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Pandemic Rage

So much of it comes down to our powerlessness.

Key points

  • Anger can be a healthy emotion. It alerts people to the fact that they might be in danger and that action needs to be taken to create safety.
  • When people feel hurt or threatened, they not only feel anger but also powerlessness, which can be an uncomfortable experience.
  • People may cope with anger and powerlessness by building narratives and trying to regain power in ways that are often unhelpful.

From all points on the political spectrum and all parts of the US, there are people who are angry.

We are angry about a great many things, and we have a right to be angry about many, if not most, of those things. Furthermore, anger can be very healthy — anger is an emotion that alerts us to the fact that we might be in danger and that things are not okay. That a boundary has been crossed. That we are not safe or someone else isn’t. Anger can give us important information — that action needs to be taken to make things right or create safety.

That said, just like any emotion, while the feeling might be justified, our understanding of the feeling (the narrative that accompanies it) might not be. In other words, feelings are never wrong, but our interpretation of them (and what to do about them) often is.

To give a simple and common example, if I am driving and another driver makes a dangerous move in front of me and nearly causes an accident, I am likely to feel a surge of adrenaline, experienced initially as fear and then as anger. Here my anger is rightfully telling me that the person made a dangerous choice that was not safe for me. However, if I create a further narrative with that anger — if I also interpret it to mean that the other driver didn’t care about me, or worse, that they were recklessly disregarding my safety on purpose, then I will become angrier and I might lash out at the driver in some way that can lead to road rage and/or unsafe behavior by both parties.

The truth is, it could have simply been that the person wasn’t paying as close attention as they should have at that moment — something that happens to almost all of us. Or that they were rushing to the hospital because of a medical emergency and paying less attention to safety in the interest of speed. Or perhaps something flew into their eye and they were temporarily blinded. We don’t actually have the information that would allow us to attribute motive or intent to the other driver. To allow our anger to create that narrative might make us feel good at that moment, but it isn’t based on fact and it frequently leads to less safety rather than more.

The Relationship Between Anger and Powerlessness

Most often, the reason for that second level of the narrative is because of rage’s closest companion: powerlessness.

When we have been hurt, our safety was threatened, or our boundary was crossed, it is not just anger that we feel, it is powerlessness. We feel out of control. Someone, or some group, has made a choice or choices that have an effect on us (or people we care about or the planet) and we haven’t been consulted. The choice was made without us.

This points to an experience that is deeply uncomfortable and yet an undeniable fact of life: We don’t always get to chose how things go, even when it is painful for us. We are, all of us, to a degree, powerless in life.

Nickolas Nikolic/Unsplash
Source: Nickolas Nikolic/Unsplash

This fact is so difficult to accept. And it’s especially difficult to accept when we were traumatized as children — we were taught that powerlessness brings victimization and pain, so we feel terrified of being powerless again. But even for those who were treated well as children, we would so much rather feel in control of our lives. And make no mistake, we should feel empowered to do all that we can and make the best of the life that we have. But the hard truth is that our power is limited. Some of us more than others, but no amount of money or status will create immunity from powerlessness. If it rains when we are out for a walk, we will all get wet. Anyone could get cancer. Bullets won’t bounce off any of our flesh. If the global climate catastrophe in front of us continues, we will all be affected.

Powerlessness in the Face of COVID

And so it is with COVID. People feel deeply powerless when faced with the virus that is circulating the globe and wiping out millions of people in its wake. Our lives are at stake and we are all dependent on everyone else in order to create safety for ourselves — in essence, as individuals we are powerless to stop it. This profound powerlessness is deeply uncomfortable and, along with the anger that naturally comes from feeling unsafe, many of us have coped by creating a second level of narrative and/or by trying to regain a sense of power:

Some people cope by feeling enraged at the people who aren’t getting vaccinated or wearing masks and attribute lack of empathy, lack of intelligence, and/or malicious intent. Others grasp at some sense of empowerment by protesting mandatory vaccines or mask mandates or by purchasing medicines not advised by the medical community. Still others latch on to conspiracy ideology in order to feel more empowered by having “insider” information.

All of these, and more, are ways in which we are reacting to an experience of powerlessness and anger, rather than being able to simply have those feelings, do the things we can do that are healthy and empowering, and then hold the discomfort of our powerlessness and let the anger move through us. Not create secondary narratives, not try to grasp at feelings of empowerment through frantic and unhealthy action or feeding our rage, but instead to do what we can to help ourselves and others be safe, and then live with the uncomfortable feelings that powerlessness brings.

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