Cast your mind back to the Friday before tax day. No doubt you have properly submitted your forms and already received a refund, but our new tax preparer is still working on our taxes. She is not the tax preparer who was warmly recommended, but someone he called in to help. She asks questions that worry me; says she does not know about the IRA so is asking someone else; and is still. not. done. For more than three weeks, I have been begging to know how much we can put into that IRA to lower our taxes. She says she still cannot be sure because “the numbers keep changing,” and she has yet to proofread.
She is nice, someone I think I would enjoy having a beer with, but my nerves are so frayed, sedation might be the better option. Full disclosure, and an understatement: Andrew and I are not the ideal clients for a tax preparer. Neither of us understands any of this stuff, so for thirty years, I have gratefully handed everything over to a high-school friend who chuckles at our ineptitude and finishes weeks in advance.
She has stopped doing taxes. And the new people have no reason to forgive my screw-ups, and I am in no mood to forgive theirs, and now it is 3 pm on Friday, and Oppenheimer’s office is closed. I leave a dejected message saying I guess we will not be able to make the contribution. Just as I am letting the tax preparer know, a call cuts in from the broker, who retrieved his voicemail. Meanwhile I am trying to reach the friend who did our taxes for thirty years so I can ask her the last urgent question the new person does not understand, but my friend, luxuriating in her new leisure, is in the middle of a family reunion.
My hysteria builds. I have been under the impression that checks and forms only need to be postmarked by Tax Day, the day I used to tsk at all the people interviewed by news crews as they stood in line at the post office. Karma is now charging me for every smug second. The new preparer tells me that I should not count on the postmark but overnight (pay extra?) to be sure. Maybe I can do it Saturday, I think wildly, googling for a post office (UPS, USPS, whatever) that is open late enough for me to zoom over after a nonprofit event. I will have twenty-eight minutes to pay for my nervous breakdown, grab the forms, write the checks, and reach the post office.
I skid into the strip mall parking lot and look around frantically. A golf shop. A chain restaurant. No postal anything in sight. I pull out my phone, repeat the search, call the phone number. It is disconnected.
And so am I. No wonder people speak of “impotent rage”: this must be what it feels like, limp and powerless and steaming with frustration. I tear home just in time to leave for a friend’s birthday dinner. All my husband says is, “It’s a good thing you’re not driving.”
Yet by Monday, I am calm. I take my envelopes to the post office. There is no line. Why had I let myself spin into such a tizzy? Fear masquerades as anger; this has always struck me as an important insight. But in this instance, all I had to fear was, at the worst, a fee and a bureaucratic scolding. Was I that meek in the face of authority? Most days I take it lightly.
No, this was not me wanting to be prompt and perfect.
This was pure helplessness.
I was dealing with a task and a system I do not understand, and I no longer had an expert I trusted to help me through it. Mine was the wail of an infant terrified that the milk would not come. Or a grown-up whose house is being scaled by zombies, screaming at the guy who forgot to lock the windows.
Our species is at its best when we are either serenely self-reliant or able to trust a community’s support. I think of all those fits of temper that seemed peevish or excessive to me. Elders in a care facility where they do not trust the staff. People refusing to wear masks because they did not trust the public health experts. Road rage.
Helplessness, each time.
I fancy I need less control than most. Except when I am ensnarled in a computer problem I cannot solve—or trapped in a phone system that keeps dead-ending and replaying—or charged some exorbitant and incorrect amount by a company I cannot find a way to contact—or turning over our financial life to someone I have never met. Then my blood fizzes and spurts, pounding the vessel walls the way I would like to pound my office wall.
Writ large, this sense of helplessness is the nation’s new enemy. Something about the current slate of social and political problems feels even more daunting than the usual corruption, oppression, and discord. How do we control all the AI genies escaping their bottles, when nobody even knows the extent of their powers? How do we leapfrog corporate greed to fix the Earth? How do we unite a nation that disagrees vehemently about what matters, what defines us, and how to coexist? How do we stop the deluge of mass shootings (or even just dodge the bullets)? I can barely bear to read the bulletins from the political and legislative front anymore. And if letting our children be slaughtered defines freedom, this is a country in which I no longer know how to live.
And so I walk around filled with panicky, corrosive rage, half of it directed outward, the other half at myself for being helpless. In Ukraine, healthy outrage and a strong sense of community are keeping people resilient in the face of incalculable suffering. Here, we are scared even to talk to each other, and the outrage is private and selfish and does not feel healthy at all.
It occurs to me that we might be learning helplessness. Remember that classic study in which dogs, after receiving a series of electric shocks, stop even trying to avoid them? Maybe modern life has had a few too many shocks.
The consequences of learned helplessness? Loss of confidence, loss of motivation, panic, paralysis.
And childish rage.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.