Weeks ago I found myself so outraged by an online news article, I had to remind myself to breathe. Enough, I told myself. It is time to be proactive. So I sat back in my sofa, massaged my temple — and did a rabid search for more articles I knew would rocket my outrage to a whole new level.
As I read, adrenalin surged. I became madder by the minute. When I had burned through my most incendiary news articles, I turned to Facebook for the solace of its snarky fury. Before I knew it, hours had passed with my eyes glued to my smart phone. Now, blinking up, I looked around the living room and wondered what I had actually accomplished, except for miffing my cat.
Some time ago she had dropped on the couch beside me a brightly colored fuzzy ball. She is the only cat I have ever met who liked to play fetch. Now she mewled piteously as she nosed her violet toy toward me and looked up to gaze into my eyes, begging me to throw it.
But, kitty, if you only understood, I wanted to tell her. Democracy is being undermined. Scandals are rife. Corruption has woven itself into the fabric of society, and we are possibly verging on apocalypse.
Throw me my fuzzy ball, she said with her eyes. I looked back at her, trying to convey with my grave stare that when you are outraged about politics the last thing you want to do is throw a fuzzy ball.
However, the sheen of melancholy, of neglect, in her eyes was a wakeup call; I could deny it no longer. I was in the grip of an addiction; political outrage was annihilating every other feeling on my emotional spectrum. I was losing the ability to feel empathy for those on the other side. Cynicism was brewing. I was not just addicted to outrage. I was becoming it.
How had I not noticed the signs earlier? The way I had clenched my teeth upon seeing any article that said good things about politicians I disliked, or the almost physical pinch of pain when some new piece of information bumped against my world view?
It had not always been this way. I had once taken great pride in welcoming divergent opinions. I needed others to challenge my settled beliefs so I could adjust them whenever they fell short of the truth. But my news obsession was plunging me into a web of emotional bias.
Righteous hate was sidelining the things I loved. I was becoming more like the political leaders I disliked, more prone to puerile name-calling and less open to listening.
I wondered: What if the more you hated someone hateful, the more like them you became? I thought I had seen a Star Trek episode long ago that had dramatized that very theme. Was outrage the only alternative to apathy?
I could imagine the coalescing voices of every authoritarian leader in the world tempting me from the shadows of Cyberspace, Come now. We are not so different, you and I. Join me in my conquest. We shall crush all dissenting opinions, so that never again will you endure the friction of having your precious views invalidated by a stubborn fact. The rebel worms will perish. We shall rule the galaxy together. Ya-ha-ha!
Horrified, I could now see my phone for what it really was: not a technological wonder, but a talisman from the dark side.
My phone, with me always, validated me for being chronically enraged at politicians. It encouraged the worst in me. Made me miserable in a way that was perversely satisfying. Suddenly I wanted to throw my phone to the bottom of the sea to be consumed by angry eels. Except it had video games on it I liked.
What was happening? As a writer I had once believed in my ability to empathize with anyone, but somewhere, somehow, I seemed to have lost my way. Developed an appetite for scandal and a penchant for schadenfreude.
I tried to remember a time it had been different. A time that I could read, just read, no snap judgments or knee-jerk responses. No grasping need for intellectual validation. I could do that with fiction, with memoirs, with any nonpolitical literature.
But there was somethingabout online news sites — especially the commercial ones — that electrified judgmental ire and erected fortresses of resistance.
Some editorials encouraged anger overtly. I had read recently had said things like: “We should always remember to remain outraged at these rampant abuses of power.”
I was inclined to agree. Hoards of citizens outraged about abuses of power could counter injustice, could change the world. The Civil Rights Movement. The American Revolution. Child labor laws. The Emancipation Proclamation. All of these seemed to vindicate outrage as an instrument of social progress.
But what was my outrage actually doing aside from exhausting my emotional reservoirs, depressing me, and saddening my cat?
