Easter reveals a God who is ready to give you that grace and to walk with you.”

    — The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams
    Easter Sermon – 2007

    ps Jeff, still have my “Complete Turbo Pascal” in a glass display case along with MASM in the acrylic box, Sidekick, and a few other choice titles!

  5. Michael Abrash says:

    One of the most important things you’ve ever written.

    1. I’m not a particularly good judge of what’s important in my own work, but I’ll gladly take your word for it, as you’ve known me now for over 30 years!

  6. Jim Tubman says:

    Well said, Jeff.

    As I said to you in a private conversation, for Canadian friends of America, this election was like watching your next-door neighbour’s house burn down.

    The anger and the gloating over the election results is unworthy of a great people of a great nation, a nation that I have visited many times, and worked with for many of the years of my career, and for which I have a tremendous affection.

    A challenge to you all: seek out someone who voted for The Other One. Offer to buy him/her a cup of coffee, and ask she/he why he/she voted that way. Keep your mouth closed until your coffee recipient is finished. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. You may still not agree, but you may understand the other person differently than you had assumed.

    And if you did that, let us know here, please.

    1. This would be hard for me, as I had deeper misgivings about both candidates than I recall having against any single candidate in the last twenty or thirty years. So any notion of “the Other One” is fraught.

      In general, I can get along with anybody until they go on the attack, and I’ve learned a lot listening to people I disagree with. Disagreement does not preclude cooperation or even friendship. Empathy and (especially) a cussed refusal to surrender to tribal manipulation are vital. This last, however, is becoming scarcer and scarcer as tribalism has come to be seen as stylish rather than something that makes us less than fully human.

  7. Rich Shealer says:

    Very good essay Jeff.

    I am fortunate to that for the most part I don’t stay angry very long. It’s not that I just forget about the slights of life, I just do not have the energy to keep it very long. I generally will discount that person or entity going forward and go another direction. I know some events hurt deeper than others.

    On the down side, my passion for other things are probably equally tempered. I will never be accused of being a type A personality.

    I know people close to me that when describing an event that happened fifty years ago relive the pain like it just happened. I think not being able to let go has been detrimental to their progress in life.

    Looking at political protests such as kneeling during the national anthem or flag burning, I choose to see it as a reflection of character of the person doing the act.

    They can’t destroy my flag by burning it, they can only burn the cloth. They cannot dishonor our armed forces by not doing the proper ritual during the nation anthem, those sacrifices have been recorded. If you decide to hold the higher standard the standard is held no matter what others may do.

    If we allow ourselves to become angry at the acts by others, we not only give merit to their cause, we can’t hear or see the reason behind it and that means it will continue to escalate rather than lead to the understanding needed to improve the quality of life for all involved.

    Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.

    1. This is very well said. Thanks for taking the time to post it.

      I’ve said this here and there in the past: If you let somebody else make you angry, they win. Worse, being angry repels most people, and if you’re angry about a cause, you’re more likely to turn people against your cause than bring them into it. Anger does not persuade. It alienates.

      Anger is in truth a complicated business. It’s a fundamental human mechanism, which evolution has employed in different ways. One of the worst is tribalism, which I’ve studied in depth, and would write about except that any discussion of tribalism tends to make tribalists, well, angry. I may have to at some point, if the level of tribal anger I’m seeing doesn’t damp down fairly quickly.

      I’m pretty sure that anger originally evolved to make people fight in circumstances other than self-defense. WWI was not a popular war, and the public had to be provoked into entering the war by making them angry via inflammatory articles in newspapers and magazines. Right now I’m seeing a lot of online provocation to anger, which I think is intended to make people who might otherwise not care deeply about The Current Issue first frightened and then angry. (Fear is a sort of emotional grease that makes anger a great deal easier to provoke.)

      So again, thanks. And watch this space. I don’t post very often, but I try to discuss an important (or at least interesting) topic when I do.

  8. Where’s the “like” button on this thing?

    Thanks for some sanity. We need it these days.

  9. Larry Standage says:

    I remember the moment I finally let go of my anger at politicians back in 2000 when I found myself yelling at the radio. I realized that my anger wasn’t going to change the outcome, and was only affecting me. Now I express my feeling on the ballot, and call it good.

    You’re previous articles on tribalism, and this one, have hit it on the head. The political parties today no longer stand on principles, except where it “energizes the base” and makes them angry at the other. The result is that both major political parties are just Angry Fill-in-the-Blank(s), and they are getting angrier.

    In the meantime, I can have fun with my homemade 3D printer, being driven by a Raspberry Pi running OctoPrint (after I get my nozzle cleaned out). A fun future ahead, though I sometimes do miss the old Turbo Pascal days.

  10. Jim Dodd says:

    This was a very good post, Jeff. Thank you for this. In spite of what many say, we don’t really know what is going to happen now. And we never do. I did not vote for the winner of the election but I am sure that if the candidate I voted for had won, there would be as much anger and doom and gloom predictions as there are now. I’ve never seen such a divide in the electorate and messages like yours are needed to start the healing. And we must heal. God will help us with that but we need to ask and be willing to listen.

  11. Jason Kaczor says:


    I used to have a horrible temper – but in 2011 was hit with a “bell’s palsy” stroke – during the course of a horrible separation.

    That started me on the path to calmness and serenity – meeting my extremely calm soul-mate 2.5 years ago helped continue the journey.

    And it is a journey – I still have to deal with the “ex” – and life has been hard the last couple years, career-wise, etc.

    However… happiness and letting go can help alot…

  12. Thanks for posting your grandfather’s story and your own, Jeff. I’m glad you were able to gain practical wisdom from both tragedies. Folks could do a lot worse than heeding your advice.

  13. RH in CT says:

    Well said.

    Now, after two weeks of being greeted by Anger Kills on my daily visits to your blog, a change would be nice. Odd Lots, or news of some nice bit of hardware, or a book worth reading, or something about rearranging your workshop… How’s the weather down there?


    1. Ok. I’m fighting the worst cold I’ve had in a couple of years, as well as traveling. Being miserable and exhausted does not lend itself to creativity. I’ll see what I can come up with. Should be some odd lots I can post. Thanks for checking in.

      1. Keith says:

        Don’t put off seeking medical attention very long. I don’t want you to repeat Jim Henson’s mistake! I hope you are feeling better soon.

        1. Not to worry. Carol has a medical background, and considerable investment in keeping me alive and functional. She sent me to the doc when this all turned up. I have prescriptions to treat the symptoms, though alas, viruses just have to be endured.

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