President Abraham Lincoln was mad as hell.
The Union Army, led by Gen. George Meade, had cornered the forces led by Robert E. Lee after the battle at Gettysburg, but let him get away.
There was no email, Twitter or Facebook to vent his anger, so the president turned to the preferred way of communication at the time: a flaming letter.
The president wrote of “the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp and to have closed upon him would, in connection with other late success, have ended the war.”
Tough language for those days, but as Doris Kearns Goodwin reported in Team of Rivals, Meade never saw it. After Lincoln’s death, the letter was found in an envelope labeled in the president’s handwriting, “To Gen. Meade. Never sent, or signed.”
The president benefited from a feature of old communication. He had time to reconsider and pull back before he caused any damage. Anyone who has fired off a nasty email to a boss, co-worker or loved one and instantly regretted it knows how valuable that feature would be.
In an era when mistakes can fly around the world at the speed of light, good judgment is needed instantly, too.
As part of the Beacon Journal’s America Today project exploring incivility and how it affects society, we talked to several people who have felt anger and the urgency to lash out, but also found a way to temper their reactions and to heal. Here are their stories.
Fighting the pain
Anyone could understand Michael Kohler’s anger. Wounded in Iraq, losing 80 percent of the muscle in his left thigh, he had to go through more than 20 operations, one of which resulted in nerve damage.
Even more debilitating were the emotional wounds from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He was angry at his country over what happened to him and he lashed out verbally at his wife, the medical staff and most of the people around him.
He found it satisfying to lash out. He knows he’s not alone.
“Our culture thrives on conflict now,” he said. “We love it; it’s just imbued in everything we do. It’s very fulfilling to just react.”
But then he added: “It gets you nowhere to do it. It perpetuates a problem in society that needs to change.”
That means holding back his feelings about the Iraq war with his buddies still in the military.
“I don’t want any of my friends adopting that way of thinking and then going over there,” he said. “When you are doing something like that, latching onto something to believe helps to keep you going. I think I would be doing some damage to somebody’s psyche. … I feel doing something like that undermines what they are doing.”
Now, as a University of Akron political science student involved in the Bliss Institute’s work on civility, he can see how his experiences can be instructive to others.
After months of military and marriage counseling, he understands the process that leads to uncivil comments on message boards, on talk shows, at political rallies and in attack ads.
“The first thing they do is just throw out their gut reaction,” he said. “… They hear something, they don’t like it and instead of stopping and thinking about what it is they just heard and how it relates to their opinion … they just respond based on the first thing that comes to their mind and it hugely contributes to the incivility that’s occurring.”
He sees value in a pause and reflection.
“Before you respond to somebody, take a breath and listen to what it is they said and then by doing that, you give yourself enough of a delay to think about what you are going to say before you say it,” he said. “ And by giving yourself that delay, you could drastically change what you say.”
As a man who makes his living teaching people how to communicate, the Rev. Norm Douglas was taken aback by his own anger. He was troubled by questions regarding the financial strength of Heart to Heart Communications a few years ago and he was lashing out at co-founder Larry Vuillemin.
A big part of Heart to Heart’s nonprofit work is to go into tense workplaces and teach people how to work out their differences peacefully. But the tension this time was in Heart to Heart’s Akron office, where Vuillemin asked what he thought were perfectly proper questions about finances.
Douglas, the executive director, felt threatened.
There were some harsh words, and Vuillemin wasn’t going to take it.
“He said ‘I’m not going to talk about this now if you are going to come at it like that’ and he left,” Douglas said. “Originally I was mad at him for leaving because, when I’m mad, I want to do it right then.”
Vuillemin was having what he later explained as a “Sabbath Moment.”
Like Lincoln, they needed time to let the emotions subside and reason and kindness to take over.
“Within the hour I began looking inside of me and saying, ‘Why did I get so upset?’ ” Douglas said.
He found answers within.
“He was bringing something up about finances and I realized it was pushing all kinds of buttons on me, feeling inadequate as an executive director,” Douglas said.
