We may want to act, but in some cases the best we can do is react.
One of the apparent effects of long-term stress is that we are more inclined to engage only to assert rather than listen. We seek the psychological release of airing our feelings, leaving our conversational partners to function only as recipients of accumulated complaints. Add in the sour national political mood, and additional stressors of everything ranging from getting children vaccinated, to acknowledging existential threats like climate change, and we are ready to reload our rhetorical canons and keep firing.
Under these circumstances, becoming active and empathetic listeners is all the harder. Most of our energy has already been sapped by rumination and complaints. We are hardly prepared to pay what I once called the “energy surcharge” of active listening that requires taking the time to focus on the feelings of others. You can check yourself on this by recalling the last time you felt the need to write done what another was saying.
Anecdotally, we see forms of “unloading on another” all the time: in videos of passengers arguing with airline agents, unhappy customers using the frail medium of the phone to lodge complaints, or in news reports of political rallies, where everyone present seems to be on a short fuse.
Reaction as a Substitute for Action
In times of stress we may want to act, but in most cases the best we can do is react. And so our rhetoric turns expressive and argumentative in the hope that our words will achieve what seems to be beyond our direct control. For example, it was one thing during the height of the pandemic to be warned that we should stay out of crowded spaces. But for some it was a step too far that our favorite travel destination or restaurant was temporarily off limits. We seem unable to accept a message that requires altering our most fervent intentions: a condition that can launch us into a high rhetorical orbit. Even in the face of solid evidence, hearing an alienating “no” from another is rarely going to be accepted as the last word.
Then, too, there is the apparent promise of an end to the global nightmare of COVID, though that moment seems further off than first thought. And no sooner have its life-threatening negatives begun to subside than other pandemics of social resentments have become more virulent. The many work and family displacements from COVID that added hardships seems to have emboldened many to press forward with ongoing demands for greater gender parity, friendlier workplaces, better childcare, less sexual and racial bias, and corporate reform. An insistence to be heard first and engage later has added new challenges to previously settled relationships. Interactions with employers, family members and even friends now seem more cautious and transactional. They define the current period of superheated identity politics that has become fully transformational: perhaps unwanted by many, but no less real.
With so many interpersonal bonds in flux, it can be hard to know whether the future holds more rebukes, or a placid period of exhaustion and quiescence when we might again hear each other with more understanding.
Seventy years ago, the nation still waited for needed forms of human empowerment. But news of the new polio vaccine created a wonderful pause while the nation celebrated its good fortune. Polio would no longer claim more of its children. In contrast, we seem to be in a time when embedded social inequalities have seeded resentments that have made the nation less interested in savoring our successes.