Rejoice

“Rejoice!” Bob Ryder

I want us to think about addiction this morning. It’s possible to be addicted to lots of different things – drugs and alcohol, activities, relationships.  Addiction is equal parts biochemical feedback and self-deception, and our genetics play a significant role determining how prone we are to dependency, and what experiences or chemicals might trigger it.  The addiction I want to consider this morning is addiction to fear and anger.  Does it seem unlikely that one could become dependent on emotions, particularly aversive emotions?  I don’t know many people who consciously want to feel mad or scared, but it happens more easily than you might imagine.  The logic goes like this – our minds are programmed by their very architecture to scan the environment for potential dangers – we’re wired for vigilance.  When we see, or hear, or smell something that might hurt us we feel mad or scared, which helps us either to fight or run away.  This is a survival skill selected for over eons of evolutionary history, and present in almost every sentient creature.  It’s simple – animals that can detect threats from predators or rivals with enough time either to run away or defend themselves are more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass their genes on to the next generation. Fear and anger are very useful in certain situations – if you snooze, you lose.  And there’s a built-in reinforcement mechanism for experiencing those emotions.  That rush of adrenaline and cortisol and other bio-chemicals coursing through our bodies can feel pretty satisfying.  Our bodies make our own drugs to get our minds in the right posture to deal with whatever’s going on.

Consider the term “adrenaline junkie.” It is possible to become addicted both to those self-made drugs and to the very thought patterns and emotions that create them.  The vigilance itself starts to feel satisfying.  Identifying a potential threat starts to feel necessary for being associated with the drugs they predict.  Think about why people go to horror movies.  Think about why people ride roller coasters.  The reward – the reinforcer – is in the chemical induced emotions we experience when we feel threatened, even if only in make believe.  The kids walk into the house where the vampire is hiding in wait – and we become vigilant.  The vampire jumps out from the shadows and we get that rush of adrenaline.  The coaster zooms around the tracks climbing and plunging and weaving and we feel the exhilaration of surviving scare after scare.  It’s not hard to see how we might start to crave more of the very thing that scares us.  Of course, most of this happens well below conscious awareness.  Our sub-conscious minds understand the satisfaction that comes from feeling angry or afraid way that’s hard to comprehend while it’s happening.  In fact, the thought patterns of addiction make us good at deceiving ourselves about the true nature of what’s going on. If we recognize the destructive nature of our dependency, we might change the behavior pattern and deny ourselves the satisfaction of the fear induced chemicals.  We can go for decades on a treadmill of high risk behavior without recognizing what we’re doing to ourselves. We identify something that might be threatening, it makes us angry or afraid, we get the biochemical hit, and our minds are drawn back to scanning for the next possible threat so we can experience the biochemical hit over and over. We don’t want anything to interrupt that cycle of satisfaction.

Two things I want to point out about the experience for the moment.  First, it comes with a pretty high cost.  Like almost anything we do to our bodies, there is a benefit and a detriment.  Too much of a good thing is no good. Continuous exposure to the chemicals our bodies produce as part of the fight or flight response is damaging.  In the short term these chemicals provide access to quick energy and turn off functions that compete with our muscles for oxygen and blood sugar, but they’re caustic.  Our hearts and digestive tracts and skin and brains and livers and kidneys all pay a high proce for excessive exposure to the drugs we manufacture as part of fear and anger. Second, we can learn to find threats that aren’t necessarily there, or at least that are not immediate enough to warrant the physiological cost of the adrenaline and cortisol and stomach acid.  If a grizzly bear is chasing you, adrenaline can help you avoid being mauled.  If someone says something obnoxious on the internet, that same dose of adrenaline has no practical value – it’ll just wear you out.

It’s not healthy to go around being angry or scared all the time, no matter how weirdly, subconsciously satisfying it may be.  Even when the problems or threats are real, there is a limit to how long we can endure the side-effects of fear or anger before we do serious damage to our minds and bodies and relationships.  Behavior is subject to the law of diminishing returns – you can only move in survival mode for so long before you start doing yourself more harm than good.  However much we need to be energized by our emotions when real threats show up, we can only maintain that state for so long before we need to rest recover. We need to experience times of calm and confidence, hope and optimism, joy and peace to understand the goodness that is possible in life, just as we need fear and anger to help us survive when there are real and present dangers. We need balance, rhythm, sobriety.

