We’re living in a rage-filled emotional dystopia. Is there a way out?
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By Adam Sternbergh
America was angry this year. Could you feel it?
Maybe you sensed it on an airplane, or at the grocery store, or in a parking lot, or while watching a driver with road rage playing real-life Grand Theft Auto in the lane ahead of you. Maybe you witnessed it at a local school board meeting, or in your social media mentions, or on a tennis court at the U.S. Open when someone destroyed his rackets after losing a grueling five-set match. Maybe you even experienced it yourself while trying to buy Taylor Swift tickets online, or while berating a server at a fancy Manhattan bistro over your wife’s yolks-only omelet order, or while taking your seat at a screening at the Venice International Film Festival and possibly spitting on Chris Pine. (OK, we believe you, you didn’t really spit on Chris Pine.) Maybe you’ve unleashed it on Slack, or while thrashing around in a mosh pit, that sweaty arena for our collective id that’s recently re-emerged. Maybe you’re feeling it every day. All the time. Even right now.
The moment, of course, that best encapsulates our Year of Rage — resonating like a pistol shot that signaled the start of this annus irae — happened in March, when Will Smith charged onstage at the Oscars and smacked Chris Rock. Even now, months later, it’s shocking to recall: One of the biggest movie stars in the world, on one of the most watched telecasts of the year, decided to storm the stage and slap one of the most famous comedians on Earth in the face.
Mr. Smith recently resurfaced for a combination publicity-apology tour in support of his new film, “Emancipation,” and he offered, by way of explanation: “I just lost it.”
This year in America, he wasn’t alone.
Why is everyone so angry? Depending on your outlook, maybe it was the uncertainty of the impending midterms (“Anger on Their Minds,” announced one typical NBC News write-up of a poll) or disappointment with the results. Maybe it’s having to wrap your head around the newly popularized term “tripledemic” (or, if you prefer, “tridemic”), as Covid (still here!) joins R.S.V. (I’m sorry, what?) and the flu (hello, old friend) in a brutal pileup of seasonal infirmity.
Maybe it’s simply the fact that, as the therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab put it on a morning show segment on pandemic stress this year, “We know what the world used to be like.” And the world is no longer like that.
“We cannot be our old selves,” Ms. Tawwab explained. “So many of us are trying to operate in the way that we used to, and we just can’t do that anymore.”
And that’s driving us a little bit nuts.
Maybe 2022 has simply been the culmination of several years spent steeping in a stew of angry discourse, stirred by social media. We’ve all become the frogs in the boiling water — except, this year, the frogs boiled over.
Because if 2020 was terrifying and bewildering, and 2021 promised fragile slivers of hope then delivered nothing but rising frustration (remember the “hot vax summer” that never arrived?), 2022 was the year the dam, and our blood vessels, burst.
It’s not that this country’s never been angry before. We’re a nation born of upheaval, in a revolution sparked in part by riled-up agitators absolutely trashing a boatload of tea. More recently, the 1960s were an era that, in the memorable subtitle of his chronicle of the decade, the historian Todd Gitlin characterized as “Years of Hope, Days of Rage.”
That phrase could just as easily apply to our current moment, except without the “years of hope” part.
If we’re looking to characterize this terrible national mood — if we’re searching for some Rosetta Stone to decipher this communal rage bender — we might look not to historians, or sociologists, or even to Will Smith.
We might instead look to — or at least start with — Art the Clown.
We’re Going Through Some Things
“Terrifier 2” is the follow-up to the little-known 2016 horror film “Terrifier.” The first film cost $35,000 to make, appeared briefly in theaters and did well enough, barely, to merit a low-budget sequel.
This year, “Terrifier 2,” released on Oct. 6, became a runaway, unexpected box-office hit.
Made for just $250,000, released as unrated, and featuring no well-known actors, the exceptionally, even pathologically, gory horror film about a torture-crazed clown named Art had, by early November, earned over $10 million in theaters. In a year when even prominent films with notable pedigrees are failing to find traction, the psychopathic clown is cleaning up.
Walter Chaw, the lead critic for Film Freak Central and the author of a recent book on the director Walter Hill, said of the film on Twitter: “I can recommend ‘Terrifier 2’ to almost no one I know — it’s genuinely vile.” Yet the film, he argued, captures “the exact temperature of the time in regards to an immense rage at the irretrievably broken state of the world.”
I asked him to elaborate.
