Tough Times

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote here. To use one of my favorite words, I just haven’t had the gumption for it.

I’m not afraid of the dark, or afraid of public speaking, or afraid of thunderstorms, or afraid of spiders unless I get surprised by one. I have three phobias, things that render me completely incapable of reason. One is heights; I can’t stand on a balcony or look over the railing or stand within a hundred yards of a bluff or a cliff edge. A second is coming up the stairs from a basement, always imagining what might reach out to me from behind. And a third is anger. Live, sizzling anger that feels like the last second of the fuse before the dynamite.

We’re living in a time of anger. Of gangs that call themselves militias and mobs who call themselves patriots, ready to engage in some half-assed civil war instead of actually trying to listen to their neighbors. Of senators willing to declare that decorum and precedent and evidence are no hindrance to their willingness to get what they want. Of pastors sending sexually violent threats to female reporters. Of a President who says that our nation’s death toll wouldn’t be so bad if you just subtracted those states that didn’t vote for him.

Even locally, vendettas feel more immediate than cooperation. Our local online bulletin board has seen a flurry of angry rumor-mongering in advance of the fall election. People saying things that are demonstrably false or self-contradictory, trying to gin up some righteous fury for November.

Any phobia produces an immediate fight-or-flight reaction. And that’s useful for the thirty seconds it takes to run away from the bear, but completely untenable if we inhabit it for days or months. It depletes us, wears us to nubs, leaves us nothing but the dregs in the bottom of the cold coffee.

There’s been a lot of scholarship about the emotional impacts of Covid and social isolation. We’re already lonelier, more separated, our comforting routines no longer available. And so we’re depleted, and thus more susceptible to quick, reactive thought anyway. Anger flourishes when we’re weakest, when we have no other options. It feels better than the malaise. It’s like trying to heat a cold house by lighting matches: it takes a lot of matches, leaves us surrounded by waste, burns our fingers quite a few times… but at least it feels like we’re doing something.

I grew up as a burrowing animal, going underground at the signs of danger. (My totem creature is probably the groundhog.) I grew up with plenty of anger, unpredictable as anger always is, and I learned isolation. But there’s no way to isolate yourself from an angry culture. We can only try to be the countervailing force, the infusion of generosity into the howling pain around us. We have to focus outward, look for places where kindness can calm the burn.

So yeah, I’m back. Let’s think about something interesting for a change. Come on in.