This is 1 of a 7 part Lenten series on how (not) to be human in the Internet age.
I was born in 1985 with two eyes, one heart, and unfettered access to cable television.
Because of the happenstance combination of both my cellular material as well as my adolescent bedroom’s over-abundance of cathode ray tubing, I have a nearly bottomless understanding of what it looks like when people “stop being polite and start getting real”.
If you’re unfamiliar with the now presciently named The Real World, it was our civilization’s first reality television show. Beginning in 1992 on MTV, it starred “normal” people in their early twenties so desperate to have their names remembered forevermore in the minds of 13-year-olds from Des Moines to Knoxville that they willingly braved questionable hot tubs, and “confessionals” where producers would pit their answers against those of their housemates in order to incite televised conflict. Hence, the real getting.
One of the central philosophical tenets of The Real World, is that people are their most authentic, their most “real” selves whenever they are liquored up, at their breaking point, or so emotionally discombobulated at the site of yet another naked housemate drinking milk from the carton, that they blow up, say things that have been festering for weeks, and begin sobbing or screaming into the abyss within full view of Jonathan Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim’s supervisory boom mics. Somehow politeness, according to the logic of now 32 seasons of what I feel sad to call “intellectual” property, is the opposite of real, because it deigns to quell the rise of one’s indignation and irritation at the site of another human who may or may not have very good reasons for nakedly chugging 2%.
In our world, both Real and real, emotional regulation has fallen out of fashion, due primarily to the ways in which all of us have been steeped in the orthodoxy of our outrage and the purity of our pugnacity from at least as long as we’ve been wailing from the back seat of the minivan for MORE CHEERIOS. As it’s often thought, emotional regulation is inauthentic and weak because it goes slowly, it listens, it asks more questions, and it seeks to keep fists un-balled and jaws un-clenched in the face of the incarnate nuance starting back at us angrily or writing in ALL CAPS ON FACEBOOK.
Frankly, thanks to the endorphin spike, it feels incredible, while adrift in a sea of what seems like endless randomness and a lack of control, to be right about something, or someone, or maybe just their sketchy motives. To feel justified in our anger, and to allow this justification to then turn and skewer our opponent, or our partner, or our parent, or that real jerk, Brian, from accounting who always hits “reply-all” to the office-wide emails, is the very bedrock of “real-ness” in an age where nothing — from your curated Instagram feed to the Russian bots that worked to elect our President — is real.
However, as anyone whose bad behavior has been taped for 24 hours a day can tell you, occasionally you say things you don’t mean when you’re being your most authentic (READ: LOUD) self. That’s because when you are emotionally dysregulated the part of your brain that controls higher level cognitive functioning (like thoughtful reasoning) is significantly blunted by the Amygdala and it’s activation of the fight or flight response. In certain situations this kind of response to stress is more than called for, like, say, when you’re running from a bear and don’t find yourself suddenly contemplating the deepest mysteries of the universe or feel that Mexican from lunch making an unexpected reappearance.
But, on the other hand, when you find yourself opting for the warheads at the sight of your partner ONCE AGAIN squeezing the toothpaste tube from the middle rather than rolling up the end of it LIKE ANYONE WITH ANY BRAINS IN THEIR HEADS WOULD, this emotional dysregulation is maybe less helpful. For further evidence of this phenomenon please email your ex-wife.
I’d like to argue (rather boringly) that keeping yourself emotionally in-check isn’t just impressive in the 21st century, it is a superpower. Emotional regulation at the site of loved ones or family friends’ unpopular hot takes on current events posted on Facebook or shouted down over holiday meals is the kryptonite of technocratic tyranny and Twitter trolls that currently control our national debate. Having access to all of your mental faculties while seeking to engage in the most complex discussions using the most complex mediums humanity has ever beheld would seem to be a rather popular opinion, but it isn’t, and it won’t be.
“But Eric, the NAZIS!?!?!?”
Instead we will keep reading, and sharing, and posting things emanating from a place of pain, from a place of profound emotional dysregulation, from whoever we are when we’re muttering to ourselves about traffic and yelling at our kid’s soccer coach for not playing a more attacking style in the second half. When all you’re holding is fear and anger then everything you see and hear is a bear crashing through the brush. This may also help explain how the word “bait” so aptly modifies the word “click” these days.
Which is why it isn’t just important, but revolutionary, to find ways of lassoing our feelings of alienation, failure, and impotence by reminding ourselves that we are at our truest, our realest, our most authentic when we can remember that the person in front of us — even if they are an elected official responsible for keeping us from the brink of thermonuclear war — isn’t in charge of our emotional well-being, because we are. When our baggage has been checked (for a reasonable fee of $25 on all domestic carriers), we might discover that blunted conversations with intractable rivals suddenly become more clear-eyed once we are able to put the breaks on re-enacting the same way of coping with our pain that we’ve been employing long before “your” President was in office and “those” Democrats refuse to let him govern.
In a world where your feelings are constantly being sold to the highest bidders, I’ve found it’s best to go ahead and own them rather than being owned by them. Or, more specifically, unknowingly selling them to an Internet arms dealer who has leveraged them for control over our country’s emotional response to complicated global realities requiring only our clearest eyes and our fullest hearts.*
(*NOTE: What I’m saying is that we need you Coach Taylor, now, maybe more than ever. Texas Forever.)