(How to Survive) The Age of Rage
It’s not just institutions that failed people. It’s also people that failed institutions. Here’s why.
This is a paradoxically unhappy time. A time where we are unhappy with happiness. Instead of finding fulfillment, contentment, and joy, the closer we get to the lives we think we should have, the more we seem to seethe with anger, outrage, discontent, rage. It is the happiness we’re frustratingly limited to that seems to stand in the way of the fulfillment we seek. Thus, ever angry, human cannons with hair triggers, our dreams shattered by a broken system, we shout our outrage a million times a day from the digital rooftops, the cultural mountaintops, the social valleys.
Yet while it’s true that institutions have failed people, historically and titanically, in this short, essay, I want to explore the converse: that it is also true that people have failed institutions. I want to discuss not just that we are content to Facebook and tweet and make butler-apps and down designer shots while (literally) the planet begins to melt, the economy sputters out, inequality explodes, opportunity dwindles, extremism turns mainstream, and societies begin to fracture — but why.
I will advance the tiny theory that we are ridden with three great psychic conflicts (and yes, I will use “we”. It doesn’t necessarily mean you — it just means enough of us). It is these conflicts that paralyze us, thwart us, stifle us. They leave us numb, inert, helpless to help ourselves. It is true that institutions have failed us. But thus internally conflicted, divided, paralyzed, we too are unable to rise the challenge of challenging institutions to deliver on their most basic promises.
The first is the Conflict of Numbers. We are romantics. We celebrate the primacy of feelings, told from a very age that our feelings matter most, that we must feel good, and that feeling good is a right, not a privilege. And all that is probably true. But we are also stunted, conflicted, poor romantics. For we are also little tyrannical empiricists. We admit only the “data”, the “facts”, the “evidence” — and all that must be numerary. If it doesn’t have a number, it is not socially or culturally real, for it cannot be allowed into epistemological certainty in the first place. Thus, the non-quantifiable cannot be debated, discussed, admitted into the court of public opinion by which we make social decisions and ascertain cultural facts. We dismiss numberless phenomena as “woo” or “anecdotes”, we denigrate and devalue them into nonexistence — not realizing that logic must admit more than just what may be quantified, or else no theory is possible to begin with. Hence, we are profoundly ontologically impoverished. On the one hand, we know that what we feel is real, visceral, as tangible as currency. But on the other, we cannot admit our emotional lives into our way of life. Indeed, we actively discourage doing so. We must instead discount, bury, and excise them.
Thus, halfhearted romantics conflicted by the tyranny of empiricism, too weak to challenge or question it, we are always smiling grimly through the pain, rictus grinning through the futility. Such a conflict leaves us reduced, incapable, helpless — for from the outset, we have decided that the very suffering we endure has no social reality. We suffer, but we ourselves are the enforcers of our suffering. And as we suffer, so we are incapable of raising the very question of our suffering with the institutions which have failed us.
The second is the Conflict of Approval. We are rugged individualists, who long for the freedom to be ourselves. For through the completion of the self alone may we answer our deepest need: for fulfillment. But everywhere we are seeking social validation, affirmation, approval. Billions of Instagrams, tweets, status updates a day. What are we really saying in all these? See what an individual I am! See my unique self — it is different from all the others!! And while it may be, we do not believe it is until it is validated by everyone else.
Do you see the conflict? Thus, we are limited to not to individuality — but merely to permissibility. Our individuality may be “different” — but not truly deviant. Call it the Caitlyn Jenner effect. “The hardest thing about being a woman is putting on makeup”, she once proclaimed…thus reducing femininity to a cosmetic caricature…just as generations of men have done. That is difference without deviance, difference in form — but not in substance.
What is permissible is always superficial. For the simple reason that it is grounded in, based upon what is allowed by others in the first place. Thus, when we ask, desperately, through our cries into the digital ether, “look at me! Am I different?” we are not seeking ourselves at all. We are merely seeking approval, affirmation, encouragement. And in all that lie neither rebellion nor grace nor truth. But merely conformity, acceptability, respectability, falsity. We need to be loved for who we truly are — but we settle for merely being accepted for who think we should be. The two are not the same. For those who truly love us do not care what others think of us at all. Instead, they will defend us from the depredations of approval, and fight for our obligation to be our truest selves.