Vuillemin, a lawyer, deals with angry people frequently. His advice is to “take a Sabbath Moment to receive it and don’t inject your own emotions into it. I have the word ‘Breathe’ on my phone at work. Because I know when people call, I should be in the present, better be present and take [account] of my own feelings.”
Later, Vuillemin admitted, “I came in a bit judgmental, maybe a lot judgmental.”
Douglas said he should have spent more time trying to understand Vuillemin’s concerns and less time being defensive.
“Am I perfect? No. Could it happen again? Sure,” the Catholic priest said. “I called Larry. I apologized and I explained there were a lot of things going on. And I didn’t explain it to excuse my behavior but to explain.”
It’s a lesson to be learned over and over, Vuillemin said.
When he feels himself getting mad, he might ask: “What’s going on in you, Larry, Mr. Heart to Heart?”
And then there’s the part about the Golden Rule. Heart to Heart sometimes distributes a sheet with versions of the Golden Rule as expressed in the world’s great religions. It isn’t just about not yelling because you don’t want to be yelled at; it’s about trying to understand the other guy.
Listening is a start. Vuillemin tells about the value of a Native American tradition of the talking stick. Everyone gets to hold it and speak his mind and keep passing it on until every gets to speak.
“Everybody has something to offer. Even if I disagree with it, there is something in it that I may need to know,” Vuillemin said. “You know there is that old saying that when you seek to discover the best in another, somehow it brings out the best in you.”
Grace under pressure
It was Detroit Tiger Armando Galarraga’s chance to make history on June 2, 2010. He needed one more out to complete a perfect game against the Cleveland Indians. A ball was hit to his left and all he needed to do was catch a throw from an infielder and beat the runner to first base.
But there was one problem: Jim Joyce, widely regarded as one of baseball’s best umpires, blew the call. In his eyes, the runner was safe.
Galarraga knew it was a bad call. The crowd in Detroit knew the umpire was wrong. Television replays proved the runner was out. But an umpire’s ruling is the only one that counts, and it stands to this day.
Galarraga didn’t rant, stomp around or even argue. He just smiled.
Professor Billy Lyons, a baseball fan and director of the University of Akron’s Center for Conflict Management, says the behavior of Galarraga and Joyce afterward illustrates how to gracefully resolve a moment of high tension.
After the game, Joyce saw the video and immediately conceded he was wrong, answering questions from reporters instead of hiding in a locker room.
The next day, tears were in Joyce’s eyes when Galarraga, still forgiving, brought out the lineup card to the umpires — usually a coach’s job. The two men embraced and the crowd cheered — at least most of them.
“The umpire was a heartbreakingly decent human being,” Lyons said. And he allowed for the possibility that Galarraga is more famous for having suffered from a lost perfect game than if he had completed the gem.
What Vuillemin calls a Sabbath Moment, Lyons calls an opportunity to achieve greater understanding. Like Lincoln, they see value in putting time between anger and response.
Lyons suggests people “start with, ‘Tell me more,’ ” when they hear a comment that seems outrageous and actually listen to the response.
“Don’t rehearse your response while the other person is speaking,” he said. “I see it as a skill that we need to teach and practice.”
Taking a position of curiosity is important, even if it doesn’t lead to complete agreement.
“It’s about adopting a curious approach to life,” he said. “It’s about seeing democratic deliberation as a form of collective inquiry, not just an opportunity to bash the opponent. Do we disagree with people? Yes, we do, and sometimes we disagree in pretty stark terms, but an open-minded approach helps us solve problems because it allows people who have different points of view to sit down together and say, ‘…Let’s figure out exactly where we do disagree rather than approach disagreements in a way, in a method, with an approach that makes it impossible to see where some compromise or collaboration could be possible.’ ”
He sees hope in everyday Americans.
“Regular Americans are not polarized; elites are polarized,” he said, citing polling. “The people who are really active in politics, they are polarized. They see themselves in a cultural war and they hate the opponent. The average American, polling data shows over and over again, says ‘Do whatever works. I don’t care; just fix the problem.’ ”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or email@example.com. Follow Scott on Twitter at davescottofakro.