We are outraged by everything. Whether it’s Obama, Trump, or the dentist who shot Cecil the lion, we have become addicted to outrage. We’re addicted to those moments of high emotional response toward some perceived threat or enemy. We’re outraged by heartless Republicans or corrupt Democrats. We’re outraged by Christian progressives pushing their liberal agendas in our schools and churches, and we’re outraged by fundamentalists pushing their legalism and narrow-mindedness.
Whether through social media, cable news, or online journalism, we find ourselves inflamed with anger on a daily, weekly, and sometimes hourly basis. This anger feels good. It feels righteous, so we search it out. Soon, before we know it, we find ourselves frequenting the very websites that are designed to make us angry, listening to pundits or pastors who convince us to be afraid of “those people over there.”
During our time away, we find ourselves craving the drama. In moments of silence (read: boredom), we log into Facebook, Twitter, or online news sites and seek out a fresh hit of outrage. We need something to feed the craving.
The Science behind Outrage
Our minds are complex and beautiful works of art. Scientists estimate there to be eighty-six billion synapses and connections in the adult brain. Each one fires in response to external experiences, releasing chemicals that help us thrive and cope in an unpredictable world. Our brains help us process threats, enjoy moments of bliss, and cope with otherwise unbearable pain. The human brain is miraculous, and its behavior can impact our lives in very simple yet significant ways.
Psychologist Rick Hansen explains it this way:
The flow of experience gradually sculpts your brain, thus shaping your mind. Some of the results can be explicitly recalled: This is what I did last summer; that is how I felt when I was in love. But most of them remain forever unconscious. This is called implicit memory, and it helps form your expectations, models of relationships, emotional tendencies, and general outlook. Implicit memory establishes the interior landscape of your mind—what it feels like to be you—based on the slowly accumulating residues of lived experience.
But here’s the problem: Your brain preferentially scans for, registers, stores, recalls, and reacts to unpleasant experiences; it’s like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. Consequently, even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, the pile of negative implicit memories naturally grows faster. Then the background feeling of what it feels like to be you can become undeservedly glum and pessimistic.
Simply stated, what we choose to read and the voices we allow to speak into our lives will eventually and inevitably shape and form our worldview—which matters because, physiologically, we’re far more likely to develop a pessimistic worldview than a positive one.
The Outrage Loop
News publications understand this inherent bent toward outrage, and they intentionally craft their headlines accordingly. One journalist even went on record admitting that journalists craft their articles with the understanding that fear and/or anger are far more likely to go viral. The world is doing everything in its power to keep us in an outrage loop, pushing us deeper and deeper into indignation. The danger here must not be lost on us.
Our minds have a fight-or-flight response to perceived dangers in our world, and this reaction has served us well from the beginning of our time on earth. When we experience fear, danger, or perceived harm, our minds release dopamine that sharpens our focus and floods our bodies with a rush of energy. This flood of dopamine is incredibly useful and has protected humanity from predators, served us well as we protected our children from harm, and kept us vigilant in times of conflict. Dopamine has been a vital and necessary part of our physiological makeup.
However, this chemical process can be manipulated and abused. Because the media outlets relentlessly feed us fear, we find ourselves confronted with an ever-present enemy. When we read an article or story about one of our perceived enemies, our bodies react as though that enemy were present. Our brains prepare us for a fight, and this response can be intoxicating. After only a short time, we find that our bodies crave this outrage in the same way someone craves a drug.
To believe another to be our enemy leads us to allow, ignore, forgive, or even perpetrate ourselves the unspeakable against them.
However, when our chemical processes and responses are routinely abused in this way, the effects begin to move beyond science and into relational devastation. When we are angered by politics, animal-rights abuse, or a theological dispute and our bodies react as though preparing for battle, we draw lines in the sand—our side being good, the other side evil. In the wake of the relentless onslaught of outrage, we are finding ourselves entrenched in dualistic, cut-and-dried, ideologies with no room for open discussion or even gray areas. These types of ideologies push all differences away and make reconciliation incredibly difficult.
To believe another to be our enemy leads us to allow, ignore, forgive, or even perpetrate ourselves the unspeakable against them. When they’re our enemy, they become less human to us. And when they’re not human, we no longer see them as formed in the image of God. When we reduce and confine others to labels, we remove the intentional image of God that has been imprinted upon all of us. When we categorize people as enemies, we no longer work toward reconciliation. We cannot participate in healing when we’re pointing a gun at our brothers or sisters.
Are there moments when we are called to holy, righteous, Christlike outrage? Absolutely. Throughout the Gospels, we have brilliant examples of Christ responding with outrage against those who seek to harm the weak and the vulnerable. We watch Jesus flip tables, and we watch him publicly call out the religiously corrupt as vipers who are willing to eat their own young.
However—and this is a big however—the Jesus who flipped those tables and called out those hypocritical leaders was the very same Jesus who instructed us to turn our cheeks when struck, to pray for our enemies, to seek their well-being, and not to sleep before resolving a conflict with a friend or family member.
Jesus understood at the deepest level what it means to be human, and he knew that, though anger (and even outrage) has a healthy purpose in our lives, anger and outrage can quickly become controlling forces in our hearts. When left unchecked, they become formative behaviors, transforming our very physical and emotional beings into something fractured and wounded.
This inevitable brokenness is why Jesus consistently, relentlessly calls us into a life of forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. It is why he instructs us to spend our lives building bridges with our enemies. Sure, it’s easier to share an angry Facebook post about those we hate—but the more difficult, yet also more healthy, work is to live in relationship with Trump supporters or to listen sincerely to the stories of Black Lives Matter protesters.
Yes, in life there will still be moments of justifiable anger. There will still be experiences that create feelings of understandable outrage, and there will be moments in which we will be compelled to act accordingly. However, as Christ followers, may we find our way out of the cultural outrage loop, and may we instead be controlled by hearts of peace, love, forgiveness, and reconciliation.