I noticed my own addictive relationship to anger recently while I was listening to NPR. My morning routine is usually to get up and wash my face, go out to the yard with Daisy to feed the birds and squirrels, then we jump in the car to go out for a coffee. Most days I’ll have Morning Edition on the radio. For a while the vast majority of the stories have been covering the new administration, detailing policy and analyzing quotations from various politicians and pundits. Being of a particular bias – most of those stories made me mad. I’d be driving around shaking my head, maybe cursing under my breath (Daisy doesn’t like it when I curse out loud). Well a story came along one morning last week about a cultural event totally unrelated to politics, and I got impatient, yearning for the broadcast to move along to the next outrage being perpetrated on immigrants or refugees or Muslims or the definition of truth. “C’mon” I thought to myself, “tell me something else that SOB did.” I was having momentary withdrawal symptoms from being angry. Another day last week a story reported that the new president decided not to undue one of President Obama’s executive orders providing workplace protections against discrimination toward LGBT citizens. “Ohhh, how DARE he do something I agree with!” It totally interrupted my mad-on! It seems to me part of the delusion that happens when we get addicted to being angry at the news is that we let righteous indignation devolve into self-righteousness. As if being mad at “them” entitles me to feel better about myself. There’s nothing righteous about a mindset that must find an enemy and engage in a battle in order to be satisfied. Righteousness is only as righteous as it seeks to make the world a better place for all concerned. Think about the word indignation – I doubt that losing our dignity ever contributes much to the greater good. In the long run, creativity and discipline and generosity are much more productive responses to danger than fear or anger. We need to be wise enough to let go of our reactive emotions so we can rest and heal and think.

One of the most important skills in mindfulness is learning to let go of attachments, fixations, addictive thoughts and emotions. Meditation teachers share an anecdote of how hunters capture monkeys by drilling a hole in a coconut. They take a rope and weave it through the hole and attach it to a tree, and place a banana inside the hollowed-out shell. The monkey comes along and smells the banana inside, reaches in and grabs it, and with his hand clenched around the fruit he can’t get it back out. The hunters return and net the monkey, who couldn’t escape because he couldn’t let go of the banana. We need to let go of our fear and anger when it isn’t doing us any immediate good.

Having noticed our own symptoms of being too mad and fearful for too long at a stretch, Susan and have done a couple of things in the last week to pace ourselves and maximize our ability to enjoy living in such a way that others might enjoy it, too. First, we’ve limited how much news we take in – we don’t watch every source that we like every day. We limit how much we take in from social media. We limit how much how much we post and how much we respond. Once I’m aware something has happened, I don’t need to hear half a dozen different reports. Next, we’ve started looking for ways to respond other than raging against the machine. If I can say something thoughtful that hasn’t already been said much, I’ll share a thought. If an argument has been made well, it doesn’t have to be made again by me to be valid. Instead we’ve tried to look for ways to laugh, and to help others laugh. If something ridiculous comes along, laughing is at least as good a response as being angry. After the tragic news about the Bowling Green Massacre came out a couple of days ago, I checked in on Facebook indicating that I was safe. There were others who expressed their shock that Frederick Douglass has been silent on the issue. There is a website set up to remember the tragedy – when you click on the link it directs you to the ACLU. There have been a ton of hilarious responses to a ludicrous misquote by the administration’s spokesperson, all infinitely more persuasive about the issue of allowing immigrants and refugees into the country than outrage would have been. Susan and I also decided to reach for generosity instead of anger. Last week we sat down and went over a list of charitable organizations to whom we’ll contribute to resist administration policies we disagree with. By the time we’d spent an hour giving away money, we both felt better than we had in weeks.

And finally, we’ve both made a point to do something every day that’s fun – just because it is. Happiness and joy and contentment are healing. It is your constitutional right to pursue happiness, and with a bit of imagination it’s easy to catch. I’ve been playing guitar a little more. Susan has taken some time most days to play fetch with Daisy. I’ve been lifting weights on a home gym while I listen to a classic rock station. (I’m learning to wait until Susan wakes up – sorry babe!) One of the effects of deliberately enjoying ourselves has been that we’re a lot more productive when we’re working for having taken time to rejoice. Just as anger and fear can create a vicious circle, so happiness can lead to it’s own self –perpetuating rhythm. Emotions are contagious – don’t you suppose the cause of righteousness is more likely to recruit supporters with the allure of cheerful workers than angry, mean spirited ones?

Injustice and tyranny will never go extinct. If one of the purposes of our lives is about making the world a better place, it is always going to be a long-term project. We might as well be smart and pace ourselves. So, I’ll conclude with a few thoughts about how to resist getting addicted to fear and anger.

  • Pick your battles. You don’t have to show up for every fight you’re invited to.
  • Choose your audience – there’s no use arguing with someone who won’t hear you.
  • Find activities to enjoy. Movies / books / music / photography / poetry / roller blades / boomerangs / kites / tell jokes.
    • Why does Snoop Dogg carry an umbrella? FO DRIZZLE!
    • Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl in the bathroom? Because it has a silent pee.
    • What did the Zen Buddhist say to the hotdog vendor? Make me one with everything.
    • What kind of bees make milk instead of honey? Boobies.
    • Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, “Why the long face?”
    • A mushroom walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Hey, get out of here! We don’t serve mushrooms”. Mushroom says, “Why not? I’m a fungi!”
  • Be your own ally – sleep enough, get some exercise, play music, meditate, eat healthy, don’t drink too much, get a massage or pedicure.
  • Practice kindness – even when others don’t deserve it. You don’t have to overdo it, but courtesy feels better than hostility, and perhaps it buys you some credit with onlookers.
  • And finally, this thought, which is an amalgam of quotations by Martin Luther and Thomas Moore – “The best way to drive out the Satan, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for the devil…that proud spirit…cannot endure to be mocked.