Legal Commentary by Monte Vines

Anger Can Eclipse Good Judgment

Last week I drove up into Nebraska hoping to find some clear skies in the path of totality of the solar eclipse. And I found some. What an experience! Probably once in a lifetime. So I thought I’d write about a legal topic that would work in the idea of an eclipse. Here’s an analogy I think works pretty well.

When people come to me for help with a legal dispute, they usually say they want to find a good resolution, and to find it as quickly and efficiently as possible. There can be any number of roadblocks in the way of a good resolution, depending on the particular circumstances and people involved.  Some roadblocks are legal issues, some are practical problems, and some are personal issues. One personal issue that comes up sometimes, blocking the way to a good resolution, is the anger one or more of the parties has regarding the dispute.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that people can get angry over a legal dispute. Legal disputes often involve things that are very important to people—serious injury or death of a loved one; the loss or potential loss of valuable property or large amounts of money; the loss of employment or unfair treatment in employment; injury to a business or to a valuable business relationship; the loss of an important personal relationship, like a marriage; etc.

Anger isn’t a bad thing in itself.  It is a normal human emotion.  It can motivate people to do the hard work necessary to correct something bad that has happened or is about to happen. But anger can be a challenge to handle well. Aristotle had this to say about anger: “Anybody can become angry—that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” 

When a person’s anger is so strong and long-lasting that it predominates over their other emotions and faculties, especially when it eclipses their normal good judgment, it becomes a big roadblock to achieving a good resolution.

And there it is—the eclipse analogy. So picture this. Rather than the dark moon moving over the bright sun until it completely blots out the sun’s light, a person’s anger over a wrong or perceived wrong can dominate over their good judgment until there is no longer any trace of their good judgment in dealing with the dispute.

I’ve had clients whose anger over a dispute made it very difficult for me to show them a path toward a good resolution. When that happens, finding a way to deal with their anger is as important as dealing with any of the legal issues or practical problems in the dispute. But at least when it is my client who is angry, I am in a position to help them recognize and do something about their anger.

I’ve also been involved in legal disputes where the opposing party is extremely angry. It’s particularly frustrating when it appears their anger is misdirected or is based on an incorrect understanding about the subject of the dispute. Finding a way to deal with an opposing party’s anger can be quite a challenge. I usually don’t have the opportunity to have the kind of frank discussion with an opposing party that I can have with a client who has come to trust and respect what I have to say. But in my experience it is almost always worth the effort, even if it is ultimately unsuccessful.

And here’s where the analogy breaks down a bit. In a solar eclipse, the moon blots out the sun for only a short time. Then it moves on and the sun shines again. Anger becomes a roadblock to a good resolution of a legal dispute when it eclipses a person’s good judgment and doesn’t move on—when it seethes, and festers, and becomes entrenched. While an eclipse lasting for a few moments is an awesome sight, imagine life if the moon never moved on and continually blotted out the sun. It would get old fast and would seriously interfere with life on earth. So, too, with unresolved anger over a legal dispute that eclipses a person’s ability to recognize a path toward a good resolution.

If you know a person in a situation like that, are you in a position to help them recognize it and start to work through it? Or perhaps to point them to someone who can?

8 Responses to Anger Can Eclipse Good Judgment

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Monte. An interesting analogy — I agree with your well written ideas. I do plan to share it with some colleagues.

  2. This is less about law and more about life.
    Epiticus, at height of the Roman Empire and Stoic philosopher reign said,
    “whenever you are angry, be assured that it is not only a present
    evil, but that you have increased a habit”
    So, your blogpost reminds us all that anger is a secondary emotion and we can all focus on the root emotion rather than feed a bad habit.
    As to the Eclipse I got to take my sons to a private lake near Baldwin City and we totally lucked out on visibility. Did all the Native American lavender burning ceremony and prayer.
    Tossing a lavender smudge on the fire we each,
    Let go of a regret.
    Forgave a resentment
    And the Lavender specifically asks the higher power to take
    particular care of OUR tribe and its leadership NOW.
    All there, (keg from Freestate in Lawrence helped draw a crowd) shared prayers for inner peace and peace for America, domestic and international.
    Those 5 Civilized Tribes preservation of tradition by storytelling is wise indeed and as relevant today as whenever their elders decided these rituals sent these prayers right through the hole in the sky as a direct shot to the higher power.

    Thus an ancient Native American Recipe for recognizing and purging the anger we hold within ourselves and hope for the greater good is matched with a total eclipse visible in this country. Litigation too can be addressed by these principles sprinkled throughout your blogpost.

    You are a wise and generous man to share your deep thoughts with all of us who need a little shot of roman and indian philosophy to best serve our clients, the courts, and our profession overall.

    Thanks Monte and my best to Kim.
    RUANE

  3. Thanks for sharing, Monte and beautiful analogy. Psychologists will say suppressing anger is very harmful and dangerous while expressing anger (getting things out in the open in an honest and acceptable manner) leads to successful anger management and healing. Like the totality of the eclipse, supressed anger can cause things to become very dark indeed whereas moving off of dead center allows the light to shine thru once again and return things to normal. Loved your comparison and it is one I will use.

  4. It is not a sin to be angry. Even God, and Jesus, get angry. Paul admonishes in Ephesians “Be angry” (an imperative) “but sin not. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” The issue is not the anger itself, but how it is processed. Can we use the appropriate and right strategies?
    Anger is a normal, natural emotion. It is a response to some perceived threat or danger. Our normal response is fight or flight. These are natural biophysical responses. Adrenalin is released to energize for fight/flight. Compared to animals which have the same built in mechanism, we are responsible for our response (animals are not).
    As responsible humans, we must process the anger. What caused it? Can we unpack the cause(s)? Since anger typically arises from some human interaction, the processing must be reciprocal. Can we recognize and understand the roots of the other person’s anger? Can we recognize and understand the roots of our own anger? Reciprocity involves listening, giving feedback, affirming, mutuality. Can we process without getting too emotionally reactive? Can we arrive at a state of mutually acknowledging the legitimacy of the particular anger and the causes? Can we turn the process into a “win/win”?
    A good post, Monte. Curiously, the principles are the same whether the conflict is between two people, or two nations. These principles are less possible when the negotiations are adversarial. And our judicial systems are at core adversarial. When disputes are (judicially) adjudicated, conflicts tend to cross the line of intensity and become irreconcilable. The best judges recognize this, and are able to mitigate the adversarial posture of the litigants. Conflict management requires intervention, to keep conflict from escalating. The best lawyers are those skilled in intervention, mediation, and resolution. Trial lawyers just pick up the pieces.

    • Thanks for your comment, David. The verse from Ephesians is appropos, and it would have fit right in with my post.

Leave a reply