In the 1980s (1983, if we want to be precise about it) there was a movie called War Games, starring Brat Packers Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy.
It’s a good, if fairly generic, 80s teen buddy film – and there were a lot of those about at the time – in which computer whiz kid Broderick finds a back door into a US defence computer designed to simulate various war scenarios with the then-Soviet Union – and accidentally manages to trick it into thinking the Russians were launching a real nuclear strike against America.
Ultimately global thermonuclear war is averted by programming the computer, called Joshua, to play continuous games of noughts and crosses (don’t ask, that’s what Google’s for).
So, why am I talking about a film that’s 40 years old?
Well, when I sit and think about the way the world looks now compared to the way it looked even 3 years ago, I’m reminded of one of the movie’s regular cutaway shots – to a computer display in the war room scenes that shows America’s defence condition inching ever closer to DefCon 1 and all-out war.
And I think we’re seeing something very similar happening in our society today, except what the computer display in my mind is showing is the rising prevalence of anger and intolerance within our everyday lives.
I don’t think I’ve ever known such palpable anger and unkindness. It isn’t irritation, or frustration, it’s a genuine, tangible, oppressive collective mood that seems to be ever-present and somehow disproportionate to the size or significance of the event or situation that triggers it.
Don’t misunderstand me – there is lots in this world of ours for us to be legitimately and righteously angry about: famine, war, poverty, crime and the cost-of-living crisis are just a handful in a fairly lengthy old list.
And it is also legitimate for us to demand that those who govern us – of whatever political persuasion – do something about those pressing issues and be held to account accordingly.
But the anger I’m talking about here isn’t just about those serious and immediate global crises. It’s about a simple lack of kindness and humanity that manifests as a default tendency to spite, bile and intolerance.
It is especially prevalent on social media where the mere suggestion of different opinion is met with immediate and unnecessary vitriol.
But I’m increasingly seeing intolerance and anger in situations that simply don’t warrant the kind of aggression that they appear to provoke.
In short, the world appears to be having some kind of psychotic break. So how do we make it better for all of us without exhausting ourselves?
We seem collectively quick to temper over the slightest inconveniences: someone taking longer than usual to pass through the ticket barriers on the tube, tourists who are prone to suddenly stopping in the street to admire something, another driver failing to move off from a junction as quickly as we’d like, slow service in a bar or restaurant, problems getting a doctor’s appointment, waiting on hold to speak to your bank, insurance company or energy provider.
In the grand scheme of things, these are minor, trivial issues – yet it feels to me as though these days our tempers are tinder dry and susceptible to ignition at the slightest hint of trouble.
So, why is that – and what can we do about it?
What we are seeing, I think, is the manifestation of stress through allostatic load – when we are dealing not just with our own stress but the collective stress of the world.
It’s a mass outbreak of anxiety that has perhaps always been with us to a degree – and especially so since Brexit, when the UK was immediately divided into two factions that promptly went into a bitter war with each other.
The fractured nature of our society that Brexit created then provided the fertile soil for discontent to blossom when the pandemic struck. Over time, events conspired to offer further opportunities for these divisions to widen:
Lockdowns triggered economic uncertainty which in turn begat personal financial anxiety.
The questionable behaviour of senior government figures prompted more outrage, more anger, more apoplexy.
And this progressive litany of demoralising and depressing events – the cost-of-living crisis, energy prices skyrocketing, the war in Ukraine, among others – has ramped up our disquiet, our intolerance, our selfishness.
There is, however, a cure: kindness.
Regular readers will be familiar with my abiding mantra:
First of all, before you do something, do nothing. That space gives you time to choose not to react in a way that you may later regret.
Being kind is a form of nourishment for the soul. The simple commitment to being kinder in word, thought and deed in the wide spectrum of your life is an emotionally enriching and inspiring experience.
I’m not talking about finding some sort of Zen-like spiritual equilibrium (though if you do, that’s great, and good luck, because most of us – including me – haven’t got there and probably won’t). I’m talking about making a conscious effort to see your own intolerances and irritations and meet them with a proactive determination to quieten them.
This isn’t about people pleasing, either. People pleasing – where you fail to attend to your own needs in the pursuit of meeting those of other people – is a guaranteed way to erode your emotional and physical wellbeing and make you more stressed (and therefore resentful and angry).
(People pleasing goes against another mantra in my pocketbook of life rules: that you can’t pour from an empty cup. All that means is that if you haven’t nourished yourself first, it is impossible to nourish and help others effectively or usefully.)
Being kind is about letting things go or deciding to be the bigger person.
It’s about understanding that someone else might be having a worse day than we are and choosing to forgive or ignore their behaviour, inconsideration or discourtesy.
It’s about choosing calm for yourself rather than anger toward someone else.
And yes, it’s also about helping and supporting where you can.
That can have no cost (a smile for someone who looks like they need it, saying hello to someone when you make eye contact, holding a door open for someone struggling with shopping or a pushchair, or giving up your seat on the tube to someone who obviously needs it more than you do, or offering up a prayer – if that’s your thing – for someone facing obvious personal or health challenges).
It may be practical (carrying someone’s suitcase up the stairs if they’re struggling, helping a friend with a task or chore, or letting someone pull out of a junction in front of you).
Or it could be financial (buying a homeless person a sandwich and a drink, perhaps).
The point is, kindness is emotionally curative, and it has a mutual benefit: you feel better about yourself and spiritually calmer, and the recipient of your kindness has a better experience than they would otherwise have done (even if they don’t know it).
And in case anyone thinks I’m riding my high horse, everything I’ve written is for my own benefit, too – I’m entirely guilty of being that person shouting, You need to let people off before you get on! when exiting the tube train and am capable of witheringly dark thoughts around my own personal agitators.
So, yes – I also need to attend my own lectures!
So, if you feel as though your own personal anger DefCon status is unsustainable, why not try being deliberately and pointedly kind? Kindness is an antidote to anger’s poison – and it’s in short supply right now.