Decision 2020: Adrenaline or Cortisol?

Thursday, January 16, 2020 - 12:30
A protestor holds a sign that reads, "Can we put the Civility back in our Civil Liberty?"

Doesn’t it just feel fabulous living in a time when we can finally knock down and have it out with all the folks who make us angry, crazy and annoyed? It’s the Era of the Reverse Catharsis and all of us are in it together.

The early Greeks believed that catharsis – that moment of relief from strong or repressed emotions – had a salutary effect. That’s why Greek tragic plays, enacted outdoors in grand forums before live audiences numbering in the tens of thousands, held such appeal. The dramas brought human failings and their unwitting consequences, up to and including murder, into vivid relief. They encouraged open wailing and tears, allowing audiences to return home purged of negative feelings and perhaps open to more insight about their personal and social relations.

We Americans, I fear, have gone the opposite direction of late.

An unrelenting Twitter tirade aimed right at the earliest reptilian parts of our brains keeps us stirred, churned and hopping mad. Mass shootings, and the gunmen’s epic declarations of anger and discontent, have risen from 382 in 2016 to well over 400 in 2019, an average or more than one a day.

A story last December 15 in the Los Angeles Times featured a revealing photo taken at a town hall gathering in the perky berg of Glendale, California. When an Armenian organization sought to thank Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) and other U.S. government officials for supporting resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide, about a dozen folks started shouting “Liar!” and held up signs demanding “Don’t Impeach.”  When Schiff, who sits center stage in the House of Representatives’ impeachment of Donald Trump, respectfully asked that the signs be taken down, a brawl erupted. The picture shows a fist flying, hands bidding for restraint, and general chaos during what was intended to be a healing event.

The people in that photo, the dead and injured from shootings, the bilious tsunami of rage flowing digitally from on high together represent an instinct present in everyone, though well-regulated in most of us. Moment to moment, events near and far challenge us to manage and master our impulses. Everyone experiences the episodic adrenaline shot urging them to lash out. But some of us – perhaps wounded early in our lives, mentally damaged, or nursing some real or imagined insult – lose our heads and operate entirely from our most aggressive instincts. That’s when all passions for civility shudder and fall, whipping up a whirlwind of hate and rage.

A national election looms before us in November 2020. Periodic votes freely cast by citizens can buttress any legitimate democracy. Will we use that franchise on this go-around to advance civil rights and defend ourselves from authoritarianism? Or will we choose to accelerate the free-for-all atmosphere fed by those with unrestrained, destructive impulses wanting to drive deeper the wedge of disdain for “the other”?

Rather than activating our most primitive flight or fight responses, let’s instead pump up the flow of civility, the social equivalent of the stress-relieving hormone called cortisol, to flood our brains, bodies and souls this electoral season. We give that version of catharsis the best chance of expression through vigorous, civilized political dialogue, by elevating the Constitution’s intent of a “well-regulated militia” over our society’s gun-rights mania, and by right-sizing our time as digital click-prey.


Photo credit: Civility by Martha Soukup (CC by 2.0)