Point of View

An Apology for the Irritable


Note: This article first appeared in Scribner's Magazine, November 1907, reprinted in the Spring/Summer 1996 Scribner's Magazine.


In an age when everyone has an inalienable right to nerves, most of us have had reason to notice and to deplore the relentlessness with which irritability is punished. Other more fundamental failings come off better. Untidiness is recognized as the fault of romanticists, poets, and the whole crew of vague, lovable idealists. Who has not loved a pleasant large-souled liar? Even selfishness may warm a relation, and give it a tenderer scope. But against irritability, friendship, family affection, and even love have hard work to bear up.

This state of things is particularly unfortunate, for the casual stranger does not play upon this weakness as much as our own nearest and dearest, and our own nearest and dearest are precisely the people who find it hardest to forgive. for under its different guises -- the patiently overstrained, the carefully explanatory, and of course the simply explosive -- the same suggestion of hostility and criticism is evident, a suggestion particularly trying to those who love us.

Yet anyone who has had to do with irritability must recognize that hostile and aggressive and critical as it seems, it has in it, like a child's tantrum, and element of weakness and impotence. It appears like an attack; it is really a confession.

"How pale you are," says a mother to her son, and is surprised at the antagonism her solicitude rouses. She explains it to herself as an example of the robust, masculine spirit. It is nothing of the kind. The young man, recognizing in himself an unlimited capacity for worrying over his health, offers, under the guise of anger, a prayer to his mother not to play into the hands of the enemy.

The victims of irritability should be more merciful in knowing that, when not purely physical, it has its rise in a sense of our own shortcomings. No one flies out at a demand upon his strength, but at a call upon his already recognized weakness. Irritability belongs to people conscious of their own mental processes, consciously struggling to be something different, whether better or worse, than what they are. It is specially characteristic of that phase of youth when we are all trying to make ourselves over.

Strangers do not irritate us, because they seldom reach the new road-bed of our characters. They stay on well-worn tracks. It is our own people who push out to the rail head. It is only those we love who make us pay the penalty of our faults. The closeness of our relation, the very love they bear us, is like a searchlight turned on our natures. Our anger is not against the light, but against that which the light reveals.


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