The US election wrecked my brain. What am I supposed to do now?
Greg Bruce pores over what the end of Trump means for his anxiety levels.
On Tuesday, I coined a new word, which I felt perfectly captured the fundamental change in my online behaviour since the non-election of Donald Trump: “Joyscrolling.”
From the time I awoke last Saturday, checked the Twitter feed of Decision Desk HQ and saw the Trump era in its death throes, I could hardly keep my eyes off the apparently endless trickle of results and the accompanying stream of news, messages of hope and change, elated interview subjects and announcements that the years of hate, fear and narcissism are behind us.
The heretofore poisonous online world – full of vitriolic, all-caps, late-night policy tweets from the White House and the generalised, globalised fear that sprang from it – suddenly seemed a much less anxiety-inducing place. It seemed one might now happily root around on the internet for hours, comfortable in the knowledge the maniacal all-caps tweets, while no less frequent, are now coming not from a President so much as an elderly man with hurt feelings.
Joyscrolling: I was so proud of the word I announced it to my colleagues, who didn’t seem especially impressed. Not long after, I discovered it was not only already a hashtag but had been trending on Twitter for days.
If I chart my anxiety levels over the past few months, I see a steady rise from roughly August through to mid-October, at which point there was a sharp and sustained increase. Then, as the abhorrent early results started arriving from Florida on election day, I can see a spike of such chemical intensity it appeared to entirely sever the connection between my rational brain and mouse hand. In retrospect, my rational brain had departed, presumably terminated. I clicked uncontrollably and endlessly between the New York Times’ probability needles, the election maps of NPR and Fox News, the Twitter accounts of data journalists Nate Cohn and Nate Silver; and the live blog of Silver’s specialist polling website, FiveThirtyEight.
I was at work but I was unable to work. My wife sent me a series of texts telling me “It’s a bad idea for someone like you to follow the results” and “What did I tell you?! Stop checking this stuff!” and “STOP!!!”She suggested I leave my desk and go for a walk. I tried but found my legs unresponsive. That night, as soon as our kids were asleep, I sat in bed with both my laptop and phone, hitting refresh until midnight, desperate for hope. As the results continued to seep in over the next day or two, my behaviour hardly improved.
By last Saturday, when some friends came to our place for lunch, by which time the result appeared more or less beyond doubt, my anxiety was starting to ease. Replacing it, though, was not joy or triumph, but something more ineffable. I felt exhausted, of course, but it was much more than that. The best way I can think to describe it is like my brain had spent four years being squeezed by a strangely small pair of hands and, although they had finally let go, the relief I felt was tempered by a sense of lingering, and probably permanent, damage.
In the days and weeks leading up to the election, in the few moments I had given my brain space to think, it had declined the opportunity, instead directing my hands again and again to the unforgiving mouse, in search of yet more polling, averages, probabilities, statistical insights and speculatory data journalism. For so long my mind had clenched around these things that, now it was free to unclench, it had forgotten how. I was like Morgan Freeman when he got out of jail in The Shawshank Redemption, no longer understanding what it is to live as a free man.
In this age of endlessly updated and instantly available information, high-stakes events like the US election have become artefacts of almost unimaginable power, capable of causing serious psychological damage. So, no, “joyscrolling” doesn’t accurately capture what I’ve been doing over the last few days.
The other day, an image popped into my head. It was of Trump, alone in his bedroom, crying at the thought of no longer being president. As I watched him in my mind’s eye, curled up fetally on his bed, awash in tears, Melania stroking his brow while surreptitiously googling “Cheap 1-brm rentals, Washington”, I was surprised to find myself feeling sorry for him. Obviously, this was emotional reflex rather than rational thought but it struck me how strong is the human impulse to feel empathy for the powerless.
We have roughly 70 days until he leaves the White House to spend the next four years tweeting conspiracy theories. I feel like I should feel good about that but what I feel instead is a vague sense of disappointment. The thing I wanted more than anything else for so long has come to pass. What am I supposed to do now?
It’s easy to feel righteous anger towards a demagogue with a bombastic and dangerous social media persona but it’s also psychologically gratifying. It’s not possible to feel that way toward a sad, defeated figure, crying in his bedroom. What now for all that latent, self-righteous anger, sitting dormant in my brain? Where to direct that? If I know anything about Big Social Media, it’s already hard at work on this problem. It probably has the solution already. All it needs is for me to log back on and start scrolling.
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