What's behind my anger, Estonia?

Anger can be foe or friend to rebels. Here's a story about a hard-earned lesson I've learned this week about taming and learning from anger. Under the Stars Kristjan Raud

After all these years maybe I should just get on the damned plane to Estonia and pick it up myself.

On a business trip to Estonia in 2006 I fell in love with a painting in the Kumu Art Museum, which had just opened. The museum was an extraordinary introduction to the art, culture and history of a country that had been occupied by Germany, then Russia, then Germany again in 1941 and then the USSR from 1944 until before finally becoming independent in 1991.

Despite these foreign invaders Estonians preserved their language, their national pride, and their ancient relatives’ worship of spirits of nature. Talk about determination.

After a busy week of speeches, I strolled through the museum on a sunny Saturday morning in May. I walked into a gallery and was captivated by a painting called “Under the Stars” by Estonian artist Kristjan Raud (1865 - 1943). I sat on a bench for over an hour looking at the folkloric painting, letting my mind wander, and in its wandering thinking about joy amid oppression, the healing and inspirational nature of the night sky, and, most of all, the wonderful people whom I had met during the week. They had inspired me with their sense of purpose, optimism, and perspective about anger.

But aren't you angry with the Russians?

Earlier in the week during the annual national marketing conference, which was why I was visiting, a respected Russian professor talked about Russian history and culture for two hours. I asked the conference organizer why Estonians would ever have a speaker about Russia, given what Russia had done to the country and was still threatening to do.

“It’s important for us to understand,” he calmly explained. Rather than be angry and shut down thinking, they were learning from their anger.

I thought a lot about anger when I looked at the painting, too.

Before leaving I scribbled down the name of the artist and the painting on my Museum map and asked the people at the Museum store whether they had a postcard or print of it for sale. Sadly, no.

 Nine year obsession: Stage three agony

Over the last nine years I would often pull out the Museum map with my scrawled notes about the painting and Google it, hoping I could buy a print somewhere. I hit a lot of dead ends.

Eight months ago I wrote to the Museum and asked if they could possibly make a digital print that I could buy. A lovely woman said she would look into it. In January she told me that they could make a print and would I please provide some information for the billing. In April she sent me an invoice, requiring a wire transfer to the country of Estonia, as the Kumu Art Museum is a national museum. At every step I responded immediately, thinking about where to put this digital print of the painting once it arrived.

But over the last month this process has started to drive me nuts, largely because of weird and sometimes stupid problems with wiring the money from my bank to the country of Estonia’s bank. Should be simple, right? Ha!

This morning I stormed into my bank, furious because the latest wire transfer they sent arrived 7.24 Euros short and as a result the Museum can’t send me the painting. The Museum needs me to send the exact amount. My bank has a minimum for wire transfers so I can’t send the exact amount.

To make matters worse, I acted snarky, showing just how ugly anger can be. When the bank manager asked in a condescending tone, “Where is THAT country?” I said, “Near Latvia,” knowing she probably wouldn’t know where that was either. I could have politely and helpfully said, “Near Finland or Russia.” Oh, but my anger was turning me into a snarling animal.

The timing for this bureaucratic inanity is awful. I’m in what Sally Hogshead calls the Stage 3 Agony phase of some creative projects, the most grueling phase where we get stuck, stressed and start thinking the whole project – or our competency to do said project -- sucks. I know if I can slog through this creative hell I may get to Stage 4 – Epiphany and Stage 5 – Finesse. But, as has happened to me before, Agony kills the work. I either consider the project done because I can’t stand the being stuck part or I give up.

So this painting paperwork is setting off what a beloved boss used to call my ”hot Irish head” where my passion turns into obsession and anger. Nothing seems to be moving in the right direction.

After leaving the bank I stopped at FedEx Office to get a poster made for a talk I’m giving at a Harvard Innovation Symposium on Saturday. They opened my thumb drive and found two old PowerPoint presentations but no poster file. Grrrrrrrr……

Good and worked up, I went back to my office and decided to see how much it would cost to fly to Tallinn, go to the Museum, hand them a credit card, and pick up the digital print myself. Enough with the bureaucrats, just make it happened within my own power.

Oh, anger, you torturer and teacher

And then I remembered a hard-earned lesson: What’s behind my anger? Anger is really useful data, if we can calm down enough to be curious about it.

In this case I started wondering why this painting is so important to me. What about it keeps calling me, especially over the past eight months? Is it the painting or something else?

I don’t know about you, but it’s often something else. When I can somewhat objectively dig into that something else, I find helpful answers. Thank you anger, you torturer and teacher, you.

You see, I am struggling to make these new creative endeavors great and in this Agony Phase I am tempted to give up, say they’re “good enough,” or worse, say, “they’ll never be good enough” and quit. Oh, what our terrible self-talk can do to us.

The painting and the Estonian culture represent purpose, determination, hope, and joy to me. On the last night of my 2006 trip I went to the small, out-of-the-way Museum of Occupations in Estonia. How did these people persevere, I kept wondering as I learned more.

“Under the Stars,” I fantasize, will help me persevere, remind me to look up to the night sky and stay open to joy amid struggles. My creative struggles are so much less significant than want Estonians have had to endure.

Now that I’ve wondered about the anger, it’s diffused and I’m a tiny bit wiser.

I don’t really need the painting, after all.

But maybe, just maybe, I’m looking for a good excuse to travel back to a wonderful country rich in history, culture, possibilities and creative fun.

Did I also tell you Estonia is home to the Wife Carrying World Championships?