People had big ideas for this summer that’s now coming to an end. This one would be normal, verging on fun and sexy, in a country now 18 months deep into a pandemic that keeps killing and denying, and six years into an extended surreal experience. And the summer was that way, sometimes — weddings and funerals and parties and deferred obligations really resumed, movie theaters opened, arenas filled with fans.
But insofar as any one person can define “normal,” admittedly, sadly, the summer of 2021 wasn’t quite normal, and only occasionally fun and sexy. People kept careening into and out of one another’s orbit, totally fried and at loose ends, heaving themselves across the river that is this year. Sometimes, it’s like a fog descended over this country last year that can only be pierced by true, distilled emotion — like the good kinds, or like unremitting anger. Like the pure kind of rage that hits first, then flashes back up in unpredictable circumstances — the kind that functions like a magnet, accumulating little bits of detail and info that add to the cause. Like the kind where you just lose it.
“It feels like shouting is all people do these days,” a Wall Street Journal push alert began recently. Everything else can fall away, but anger and violence remain — even if it’s not your anger, it’s the kind you have to duck and escape.
There’s the kind of sudden, violent anger that ranges from embarrassing to disturbed to unruly to racist: Everybody’s seen the videos of people screaming on flights or in stores; fighting in airports, parking lots, and at baseball games; and punching older Asian American people. Everyone knows that sort of pre-thunder, static crackle that announces people stepping outside the normal bounds of behavior in your vicinity. In the grim year 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration has so far reported 4,090 cases of unruly passengers, 2,999 of them mask-related, which have produced 727 investigations and 143 enforcement measures. The trajectory of the increase over last year is steep.
In the antiseptic language of the FAA’s press releases, you can feel the vivid misery of these flights: for instance, the passenger fined $45,000 “for allegedly throwing objects, including his carry-on luggage, at other passengers; refusing to stay seated; lying on the floor in the aisle, refusing to get up, and then grabbing a flight attendant by the ankles and putting his head up her skirt.” Or the passenger Southwest banned from future flights for, according to the FAA, “allegedly assaulting passengers around him because someone in his row would not change seats to accommodate his travel partner.” The monthly releases from the FAA are filled with five-figure fines and allegations of obscenities, assaults, middle fingers in faces, and flight attendants holding ice mallets to defend themselves.
Throughout the NBA playoffs, fans got into fights in the stands and also aimed vitriol specifically at Black players. Fans threw a plastic bottle at one, dumped popcorn on another, yelled racist slurs at the family of another. “Unfortunately,” Atlanta coach Nate McMillan said after a Knicks fan spat on point guard Trae Young, “I just think we're living in a society where really, people just don’t have respect anymore.” During that series, Vinson Cunningham wrote about the woozy features of big crowds returning both inside and just outside Madison Square Garden: “Sometimes I thought I could sense the name Trae Young becoming a symbol not only for the possibility of a first-round exit for the Knicks but for everything that has lately ailed us: rolling lockdowns, clashes over mask-wearing, the coronavirus itself.” Multiple airlines have discontinued alcohol service into next year. Multiple NBA teams have banned individual fans for life.
Then there is the moral anger, deep and existential, that some forgotten hospital nurses and doctors have felt during their second or third wave of a coronavirus pandemic for which there is a vaccine to reduce or prevent symptoms. “Anger is the best word, honestly,” one South Carolina doctor said, and reflected on the shift from the first part of the pandemic, when she spoke to children about their older parents, to this part of the pandemic, when she speaks to parents about their seriously ill adult children.
This is the kind of anger that can be painful and overwhelming to be near, much less feel, like the anger after yet another awful video of a police officer shooting a Black person or tackling a person with dementia — the kind in which specificity only reveals the scale of a problem. Among others, this summer’s ended with another element of this kind of anger, as the United States completes its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, with horrific videos of boys falling off planes and young Marines dying in explosions. A 22-year-old Afghan woman, standing in the airport with no visa or money or known destination, told the AP, “I didn’t deserve this. No one deserves this.” This is the kind of anger that up close or faraway can have a productive dimension, but can also simply become all-surrounding despair.