“It’s a movie that’s designed to provoke a response,” Mr. Chaw said, calling it “exploitation cinema.” He likened “Terrifier 2” to a subculture of hyperviolent Asian horror films that have flourished over the last few decades in moments of national upheaval — and inspired American imitators. “Whenever there’s a traumatic period in the United States, we’ve started to remake Japanese horror movies,” Mr. Chaw said. For example, after Sept. 11, several notoriously unsettling Japanese films spawned American remakes, like “The Ring,” “The Grudge,” “Dark Water” and “Pulse.”
“Terrifier 2,” he said, isn’t an explicit remake, but it can be viewed in that tradition: It’s a movie in which the catharsis offered by its outsize nihilistic excess is at the core of the film’s appeal.
“If you look back at the 1950s and say, ‘What were all those pod-people and alien-invasion and giant-ant movies about? It was all about the red scare and atomic fear,” Mr. Chaw said. “Art is only ever really a reaction to the times.” And horror films, because they are cheap to produce, he argued, are often the “canary in the coal mine” of a national mood.
You may not be inclined to read too much into the tea leaves of art or the blood-soaked exploits of Art. You may choose to ignore other cultural canaries, like the appearance this year of the TV show “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law,” about a woman who literally transforms during bouts of rage, or the success of “Andor,” a “Star Wars” spinoff about an angry rebellion that climaxes with a riled-up citizenry rioting.
You may disregard, too, the fact that there are now so many online videos of grown adults snapping, scrapping and throwing tantrums that entire YouTube channels exist with names like Finest Freakouts. According to Merriam-Webster, the term “road rage” was first used in 1988; since then, we’ve coined “air rage,” “desk rage” and “grocery rage.” This year, we discovered a new offshoot, as we got angry while watching other people online getting angry: We’re experiencing rage rage.
At the very least, the fact that a gory clown slasher film is the surprise hit of 2022 suggests that, as a nation, we’re going through some things.
The trickiest part is that, while we may be going through them together, we’re not going through them together.
Because this year we weren’t just angry. We were angry at each other.
‘People Are Afraid of Change’
It may have always been naïve to believe that a pandemic would unite our nation. If anything, the past few years have proved just how little we can agree on, including many aspects of the pandemic itself, such as whether it’s over or what might prevent the next one.
The one thing we can agree on is that we’re still angry about it — but we can’t even agree on what, exactly, we’re angry about.
I asked Dr. Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist, Buddhist and the author of “Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart,” to explain, for example, the phenomenon of unmasked people throwing temper tantrums in grocery stores or on airplanes. Like, what’s going on there, exactly?
“I think it’s fear,” he said. “I think the fear comes first. It’s just another response to what we can’t control. And anger is an attempt to override the fear.”
But what are we all so afraid of, besides, you know, death, decay, abandonment, and feeling alone and unloved?
“The basic thing is change,” Dr. Epstein said. “People are afraid of change, unsettled by change, and made to feel helpless by random events that are beyond our control.”
Seen this way, the pandemic — no matter your politics or personal masking policies — has been the ultimate upheaval, leaving everyone feeling lost and unmoored.
One 2022 study found that our personalities changed more rapidly than usual during the pandemic, and not for the better. There was a decrease in “extroversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness” across the board, and especially among young people. In an NPR report on the study, one of the researchers, Prof. Angelina Sutin, explained that in the first year of the pandemic, “there was this real coming together.” However, by the second year, that feeling gave way to “open hostility and social upheaval around restrictions.” And now, here we are, in Year 3. “All the collective good will that we had, we lost,” Professor Sutin told NPR.
One issue, explained Dr. Epstein, is that we’ve failed to fully account for what we’ve been going through. Over the pandemic, he said, “there was a lot percolating under the surface that never got articulated.” In a family, he explained, it’s the responsibility of the parents to detoxify fears that a child has, by not repressing them, by using humor, and by reassuring the child that “we can handle this together.”
In the pandemic, however, few public figures were willing or able to take on that parental role. Those that tried were often drowned out or disregarded. Frequently, public figures either purposely or inadvertently sowed dissent and stoked anger, and the pandemic opened up brand-new fault lines.
This isn’t an accident, according to Steven W. Webster, author of “American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics,” which was published, somewhat presciently, in 2020.
“It used to be the case that positive attachment to one’s party was sufficient to remain loyal at the ballot box,” Mr. Webster said. “Increasingly, we’re seeing a reality where American politics is governed by bonds of negativity — and the negativity we see the most is anger.”
