A Nation Turned Inside Out

“Inside Out” photo by BagoGames via Flickr

A plane roars above our quiet, semi-rural backyard (this never happens), and the dog and I freeze and shoot each other looks of alarm, both of us pop-eyed. For Willie, the sky is roaring. What I hear is that ominous sound of planes flying off to battle (not that I have ever experienced this, but I watch movies). Another plane roars overhead an hour later, and it sends a shiver down my spine.

The next day, someone is on our town’s NextDoor site asking about the unusual number of planes. Turns out they were crop dusters.

I grew up in the city.

So did another neighbor, who wrote that back in Chicago, the planes would have meant something bad had happened.

“In the night, imagining some fear, how easy is a bush supposed a bear,” Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At 3 a.m., the creak of an old floorboard is sure evidence of a home invasion. Once an insomniac squirrel did laps on our roof in the middle of the night and even my fight-or-flight response was confounded: Hail without a storm? An angry ghost in the attic?

Daytime fear is different. The brain is alert, practical, not unmoored in the night sea and able to drift to the darkest places. A new sound can be read in many ways, and how we interpret it depends on past experience, present mood, and our sense of how benevolent or dangerous our surroundings are.

The enemy squadron overhead (aka crop dusters) startled me because after a quarter-century of city life, I have been lulled by a decade in Waterloo, Illinois, where the headline crime a few summers ago was the theft of a sausage cart from the fair. (Police followed the grease drippings and took swift, amused custody of the joyriders.)

Yet my nerves are raw these days, on edge for the whole country. Whether by police or their quarry, protesters on the left or protesters on the right, people just. keep. getting. shot. And gun sales are rising, in anticipation of the election. (Imagine a child hearing the definition of a constitutional democracy and then reading that sentence.) The other day, a friend who has, over the years, collected enough guns to seize control of the French Riviera (the only good use I can think of for them) earnestly offered to loan us an assault rifle. I slammed back with a pacifist retort (which I suppose is an oxymoron, but my words drew no blood). Later, all I could think was, It has come to this?

How much of this fear of chaos in the streets is being stoked by all the people who are terrified of chaos in the streets? I do not mean that naively; there has been plenty of real violence, horrific examples almost daily. But I also worry that the fear itself (and the purchase of all that firepower) will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. This country is fighting the War of the Roses—not the real one, but the infamous parody about the divorcing couple who kill pet dogs and swing from chandeliers in escalating rage. A while back, I would have said we were in desperate need of a mediator. Now we have passed the point of wanting one.

People are angry, I hear again and again, usually in a glum tone of foreboding from my historian husband. Anger can be a good thing, righteous and galvanizing. It literally heightens our brain’s ability to perceive injustice. But at other times, anger is a secondary emotion, a way to feel powerful when really you are scared. Or sad. In Inside Out, Pixar’s allegory of emotion, cute little Joy makes the mistake of trying to ignore Sadness. Sadness will not go away. Instead, the earnest effort to cast her off brings Anger, Fear, and Disgust.

Well, we are definitely disgusted with one another, and Lord knows, we are scared. But beneath those layers, we are desperately sad. A lot of White people are sad and scared that their world is gone, that they do not hold the safe and promising position they once assumed was their birthright. A lot of Black people, and others of color, are sad that this country still refuses to acknowledge their humanity. Just about everyone—even those in the fast-shrinking center who are neither brave enough nor fool enough to fight in public, feels rejected, excluded, unheard, and meanly treated. We do not weep about this—some of us have been weeping too long, and others deem it a sign of weakness. Try to imagine a white supremacist setting down their protest sign and sobbing to a reporter about how insecure they feel.

Instead, to keep from weeping—or cowering—we rage.

The friend who offered me an assault rifle and meant it? He cheerfully admits that he is a coward, terrified that violence will break out, scared he might need to defend his family, horrified he might hurt someone in the process. He watches news alerts come across his screen all day and lies awake nights, grieving the state of the nation.

A whole lot of us are grieving—and as a result, feeling even more vulnerable, because sadness, in this culture, reads as weakness. And weakness scares us, because it means we are defenseless and powerless. Our fear then primes us. Psychiatrist Stephen Porges came up with the term “neuroception” to describe the way our neural circuits distinguish whether people and situations are safe, dangerous, or even life-threatening. This happens fast, and it happens in primitive areas of the brain, those that pulse beneath our conscious awareness. The snap judgement then triggers an entire cascade of defensive (and sometimes aggressive) behaviors. A cascade as hard to stop as Niagara.

Originally, Inside Out director Pete Docter wanted to use Fear to spark the movie’s conflict. When the first dramatic scene starring Fear fell flat, he decided that he was wrong, and he was not helping the film, and he should quit. At the thought, sorrow flooded him, mainly because there were so many people he would miss working with. Then came a simple epiphany (a truth so simple I regularly forget it): Emotions exist to connect people. That is their function—in a healthy world, at least. Docter’s sorrow was there to remind him that relationships mattered more than his personal angst.

He stayed on the project, and at his suggestion, they nudged Fear out of the spotlight and gave Sadness the lead. The film’s grand conclusion? Sadness teaches Joy to stop pushing her aside; all feelings play an important role, because they carry information we need. For centuries, Western civilization has had it backwards, burying emotion to stay cool. As Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner, high-profile research psychologists who consulted for the movie, later told The New York Times, “emotions organize—rather than disrupt—rational thinking.”

An emotion cannot organize anything, however, when it is camouflaged as something else.

That is what brings chaos.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.