Yet, thus are we left paralyzed, thwarted from being our truest selves precisely by our need for social acceptance, approval, affirmation. We do not challenge institutions to make room for us as our truest selves, to encourage their flourishing, to nourish their growth, when the selves we pretend to be are already Insta-Approved by a thousand likes on Fakebook. Thus, we settle not just for second best — but perhaps for second worst. We do not develop into the beings we were meant to be — merely those approval and affirmation allow us to be. We’re not slaves — but we are captives. And yet in that resignation to captivity, instead of a pursuit of freedom, is precisely how we failed our institutions in the first place.
The third is the Conflict of Objects. We wish to be our authentic selves. Only those selves, we know, deep down, will ever know fulfillment. What is fake cannot be fulfilled. But we settle for a kind of authenticity so superficial it is probably worse than not pursuing it at all. The less than meaningless authenticity of form, not substance. We believe that to be “authentic” is to have the right body. The right face. The right beliefs, conceits, books, art, friends, lovers.
But all that is superficial. Why? Because all of those are objects. Just because you have the body you have always wanted does not mean you are any more authentic today than you were yesterday. Just because you have the friends and lovers you always wanted does not mean you are any more authentic than you were yesterday.
True authenticity demands what is deeper, more integral, more an irreducible part of our being. Merely having the set of possessions you always is not authenticity, for you will likely never complete that set — and even if you do, it will not fulfill you, but only leave you heartbroken at all the time you wasted. What, then, is authenticity? The authentic self is the self which lives to its fullest possibility. That possibility is not found in what you can have — but in what you may give. The question of possibility is answered by this simple question: to what extend you make a better world possible.
Thus, it is precisely our superficial obsession with form over substance, with objects over existence, thwarts our deep wish for authenticity. Putting all our energy into perfecting our possessions, whether they are bodies, friends, lovers, wardrobes, toys, thus we neglect the true challenge: discovering and freeing the authentic self in the first place. The more perfect our possessions grow, the unhappier we become, the more frustrated we get — and still, we cannot quite say why. But the reason is simple. Far from freeing our authentic selves, we are merely greedily desiring, acquiring, and hoarding objects. And those objects imprison the selves we were meant to be in futility, sadness, and rage.
I think it is these three great conflicts that limit and stifle us. From pursuing the truly great challenges in life. The challenges of freeing our true selves, pursuing true happiness, and becoming the people we were meant to be. Not by destiny or by design. But merely by intent and free will. And it is precisely in pursuing those challenges that we challenge our institutions not to fail us.
These conflicts are great errors not just in thinking — but in being. They are ways in which we reduce the boundless privilege of existence to the simplest and most trivial of things: numbers, approval, and objects. And it is when we make that first mistake that a series follows. For we naturally then, of our own accord, give up our freedom, our birthrights, and our possibilities. Thus, we operate on a lower level than we should, along all the aspects which truly define us: rebellion, defiance, grace, truth, awareness, beauty, love.
That is how we failed our institutions, just as they failed us.
If we are to survive the Age of Rage, then, we must be greater than merely reducing ourselves to numbers, approval, and objects. For doing so will always produce conflicts in us which leave us paralyzed, stunted, diminished…seething with rage, yet helpless with resignation, bound to desperate mediocrity by our own divided selves. We must, instead, see more clearly into the heart of who we truly are. Not numbers who need approval to win more objects to rack up higher scores to get more approval to win more objects. But as beings whose possibilities must never be reduced to all that, or else we will surely be left divided, afraid, alone, helpless.
It is not possible to live without conflict, no matter how we meditate or fast or pray. And yet. The great challenge of every life is to live in such a way that its conflicts do not paralyze and suffocate it, diminish and stunt it — but animate and nurture it, arouse and awaken it. Such conflicts are more simply called dreams. They do not divide and destroy us — they beckon and guide us. And so they strengthen us, by guiding us, to who we truly are.
So perhaps you may say all the above in a simpler way. We have forgotten how to dream, in reducing the world, and ourselves, to numbers and objects through which we seek the approval of objects and numbers. And that is why we have not awakened, yet, to our fullest possibilities.