I have a friend. Call him Sam. He’s in his late 60s. He lives across the US, so I don’t see him that often. Our friendship has endured for years. I really like and respect him. Yet I am watching him grow angrier before my eyes. If his purpose is to teach me what NOT to do, he is succeeding brilliantly. I imagine his wife is as bewildered as I am by his increasingly unpleasant behavior.
Like many of us, Sam is a walking paradox. Great at mechanical things. Kind and gentle with people in genuine need. Well versed in everything from quantum mechanics to the Bible, military history to Edgar Cayce. Yet he’s become impatient, harshly judgmental and belligerent.
Here’s an example: We were out for a walk in his neighborhood. Bicycle riders came towards us over a footbridge. They crowded us to the edge and swept past us at an unreasonably fast clip. Sam turned around, and, for several minutes, yelled about how stupid they were while I stood there wishing I were somewhere, anywhere, else.
Here are other troubling symptoms:
- His growing adoption of hostile and rigid language: stupid, hate, dumb, idiotic, can’t stand, ridiculous, terrible, dangerous, intolerable.
- His nearly uncontrollable edginess.
- His active confrontations with anyone and anything in his path that doesn’t meet his standard for order or timeliness.
I’ve asked him what’s going on with him. He blows me off. I’ve asked him to listen to the transition in his language. He’s not interested. He thinks nothing of releasing his anger but says he doesn’t want to talk about it when I express my own impatience with his impatience.
My hypothesis is that he has experienced a number of retirement-related and health-related losses that he hasn’t fully come to grips with yet. He isn’t who he was and seems not to have arrived at who he is becoming. Whatever the explanation, he isn’t open to those conversations now.
So, for now, I’ve fallen back on the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. My plan is to stand by him and wait to see what happens, which is what I think friends do. And I certainly intend to remain his friend.
There’s a difference between grumpy old men and angry old men. One is tolerable, and the other requires support. But what kind and when?