Anger, anger triggered by the slightest perceived offense or disagreement seems to have become a cultural norm. Blogger John Pavlovitz, often quoted and re-blogged here published a piece recently titled, “Why Are We All So #@%^&$! Angry?”
This is a topic I’ve been thinking about quite a bit of late.
After his first few introductory comments, John asks the six-million-dollar question: “. . . why are we so damn angry and what, if anything can we do about it.”
The short answer to the first part of that question, as trite as this may sound, is “fear”.
Anger is one of those “fight or flight” emotions. Rooted deep in the ancient reptilian core of our brain known as the “hypothalamus”, once a situation, pattern, or person has been identified as a potential threat this information is stored for future analysis by a nearby portion of the brain known as the “amygdala”. Think of the amygdala as the “fear memory” department of your brain. Anger is our brain’s response to something which has previously stimulated our self-preservation and protection resources. These responses are our “on-guard” response to something we suspect, based on prior experience might pose a threat now or in the future. It’s the “I see you as a threat . . . so you had best keep your distance” posture.
Anger can be quite appropriate when encountering someone or something that is either a real and present danger, has done harm in the past, or based on experience is likely to cause such a threat. The risk posed by the object of one’s anger does not need to be physical to be valid. A person who has previously caused emotional distress or harm to you or others may quite legitimately stimulate the anger reaction – again, the memory of a prior fear stimulus. One might also become angry when one witnesses harm or injustice inflicted on others, even strangers . . . “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you might just do unto me”.
The question is, when is anger (and the fear it presupposes) an appropriate response, and why does it seem that our amygdalae have become hypersensitized to the point that anybody expressing an opinion on a topic online via social media (or on this blog) so often unleashes a tirade of invectives, accusations, vile comparisons to hideous villains . . . or worse?
I don’t have all the answers, but I can sure throw out a few ideas and observations gleaned over what is soon to be six decades amongst my fellow inhabitants of this little blue globe.
Technology has brought world events we would never have witnessed before right into our homes, and right into our brains. Today we are subjected to real-time and near real-time images of things we would never have witnessed at all just a few short years ago. Among other things these images are brought to us by the over 2-billion and growing smart-phones that turn just about anybody anywhere into a video journalist with global reach.
We have become both desensitized and sensitized to acts of violence. We have become desensitized in that images of violent death and wanton destruction both real and simulated are something we are far too used to seeing. We have become sensitized in that our brains are wired to take in this information and use it to determine potential threats in the future.
Cultural and social standards have changed dramatically, and whether real or imagined the lack of certainty about our neighbors and how we relate to each other contribute to fear that “our way of life” might be threatened or that “we” might lose some of the power and privilege we take for granted.
All of this works together to call in to question our notion of our boundaries and our identities . . . what is “mine” and what is “yours”? Who are the safe “us” and the maybe not-so-safe “them”? How can I tell the difference? How can I be sure that “my” way of life will be respected and that my certainties will still be certain in the face of all of this change.
And we are afraid.
And fear makes us angry.
And anger is just a few neural synapses away from lashing out in violent action.
It is pretty obvious that the genie is out of the bottle, the cat is out of the bag, the can of worms has been opened, and the horse is out of the barn . . . (can you come up with any more metaphors for “there is no going back”?) Despite it hall, many among us still want to reclaim a sense of the stability and the certainty that feels safe, while others wish to move bravely on into the future and embrace the possibilities in this new and unknown world.
And I have no certain answers.
And so I’ll end this with the second half of the question posed by Pavlovitz . . .
“What, if anything, can we do about it?”
Once open, worms don’t go back into a can. Once liberated cats don’t go back in bag, horses will often roam for a long time, and genies set free will never be “bottled up” again. Understanding this makes it clear that those who believe that the answer to our future is returning to the ways of the past just don’t make any sense.
How do you believe we can move forward?