And then there’s the online anger. This kind is easiest to write about because it flips what happens inside the brain into something tangible: posts, with quantifiable metrics. You know those days on Twitter or Instagram where it’s like trying to stand on the ocean: one wrong move and you’re dragged down into a spiral of outrage and bitterness, whether ambient or building inside your head, whether it’s the deepest and realest kind of outrage, or something you won’t remember tomorrow. With fewer outlets and more isolation, this kind of anger has seemed more unpredictable during the pandemic. It’s hard to tell, though, if that’s the false impression given by recency, or the objective truth derived from a time in which there was a lot to be angry about.
For years, people have put forth various theories about why social platforms and online life induce rage: that context collapse strips out intentions and histories; that Twitter (in particular) elevates “paranoid” readings over “reparative” readings of those intentions; that there just are some real jackasses out there and we hear from more of them now; that grief and sadness are just manifesting as anger; that the entire enterprise of social media dehumanizes the individual such that people become so distant they might as well be fictional. Under that last condition, rage becomes inevitable: You have to fight to be recognized. Hatred, the Brooklyn Nets forward and chaotic Twitter user Kevin Durant told the New York Times, “is just another form of passion, and therefore a sign that you’re really alive.”
Is there something that connects all this? The flight attendants having to duct-tape passengers to seats, AND the undercurrent people invoke about the deep/quiet/silent anger of the collective body, about the division between the vaccinated majority of American adults and the unvaccinated minority, whose anger often predominates, AND the despairing anger about schools and who should be inside and outside them, AND the despairing anger about people left behind in Afghanistan, AND the people tearing each other apart over the second season of a TV show. It’s wrong to shout at someone making $8 an hour behind a counter about an inconvenience, and there’s a deep human dimension to the inner anger of some hospital nurses and doctors in a pandemic; these are not the same. But this is a society soaked through with anger, and unpredictably so.
The HULK SMASH! chemical basics of anger don’t involve much rationality until late in the game. “Neuroimaging studies of human beings in highly emotional states reveal that intense fear, sadness, and anger all increase the activation of subcortical brain regions involved in emotions and significantly reduce the activity in various areas of the frontal lobe,” Bessel van der Kolk writes in the bestseller The Body Keeps the Score. “When that occurs, the inhibitory capacities of the frontal lobe break down, and people ‘take leave of their senses.’”
This is, probably, why it’s so hard to explain how you went from point A to point B about something. The body has multiple layers of appraisal of a situation, professor Everett L. Worthington Jr. writes in an essay on the psychology of anger published last year: The first is automatic and physiological; the second, after a few seconds, is either implicit or explicit; and then, lastly, about 45 seconds in, the appraisal can develop into deep rage and last for years. “Emotion is more about what happens in the entire body — small and large muscle groups — than what happens solely in the situational context and rational brain centers,” Worthington writes. “Emotion is an embodied experience.”
Thinking comes in late, he says. “Rationality is usually involved with secondary emotion and is part of the elaboration that gives secondary anger its nuance into resentment, bitterness, anger, rage, and so on.” That kind of secondary anger, he writes, is complex. “It can grow as uncontrollable as memories and associations feed the emotional experience.”
Throughout the pandemic, I have been thinking about memory and change — when and why a specific moment lingers, or disappears, in the mind. In late 2019, during the holidays, I witnessed one of these bad episodes that have dominated the news this year. On the train, across the aisle and back a row or two, a large middle-aged man began to get loud. He couldn’t find his phone, and his voice started to lose its contours. Soon, he was banging his seat back and forth, shouting at the older woman in the seat next to him about his phone. Her young male relative tried to intercede; the woman did not understand English. The man kept shouting about his phone, sounding near tears.
A young woman stood and brightly announced she would turn on her own phone’s flashlight and find his, gently explaining each step she was taking. Like helpless idiots, a nearby man and I followed her lead and also looked for this man’s phone, which was found in short order. The older woman and her young relative switched seats; he looked entirely dejected. When the train reached the last stop and the wait to deboard lagged, the belligerent man got agitated again — until a passenger a few rows up told him to shut up.