But, cat, I silently argued. I am entitled to my outrage. These circumstances are extreme. I am morally obligated to work myself up into a towering inferno of self-righteous zeal. What was it the poem by Yeats had said? “The best have no conviction but the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Did I want to have no conviction at a time it was most called for?
My cat nudged the fuzzy ball toward me slyly. It had little bits of glitter on it and a veneer of feline drool, and little bits of fur caught in the fibers.
I gazed at the fuzzy ball gravely. But the effort required to toss the cat toy across the room seemed too extraordinary. A fog of exhaustion had settled over me. Reacting to click bait was like coughing when you are sick. It felt compulsive, draining; it felt unhealthy.
Maybe reading things besides news was the answer. Or at least part of it. Whenever I read a novel or began to write, I always tried to imagine what it would feel like to be someone or something else. Like a flea.
I had started identifying with fleas in the sixth grade. Every day my teacher would ask the class to imagine what it would feel like to be a flea or some other animal nobody liked. She would then get us to pick one and write a story from its point of view. When I picked a flea, I imagined myself crawling around, lost and starving, in a towering forest of dog fur.
Even now, whenever I write a story, part of my mind folds time, and I am in sixth grade again, trying to form a bridge between myself and someone else — often some crawling, misunderstood creature. Without that kind of identification, none of my characters including my villains, would seem real. On some level I have to “love” even my most abhorrent characters. I have to understand them. To find myself in them.
Whenever I choked down incendiary news articles, empathy evaporated, leaving me with only my anger. Some people spoke of outrage as a virtue. Not mine. Mine only made me feel unhinged, out of control, driven by blind impulse, full of explosive energy, yet ultimately helpless.
Not to mention irrational.
Compulsions drove me. Every time I had a moment alone, my hand flew to my Android to stave off encroaching boredom.
But the world had gotten so noisy lately. A gaudy circus of chaos and distraction. What if I needed my boredom? My silence? A moment to think my own thoughts and to experience the full spectrum of emotions, and not just the dull monochromatic energy of political outrage?
I wanted to be someone who sought to learn and understand, not just an ever-gaping mouth.
On the other hand, never had the news felt so personal and so alarming and so ominous. It did seem like there was something unique about this moment in time, something especially dark that called for a powerful response other than simply voting.
Anger was a natural response to injustice. And somehow in America abuses of power kept sliding by without democracy sneezing it out the way a democracy was supposed to do.
However, the excesses of wrongdoing seemed to overshadow, by far, my responses to them.
But responses were more than just passive reflexes against a political a narrative; for better or worse, they could shape history. Many new sites knew this. I had read a recent headline began: “Why we should still be worried about.. .”
Like a mindless sit-com laugh track, many articles, whether liberal or conservative, cued particular emotions. Photographs of political “villains” seemed always selected for their weird expressions, as if the photographer shot the subject in mid-cough or mid-snort. The internet bristled with messages that suggested what you ought to feel. And most of the time, the messages were, Be worried. Be scared. Be angry.
But I am not meant to burn red-hot all the time.
I needed to really look at the world around me. I needed to read subversive novels and eat decadent ice cream and bury my feet in beach sand until they turned raw. I needed to replay a favorite song so many times. it swept me into the stratosphere.
I needed to focus not just on what I hated but what I loved. I needed to throw a fuzzy ball to my cat.
And throw it, I did. The ball went soaring, carving an imaginary rainbow in the air, and thudded softly onto the kitchen floor.
Miss Percy scrambled after it, picked it up with her teeth, and trotted back with it for me to throw again. Now she was staring fixedly at me with her golden eyes.
What is that you say, kitty? I should not be defending fleas? Fuzzy balls are far more precious than politics or diamonds? And because humans are irrational, cats should rule the world from now on?
I started to protest about the world-ruling part. That is, until she purred, and for a sublime moment, all my political anger melted into a warm, rumbling lake of sound.
Maybe outrage would always be with me. But I felt, at last, that I had found my way.