How to Deal With the Cultural Overwhelm We Are Experiencing

The propaganda machine is spinning us out of control.

Posted Jul 07, 2020

If the medium is the message, what do you do with the feelings you get when you’re consuming media? 

What feelings do you get from the “medium” of the world itself? And is “emotional control or suppression” the best strategy for dealing with the complex sordid feelings of oppression, overwhelm, and grief? Those who don’t appreciate the emotional world of others usually have shut down emotions themselves, particularly of vulnerability. And people who are shut down emotionally end up giving the rest of us their emotional baggage. It’s burdensome. When some people in a community are shut down, others end up feeling more emotions directly or indirectly, and then they struggle with finding a way forward. But there is a way.

The shutdown finds some way, either through the structures we see in the world, or through trolling, microaggressions or media manipulation, to distort our emotional equilibrium. Those who study propaganda recognize that when the emotional world is bombarded, people become psychologically oppressed and it becomes easier to push their buttons and find ways to control them.

This is exactly what is happening right now. Our communities are being flooded, and our emotional responses mapped and gridded to create varying degrees of toxicity. Our own empathic brains pick up sense signals from the very substrate of the collective conscience, which is in part a reading of our own discontent and varying responses to it. Even the collective becomes overwhelmed. This is not necessarily because of a malevolent actor—it’s because some hold a lot more power than others, and this creates a disequilibrium in the emotional space, because of what Dacher Keltner calls “The Power Paradox” in his book by that name: power erodes empathy unless proven otherwise. Basically it’s why the most powerful seem to be the least empathic at this moment, this leads us to think that all we need is to shuffle the deck and get more empathic people in charge. Yes and no. Voting our empathy will help, but it is not the whole answer.

Then “easy-way-out” solutions start appearing when we are overwhelmed, because people don’t want to be emotionally isolated. What we what most of all is to have some feeling, sometimes any feeling, no matter the cost. The feeling we really need most, though, is love sweet love, being loved and loving in return.

When this fails, what kinds of feelings and plans do we get hooked on?

Don’t wear masks. Be an individual. And the worst, start hating or avoiding someone for "putting us through this," whether it’s China being blamed for COVID, or protesters for showing up in force to protest the public executions of our fellow human beings.

What are we losing, most specifically and preciously, in this time of COVID-19 and increased social isolation

Our “people sense”—or what I’ve called our “social being.” This is our greatest gift as human beings. It starts with our nurturance as children in families, and whatever positive loving experiences we have along the way of our lives. The tragedy is that we all don’t get loved nearly as much as we all need and deserve as human beings. I think of love though as a co-equal inalienable right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As human beings, we have a right to love, and we should be concerned as a society about all the ways we are deprived of love and turned sideways from our truest nature. Of course, all the ways love fails can strengthen our capacity to love as well, as we learn through grit and determination the power of compassionate love, the love of caring for another’s well-being, safety, and happiness, not in a controlling way, but in a way that respects their individual human identity.

This comes somewhat in conflict with the need to create community and a sense of belonging. We find ways to say that belonging isn’t possible, or if you don’t give up on it and just accept the exigency and distress of life, you haven’t really “matured."

But have you ever wondered what could be produced when a society turns its attention to love and the cultivation of compassion? And not a love that says you’re only acceptable if you follow certain rule book. We are all acceptable in the eyes of love, but we all need relief from the wounds of this world. I know what we see around us is not the best we could do.

This is the most exciting game there is, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s on. How do we start having experiences of open, honest sharing in a spirit of connection and community? And begin restoring our individual strength to love, even those different than us, without outsourcing that need to some other authority? 

If you’re overwhelmed, I suggest self-care in whatever way suits you. But care for your feeling sense of love and also grow your fellow-feeling. Struggle with the challenges of loving people and structures who have harmed you. I confess I do not love it all at this moment in time.

I am in deep pain as I write this, and have taken a month’s sabbatical to recover from overwhelming toxic injury from a society in deep peril.

I wish you well on your journey. 

May all beings be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.

(c) 2020 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.