We live in a 24/7/365 cable news and social media world where our outrage is fueled by our every “Like” or “Comment”, or every news show we watch, and, in these moments, we can sometimes lose touch with our better angels.
Jesus is talking about this abundant anger in today’s Gospel and calling us to turn the other cheek as we ready for Lent.
I heard an interesting episode of a favorite podcast recently. It’s the NPR show Hidden Brain. Host Shankar Vedantam goes deep into subjects about how our brains work. It’s fascinating stuff.
The episode in question is entitled “Screaming Into The Void: How Outrage Is Hijacking Our Culture, And Our Minds.”
I touched upon one of his examples in my last homily. The story about the mom who misjudged the Covington Catholic High School story touched a nerve with some.
Experts say social media changed after the 2016 Presidential election. Yale psychologist Molly Crocket admitted, "I felt myself getting sucked into feedback loops where I would read something, I would feel outraged about it, [and] I would feel compelled to share it with my friends. I would then be sort of obsessively checking to see whether people had responded, how they had responded, you know, lather, rinse, repeat."
Dr. Crocket remembers being most outraged with the anti-immigration stance taken by the current Administration.
She saw a friend post an article on Facebook about how farmers were not finding enough workers due to the crackdown on immigration and vegetables were rotting on the vine. After reading it, she decided to share it with her friends.
The post was quite popular with her Facebook community, but one person left a comment saying, “Check the date of the article.” She did and found it was published in 2011 -- during an administration she admired.
Dr. Crocket quietly deleted the post. And admits the incident served as a wake-up call. She realized her outrage was controlling her behavior in unhealthy ways.
Jesus wants us to experience this same wake-up call in hearing his Gospel message today.
He’s in the middle of his Sermon on the Mount and has just shared the Beatitudes. He then turns to all the ways we are called to be good disciples of his teachings. Today, he talks about the most difficult of his teachings: We must love our enemies. Pray for people who persecute us. Turn the other cheek. This is how we become perfect in the eyes of God.
Not by taking an eye for an eye or tooth for a tooth. But by letting love shine through the darkness of our human hearts and allowing the power of Jesus to transform ourselves and our world.
Media today (social media and Cable news media) are wired to give people reasons to be angry. This is done to increase views or viewership. These media are literally peddling anger. The business model is to make you mad. And many of us are falling for it.
The addictive power of outrage is spilling over into many other other human interactions.
Just think about an angry email or letter you may have sent recently. Upon reflection, perhaps the outrage expressed was excessive for the situation at hand?
This outrage comes from the same source.
Dr. Crocket says there’s a primitive aspect to our brain development in which we are hardwired to call out the bad behavior of others. And when we do it feels good.
She says outrage has been so valuable in our evolutionary history that it operates like other important biological functions. It gives us pleasure.
Social media companies and Cable News executives know this and are using our outrage to improve their bottom line.
Crocket says there’s a cautionary tale on all the outrage present in the world today. She says, “If you’re dialing up the volume on all outrage, then it may become more difficult to detect (an important) signal in an increasingly noisy public sphere. And this could increase errors that we make in deciding which issues we collectively think are most worthy of our attention and support.”
Powerful food for thought.
Maybe one of the things we give up this Lent is our outrage.
This is why Jesus’ message today about turning the other cheek is so important. It defuses this destructive impulse.
When we look at how this outrage impulse evolved it did so face-to-face, in small groups, and in situations where we interacted with the same people each and every day.
Today, most of our vitriol is anonymous, or done to total strangers, or done via an impersonal email or letter without a face-to-face interaction.
Are we modeling Jesus when we go to these dark, primitive recesses of our brains?
Hidden Brain’s host summed it up this say, “Given that the psychological benefits are high, and the physical costs are low, there are few checks on outrage anymore. This is why many of us today feel surrounded by outrage. It’s impossible to escape.”
Just turn on Fox News, MSNBC or CNN and you know what I’m talking about. Just look at the comments sections of Facebook or a posted news website and you know what I’m talking about.
Here’s the sad truth. Many of us don’t want to escape this vitriol. People on both sides of the political aisle are reveling in it these days.
But Jesus is calling us to walk away from these primitive impulses in our daily interactions. To turn the other cheek and model love to a broken world.
In today’s reading from St. Paul to the Corinthians, we hear that we are a temple of God.
Lent is a time to examine our holiness and turn away from things that compromise it. Clean up our temples, so to speak.
In our first reading from Leviticus we hear what is called the Holiness Code: “You shall bear no hatred for your brother and sister in your heart… Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.”
My sisters and brothers, this is how we live the message of Jesus. This is how we bring Jesus’ love to an angry and divided world.