This is, at least, my memory of what happened. During the pandemic, I’ve found myself considering little interactions I see among strangers and whether they'll be something one or both parties always remember, or remember differently, or forget. And I’ve thought about these people on the train in the same way — the disturbed man, and the completely innocent family. Does he think about it with regret? Do they think about it with real pain, or just the fleeting kind? Did the night just slip into and out of their consciousness, only to reappear some other time, or will the memory just lay dormant?
Which would be better? Which would be worse? When and how much does an event change you? There was no resolution that I saw that night; as the pandemic someday will, the ride just ended.
On some level, anger is the things taken or denied — the subversion of expectations, even and especially if those expectations come from some warped place, or at the existential cruelty of the entire machine denying basic humanity to the individual. That’s very old, and you can find moral anger in Aristotle, or the basic expectations example of Christ mad at the disciples for falling asleep in the garden in the Bible. I think we all know that electric tension radiating off the raw nerve from elsewhere in your mind onto the present situation — the way it was supposed to be, or the way it never has been but always should’ve been — and its compulsive, spiraling nature. Right now, the entire country remains in an entirely warped place, with expectations continually subverted.
You can come up with dozens of root problems and ones specific to this time that seem plausible for various kinds of rage that we see right now:
- that not enough people in this country have gotten the vaccine, and that inescapable fact and how to resolve it dominates our lives;
- that many hundreds of thousands of people have died early, and many people’s jobs changed or disappeared for some period of time;
- that the level of fear and wild hope that preceded the vaccine’s authorization occupied a lot of collective space, and when the optimism went somewhat unrealized, anger flowed into a vacuum;
- that some drink too much at ballgames and before flights;
- that some treat wage workers and service employees with a base level of contempt that can spiral out of control;
- that this is a country of automated processes that don’t work;
- that the breakup of centralized media has good and bad elements to it, but it makes it harder to understand the basic narrative of reality;
- that Donald Trump gave supporters and critics a shove in the direction of anger somewhere around the fall of 2015;
- that the CDC and a lot of the national media could, frankly, be better at communicating public health news;
- that isolation makes it tougher to understand yourself;
- that things are just bad now;
- that this has always been an angry country, in all the worst ways, and you need no more proof than how common it was for white people to pull guns on or bomb young Black women registering people to vote, or taking a close look at the experience of Italian and Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century;
- that this has always been an angry country, in all the moral ways, from the original conception of liberties unrecognized to injustice at rights unfulfilled.
With the sheer connectivity and externalization of interior emotion in the 21st century, there’s probably a sharper awareness of the grand totality of angers flowing around at any given moment, and what it’s like to feel, get indicted by, or caught up in them. The social platforms give us this neon cat’s-in-the-cradle paradigm where you can see how X leads to Y, and pulling here tightens this over there. Whatever problems existed before the pandemic, they just seem to have been frozen in time and deepened, along with all the new iterations. And from a distance, one can stoically observe the ways that X or Y from this time will linger and metastasize, like dropping tiny alarm clocks into the heart and razors into the circulatory system, slicing into and nipping away at the frayed edges of people’s minds.
In this totally busted version of how two years on this Earth ought to have gone, it is incredibly easy, like the bang-bang-bang of an old Britney Spears song coming into clarity, to get angry inside your heart about literally anything big or small interfering with the establishment or restoration of a cohesive life, free from these added complications, things that don’t even have to do with the pandemic and never will. This summer was supposed to be great, and it was supposed to move in a linear direction, instead of schismatically looping forward and backward, and for this to just feel like a state that will never end. “It’s lasted too long,” as one character says late into The Plague. “All the time’s one’s wanting to let oneself go, and then one day one has to.”
And we all know those people and sometimes become them, where it’s like, do you hear yourself, do you see yourself and yet, here you stand not seeing or hearing your own life in the context of society. And, of course, can I hear myself, can I see myself — they are not lost years, we are alive and some of us blessed, and many problems could be addressed with incremental and temporary measures within the indefinite and unequal ruin that is this pandemic.
But nobody wants that! Everybody wants this to be over — and, more than anything, in the historical trajectory of the last decade, to not revisit this in a year or five and think: if I only knew then what was to come. ●