If we were to live, we had to be free of anger. The grouch and the brainstorm were not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison.
That’s the the juicy part for all alcoholic/addicts, right? Human brains in general sift the world like Geiger counters seeking out sources of feel-good. We may not realize that’s what’s going on when we find one, but we self-administer hits of it like some poor little lab rat hitting the cocaine bar again and again. The trouble for us alcoholics is that getting caught up in these cycles can lead us back toward a drink.
Outrage is one such addictive cycle. The Hidden Brain host has us imagine an early human tribe in which someone gets caught doing something wrong. How should the group react? Ignore, expel, or punish? If they ignore, the wrong-doer may decide to act again. If they expel, they lose a member. So they punish. Yale psychologist Molly Crockett pops explains:
“Evolution placed a bet on [punishment] being a good idea for the group. When people decide to punish someone who’s behaved unfairly, we see activation in areas of the brain associated with reward, including the striatum and the medial prefrontal cortex… There’s a visceral satisfaction in doling out punishment.”
“Outrage,” the host summarizes, “gives us pleasure.”
He explains that the face-to-face context in which outrage evolved came with a natural set of brakes: you risked getting physically harmed by those you punished, or, if you were out of line, getting punished yourself. Neither consequence applies to social media (or any e-communication). Our brains revel in dopamine scot-free whenever we proclaim righteous, indignant, and often vicious stuff. Plus, every time someone LIKES or reposts our outrage, we get another dopamine boost, because our brains tell us we’re doling out even stronger punishment.
E-distance can destroy compassion even among people who love each other, as I discovered years ago when I first published my addiction memoir. Some family members responded from behind their screens with a rage they’d never have unleashed on me face-to-face. They emailed flamers berating me as a liar, narcissist, and sadist; they posted lengthy Facebook strings of back-and forth mockery; and they published one-star “reviews” on Amazon under pen names, buying copies under multiple accounts to publish more.
Clearly, my ideas about the role alcoholism and codependence had played in my upbringing felt wrong and hurtful to them. So they asked if we could we could all sit down and talk out these uncomfortable issues to arrive at some shared understanding — kidding!! They chose to punish my wrongdoing with no compunction, getting lots of satisfying dopamine surges every time they clicked SEND, POST, or PUBLISH.
At the time, I wept gallons of tears and developed panic attacks from so much as looking at my laptop. Happily, Amazon took down all but one review, and we’ve since healed enough as a family to deal with this as we do all conflict: we pretend it never happened.
I’ve been priming similar poisonous dopamine surges myself on social media ever since Trump got elected. Fortunately, my entire family is anti-Trump, so we’ve experienced no rift. Rather, after the initial despair of 2016, I began to take aim at no one in particular to make “them” recognize the despicable character and politics of this Russian plant president. I’ve been hitting the awkwardness-free vanquishment bar of social media again and again, posting about Trump’s lies, stupidity, moral depravity, damaging policies, etc..
Only recently have I realized my true motivation: dopamine. I see friends have liked or shared my post: Dopamine! A conservative friend comments disagreement, so I deliver a stinging retort: Dopamine! Have any of my posts done any good for anyone? Of course not. All I’ve accomplished is adding a bit more rage to the global atmosphere.
A normie might indulge in this cycle with only a slight harm to their long-term health. But as an alcoholic with “a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of [my] spiritual condition” (85), I have no business cultivating anger, which blocks me from “the sunlight of the spirit” (66), tipping the playing field to addiction’s advantage. The angry me is my ego, and ego is, as we know, addiction’s minion. The more outrage I feel, the less good I do anyone and the closer I am to a drink.
Goodness takes the form of action. Did Mother Teresa ridicule Calcutta for its bad policy toward the lame and the sick? Was Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail a rant? Would Mahatma Gandhi have Tweeted out anti-British zingers? Why not? Because inspired people understand that faith without works is dead; they know a single beneficial deed outweighs thousands of punishing words.
Increasingly, I’ve been trying to shift my life in a similar direction. In response to climate change, I started bussing to work in 2017, and when I realized I disliked buses, I switched to bicycling. I buy minimal plastic, donate to animal charities, and pick up litter. When I realized our local 30,000-year-old pod of orcas was starving for want of salmon, I started volunteering to do salmon habitat restoration work and showed up at a hearing on their behalf.
Humility is a big piece as well. How much do my individual actions help? Very little. How much more do they help than posts and tweets? Infinitely more. When I’m volunteering, I can FEEL that it’s the right thing to do, much as I feel the goodness of AA service work, which somehow quiets the ire I feel when I witness what I think is wrong. I don’t need to tell everybody; I need to do more good.
Sobriety is a whole-life deal as we expand and deepen our experience of who we are. Maybe we can outgrow posting zingers the same way we outgrow self-pity, gossip, and all those other short-term fixes. Maybe we can find our power to put love and goodness to work in small but real actions.