Can we make 2017’s toxic outrage into 2018’s humanity?

This winter, just after I’d written an op-ed for CNN about gun violence, I received a bunch of notes, mostly lovely ones, in my inbox. Some were unpleasant, and among them two really stood out to me — one threatened my life, while another truly charming correspondent wrote: “Women like you should just shut up. We were great at enforcing the Second Amendment before you all had the right to vote.”

Let’s pause for a moment, noting that thankfully we live in a world where women (after centuries of violent and forceful silencing) are allowed not only to vote but also to speak in public — who are even now finding the greater power of their voices. Let’s also pause to remember that, unfortunately, there are always a few upset people in the world, people who may not be capable of expressing themselves in appropriate ways.

What struck me most was imagining the anger, and the fury, of whatever individual strangers had taken the time to compose such a screed and press send to direct it toward me, another human being. Even though that anger was both wildly misdirected and inappropriate, it seemed all too familiar. In fact, it felt nearly normal. I was hardly even surprised by it.

We’ve lived through an anger-inducing year, where many of us have found ourselves screaming and cursing at the screens in front of us, feeling embattled — furious at others nearby us, furious at others far away. We live in an era of outrage.

The outrage may in many cases be justified, but it’s painful to carry, too. I hear each day about the kinds of pain it causes. In one day alone, I recently had two or three separate conversations with or about people who have left social media because of the sheer ugliness of disagreeing with relatives; the ways they feel cut off from friends or family at home because they cannot, at this inflamed moment, see eye to eye about anything.

Our anger can feel dehumanizing. Our anger can make us feel lonelier. What’s more, our anger at and distrust of one another has actually become a national liability. Russian trolls chose to target our latent hatreds, to weaponize our own internal angers. Robots and paid operatives sat (and indeed may still be sitting) in rooms across the world, trying to use social media to heighten our rage. They have studied techniques — both human and technological — for amplifying our anger to a fever pitch.

During the election, those trolls chose places where we were already fissured and frayed, sometimes around social issues, sometimes around whether we’re going to be kind to people who have abortions or are transgender or are newcomers to our country or love in ways that are different than us. Some of us became used to writing off entire groups in our fury, whether they be rural voters or Black Lives Matter activists or white women in yoga pants. No one, it seems, has emerged unscathed. Yet in playing to our distrust of one another, another country has profited off inflaming our fury. As if they’ve read the old Greek myths, these weaponizers threw us apple after apple of discord. And, unfortunately, we bit and bit and bit.

And herein, at the end of this painful year, lies our own need for reckoning. The Russians and the commercially-driven algorithms of Twitter and Facebook may have conspired to fuel the fires of our anger, but unfortunately, the fury was ours to amplify. Ultimately, the fires and the hatreds and the fears are our own.

I do not mean to suggest that we don’t have real and deep issues to work through. We do. But right now, we also need to survive an era of seemingly chronic inflammation. For indeed, when we live in permanent outrage at others, we poison ourselves, too. Recently, seeing a chiropractor for back problems, I was reminded of the fact that a muscle in permanent tension becomes, ultimately, weak. Because it is tightened or strained or protecting an injury, no blood flow can come in. Even though the muscle is clenching, it atrophies.

Our anger and outrage function this way, too. We clench and clench and clench, weakening as we do. None of this is to say that we can’t hold onto the passion of our political convictions, that we can’t try to plot ways forward for activism in the world. But it would be wonderful to do so in a way that kept open the humanity of others around us — the woman, say, who will open the email, the person who, so painfully, we disagree with, who perhaps in his or her turn does not seem to be recognizing the humanity in us.

This also raises the question: How can we act and carry our anger and outrage and convictions forward in a way that makes us stronger? Where are we each going to go when we need to unclench? As this year comes to a close, I’ve kept having this phrase pop into my head — sort of a goal, sort of a mantra, sort of a new year’s resolution. I want, next year, to feel more human. I want to find ways of saluting and seeing and nurturing and being nurtured by other humans.

My own visions for this are not very grand, but to me they feel like good first steps. My husband and I are going to establish a practice of having friends over for simple suppers once a month. And I’m going to be starting a family friendly program called Poetry Sabbath, where people in my community can come lie around on pews and pillows and listen to some wise people read a few terrific poems and maybe eat crackers and cheese. Be more human, I keep thinking. I’m looking for ways to unplug, recharge, rest.

I’m not arguing that this is going to change the world, or save it, or solve any of the truly horrifying things we’re facing down now. What I do think is that in being with other real humans, and building community, and in taking time to laugh, eat, and share, I’m going to be more ready to face what is coming; to be ready to rebuild all that is going to need to be rebuilt. I keep thinking: Be more human. Be more human. This coming year, I’d like to amplify our well-being. This coming year, I’d like to amplify our peace.

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