One politician recently popularized a handy term for this phenomenon: “angertainment,” which was used by Adam Frisch, a Democratic candidate for Congress, to describe the appeal of Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, his Republican opponent who is famous, among other things, for an ad promising that she would carry a Glock to Capitol Hill.
Their race, in a solidly Republican district, was so close that it led to a recount. The narrow margin gave some credence to Mr. Frisch’s assertion that perhaps some Americans are finally “tired of the lack of civility in our discourse.”
Still, in the end, Ms. Boebert won.
Get Hip to LIFEMORTS
There’s anger on a national scale, of course. Then there’s the anger you feel in the dark of your bedroom as you doomscroll through Twitter at 2 in the morning.
To understand why so many of us are feeling that kind of anger right now, it helps to understand LIFEMORTS.
R. Douglas Fields is a neuroscientist for the National Institutes of Health and the author of “Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain.” LIFEMORTS is an acronym that represents the nine fundamental triggers for rage that Dr. Fields has identified: a life or death situation; an insult; protecting our families; our environment is endangered; rage related to obtaining or protecting a mate; our social order is imperiled; we’re protecting resources; we perceive an attack against the tribe; or we feel as if we’re being stopped — that is, “restrained, imprisoned, cornered or impeded pursuing one’s desires.”
As it turns out, we’ve been living through a perfect storm of rage triggers. Life endangered? Check. Social order imperiled? Read the headlines. Tribal slights perceived? Every single day! Stopped from pursuing our desires? I’m sorry, do we even have desires anymore?
But if our collective LIFEMORTS are being activated, what exactly do we do with all this rage?
If we don’t manage it, said Ms. Tawwab, who is the author of “Set Boundaries, Find Peace,” “it comes out as passive aggressiveness or temper tantrums.”
“We’re frustrated,” Ms. Tawwab said. “We’ve been in the house. We’re mad at our partner. Or we’re annoyed by this person who we really can’t express it to, like maybe a boss.” When our anger does emerge, “it’s very much displaced, and that’s why you see people having these moments with a flight attendant or a cashier. Do those people deserve that level of response based on the situation? Absolutely not.”
The pandemic is lingering, there’s a land war in Europe, the global economy seems to be teetering, and we’re all being algorithmically encouraged to stay outraged all the time. Plus, as Dr. Epstein points out, for everything extraordinary that we’ve been dealing with this year, “just regular life is filled with unpredictability and sickness and old age and death” — things we fear, that disturb us, that are out of our control and that leave us unsettled and angry. It’s no wonder that, this year, we lost it. The question is: Can we ever get it back?
The answer, it seems, is not to suppress our anger, or ignore it, or disdain it.
We need to make peace with our rage.
“Anger has a very bad rap as being this terrible feeling — like you should never feel it and it’s bad, and that’s not true,” Ms. Tawwab said. As an emotion, “it’s appropriate, just like the other feelings that we have.” Rather than suppressing it, she said, “it’s much more helpful to just say, ‘Well I’m really angry, I’m disappointed, I’m frustrated,’ so you can recognize it when it’s happening versus trying to push it down and then the top blows off.”
Our anger, after all, is trying to tell us something. “What we forget is that emotions are a signal — like the microwave telling you when your food is done,” said Prof. Laurie Santos, who teaches positive psychology at Yale and hosts the podcast “The Happiness Lab.” While anger can be self-destructive, she pointed out, it can also lead to positive changes in our mental well-being if it leads to action and a sense of agency.
When our anger seems unfocused or unproductive, we can take steps to escape the destructive cycle. Professor Santos suggested compassion training, such as the meditation practice that involves calling to mind different people, even people that make you furious, and reciting some variation of: May this person be happy, may they be safe, may they be free from harm.
“You start with people who are really easy, like your kid or your puppy,” she said. Eventually “you start to extend it out to, like, that jerk on the plane.”
For those who aren’t meditationally inclined, we can work to simply recognize the anger, acknowledge it — then try to let it go.
“Like they say in the Buddhist psychology,” Dr. Epstein said, “you should regard anger like stale urine mixed with poison.” In other words, it’s not great for you. Or as Professor Santos put it: “Rage doesn’t feel awesome, right? It feels terrible and exhausting and not good.”
Terrible and exhausting and not good: That was 2022 in a nutshell.
Maybe those words are the message we should embroider on the silk sash of this year before we ferry it off to the afterlife. Hopefully, 2023, its newborn successor, will be a little more sanguine. In the meantime, we can collectively shake our fist together, one last time, as a way of saying goodbye.
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