I was on television recently.
Not in a starring role though. A more esteemed colleague was being interviewed in the office and I happened to be filmed in the background, typing furiously on my keyboard. Collateral damage, you might say. I was essentially oblivious to the fact that I was even involved until a week later when I started getting messages from acquaintances telling me I was on the telly.
One read: ‘I’d recognise that McCambridge scowl anywhere.’
Another was: ‘The only surprise is that you weren’t kicking someone’s backside at the time.’ (Actually the language was more robust than that but I’ve moderated it for taste.)
The messages were intended to be jaunty but they did make me think, and, as often with self-reflection, it’s not a comfortable process.
What I had been given was a glimpse into how other people saw me and I wasn’t sure I liked the verdict. The consensus seemed to be that I was the angry man, an enforcer. A Malcolm Tuckeresque character who stomped around the newsroom handing out verbal assaults as generously as the Salvation Army gives out Christmas presents.
So was it true? Was I that man? Well, not entirely. The image my friends had created was clearly a caricature, a cartoon depiction inflating and stretching personality traits into a comic exaggeration.
But even caricatures are a version of reality and, I had to accept, there were was something there. A latent but troubling awareness had been scratched.
I occasionally meet old colleagues who remark that the version of me they once knew was stern, unapproachable, even fierce.
The ugly truth is that pressure alters all of us, a crushing force which diminishes our capacity for reason and generosity. I’ve experienced this force often at work and at home, as the list of things that needs to be done spreads like a contagion while the time left to achieve them constantly diminishes.
For some reason I find this process easier to understand and explain when I think of myself driving my car. I know how deeply unimpressed I feel when I see another motorist experiencing a mild form of road rage, displaying some impatience or impetuosity. But I also know how quickly I can slip into that same state of exasperated senselessness merely because of some temporary traffic hitch which delays me by a few seconds.
Then I broaden the concept. I imagine how my colleagues or friends or family feel when they watch me react thoughtlessly or bitterly during a moment of stress at home or at work. How impressed are they?
The first step towards improvement is awareness. The most profound element of being able to change is accepting where I am deficient.
Since I have gone back to full-time employment certain pressures have returned to my life like unwanted tumours. The riddle of how to organise the day continues to elude and baffle me. The terrible inevitability of the progress of the clock dominates my existence. What is achieved one day swiftly melts away at night and the challenges rise before me fresh and daunting each new morning.
And the impulse remains the same - to strike out. The intuition that being louder and angrier gets results is unaltered. And so begins the cult of the scowling man.
But when the oppression comes these days I force myself to take a moment, not to rush to unthinking action. I remind myself of the driver with road rage. Perhaps I get rid of some negative energy by typing furiously on my keyboard for a few seconds. Almost always there’s not a TV camera that catches me doing it.
Smiling does not come naturally to me. The muscles in my face seem more relaxed and comfortable grouped together to create an expression that is closer to a grimace. But perhaps it is something that can be perfected with practice.
I’m learning to smile, and to lose my scowl.