I find the psychological whiplash of the news cycle exhausting and depressing these days. Yet, the worst part is not every new facet of the problems we face, but instead the constant demand for my emotional energy. “You’ll be horrified by this tweet” one headline promises. “The Trump nominee no one is talking about” blares an e-mail subject line. “Step up to protect migrant workers – call your senators NOW” insists a Facebook post. “New Russia revelations demand action!” orders a call to sign someone’s petition.
They’re not wrong, exactly—but it is too much. No one can do all these things. No one can spare the emotion to treat each of these with the gravity they deserve. And, perhaps most insidiously, the outrage is baked in. These things feed our anger, but they also assume it. Even well-intentioned organizations are using instant fury as their primary messaging strategy. It works, and yet along the way it sends an accidental message: anger is the only real way to respond.
What is it, I wonder, that makes me feel so emotional a response is called for? The judgement of others, in part, but also the judgment of myself.
I cannot be a good person if I don’t respond emotionally. If I’m not angry, I’m not paying attention. If I shake my head and move on with my day, I am complicit.
These are my thoughts, but they are not mine. Outrage has been recast as righteousness, and stoicism as indifference. Did I do that? Did we do that together? Did the news do that, and we just followed along? I don’t know, but I think it’s time to let it go.
I want to pay attention; I also want to be effective and to live in a way that isn’t self-destructive. The outrage dispensers on social media, in my e-mail, in the news, and in my communities are addictive, but they sap my energy and will. They make me want to shuffle off the whole mess and move on.
And I know there is a bad argument for that, born of ignorance and indifference, that says “it’s no big deal if Trump hurts a few people, it’ll be fine.” Plenty of derisive, self-assured, well-insulated people are arguing that what doesn’t happen to them doesn’t happen to anyone, or that if it does it’s not that bad, or that if it is the targets deserve it.
I have no respect for haughty cruelty, and I do not mean to validate it.
But I also cannot look, unblinking, at an endless procession of injustices and feel every one. I think no one can. I suspect the people who say they can are angry, publically, about a few things and guiltily protecting themselves on others.
It need not be guilty. Why not embrace it? These are the things I can affect, and I will care about them and act on them, but I will not let them eclipse me. I will not treat being emotionally undone as equivalent to doing. I will make space for the latter and not the former.
No one can sustain outrage for very long. But a stoic actor can continue to act long after the outrage has immolated itself.
Outrage, perhaps, is the true indifference—quick attention, just as quickly lost. We need permission to set it aside. For my part, I hope I can give myself that permission.
Image Credit: Matthias Ripp