Surprised by Rage, Evermore

Before I Knew It, I Became an Online Bully

Charlotte Getz / 5.17.21

From Issue 17 of The Mockingbird magazine, all about surprises:

I’d been baited on Facebook for weeks: an anti-authoritarian diatribe posted one day, a link to a Pizzagate conspiracy theory the next, and then a flurry of anti-masking tirades with no scientific or journalistic citation whatsoever. I’ve never been one for confrontation, much less public confrontation, but the spring of 2020 changed all of that. I was like a risen vampire: pale, thirsty, and out for blood.

The Backstory

There’s been a lot to have an opinion about over the last year or so. And according to my social media feed, people don’t just have their opinions, they’re also most eager to share their opinions. From Black Lives Matter, to the presidency, to government overreach, to corruption in the media, to the role of the police, to whether or not a vaccine will save our lives or kill all our children dead on the spot — the void of the Interweb has been raucous with a Babel-like cacophony.

Setting aside the fact that my dad is an infectious disease specialist, I knew firsthand that coronavirus was real, and it was serious. I contracted COVID-19 back in February of 2020 when it was just me, Tom and Rita Hanks, and the cruise ship folks. I was one of the first 3,000 known Americans to test positive. At the time, everything was scary and unknown and I thought I could shine a light of comfort and calm into the world. My body was deeply sick, riddled with fever and aches, but somehow I was okay; I was fearful and unnerved, but I was going to be okay. So I went public with my diagnosis. I spoke on several podcasts, was interviewed by my alma mater, and agreed to let a Los Angeles TV station run a top-of-the-hour news feature on my story. I told producers how I had traveled domestically to San Francisco and Atlanta and likely caught the virus on the road; I told them I was ill but I was okay, that my faith was carrying me through, and that I believed God would lead us all out of this mess somehow. (ABC did not run that last part, so I’m pleased to set the record straight here.)

I was the first person most of my friends — and much of the greater Los Angeles area — knew who’d contracted COVID-19. So overnight I became a local celebrity as well as a go-to resource, often times even a target, for all things corona. That’s when everything started to take a turn towards rotten.

One acquaintance sent me a direct message over Instagram suggesting that the reason I caught the coronavirus was likely due to my autoimmune disease (lupus) (and duh) and that my autoimmune disease was likely the result of my childhood vaccines. Huh? At the time, I naively thought he and I could have a measured dialogue. But several messages later it became clear that this person had an agenda: masks don’t work, vaccines are murder, and COVID-19 is an international hoax. He would not be deterred. As calmly as I could, I communicated that I no longer wanted to be a part of this conversation — the reality was, I could do nothing to reverse my own (or my children’s) vaccinations. And yes, I was still feeling pretty lousy with the virus. Thanks for (not) asking.

All of a sudden these non-expert “experts” were coming out in droves to boycott science on the Internet — some directly to my inbox — and reader, I maybe started to take it a little personally.

It shocked me to observe my own friends, people I thought I knew, suddenly express opinions I vehemently disagreed with. What surprised me more, though, was my own low and growling rage at their dissent.

The Part Where She Exercises a Scrap of Self-Control

At first, a single controversial post in my newsfeed would follow me around for days like one of those exasperating gnats in your ear: on my drive to Starbucks — while putting on my make-up in the morning — while virtual-schooling my kids — while texting with my husband throughout the day — while trying to advance [tread water] in my career. The absurdity of the post would hiss and taunt:

“How could So-And-So buy into this nonsense?”

“Just let it go, Charlotte.”

“But how??”

I’d fume, then check myself.

Maybe she’s right? Is everything I ever believed a lie?”

Then I’d do my own research into the matter. I’d write and re-write a hypothetical response with a fully annotated bibliography of links to credible research, ready to prove this person dead wrong: “Actually, according to X and Y studies in the New England Journal of Medicine, and also my dad who did I mention SPECIALIZES IN INFECTIOUS DISEASE…” — and then I’d end it all with one final, swift, and indisputable blow: “I’m pretty sure Jesus would have taken COVID seriously. HE WAS A HEALER.”

I’d open my computer and pull up the person’s post, my mouth watering with the delicious prospect of finally serving it up rare; but then, tail between my legs, I’d think wiser of the whole thing.

Delete. Delete. Delete.

Call it the Holy Spirit or call it fear: righteous but dejected, I’d slam my laptop shut and huff, “I THOUGHT SHE WAS A CHRISTIAN, UGH.”

I guess I had assumed that if and when America ever came under some great threat, we’d all band together to overcome it. I was a high school senior during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center; I’d seen the collective empathy I thought we were capable of as a nation. But social media didn’t exist back then. Maybe if it did, I’d have a less rosy impression of the compassion and integrity I believed our country strived for.

The Breaking Point

After a few more weeks of pandemic suffering, and as I watched an increasing number of my online friends betray themselves as obviously shortsighted, ignorant, and narcissistic buffoons, I finally cracked. As Niles Crane of Frasier says, drunk and dressed in full Cyrano de Bergerac attire:

“THATSENOUGH!”

The way I saw it, these dummies were actually hindering our country’s ability to thrive physically, spiritually, and economically. Public confrontation be damned: whether tucked away in the shadows or right there in the middle of the town square, I was about to have my say. There was a new sheriff in town, and she was armed with a shield of solid virtue, biting wit, and a blade of just plain common sense. My knuckles rattled with excitement, cold sweat began to dampen my palms. The rage had bested me, and I kind of liked it. I opened Facebook, found my way to whatever two-day-old post I’d been fuming about for exactly all 48 of those hours, and I responded with as much civility as I could muster (which, as a Southern woman, is more than most):

“Hey, So-And-So! Hope you’re super. Thanks for these thoughts. Interesting stuff. Wanted to briefly point out that there is actually lots of scientific research stating the efficacy of mask-wearing. Also, constitutionally speaking, mandates do have the same effect as laws. And I think it’s pretty dangerous to blanket-label all people who oppose systemic racism as socialists. Check out the movie 13th on Netflix! I learned a lot from it. Be well, my friend!”

Send.

The immediate aftermath was thrilling, invigorating, adrenaline the likes of shoplifting an aluminum toe ring from a Jamaican convenience store — not enough to turn you cagy, but just enough to make you want more.

I was right. And by golly, from the Eastern skies to the Western sea, the whole world would know it!

But then something happened that I couldn’t have foreseen.

The person I had kindly educated responded to my comment; for starters, they’d been personally wounded by my words. In their eyes, I was now a bully. They weren’t looking for a thoughtful dialogue at all. No. They had made up their mind and would stick to their guns (pun intended) at absolutely all costs. And thanks but no thanks, they would not accept my critically acclaimed film recommendation.

I was stunned. This sort of response is the worst kind of buzzkill when you absolutely know you are right. When you’re right, you’re right, and you want your obvious right-ness to be acknowledged as such.

The whole thing left me feeling barf-ish and queasy, and yet the dam had been breached with zealous enthusiasm; the truth is, I was only just getting started.

Like a spiraling alcoholic, my window of rage-sobriety became shorter and shorter. It would usually take three or four outrageous posts from the same person for me to finally speak up. Then, if it became clear that said person intended to continue to spout sludge all over the Internet, what else could I do but politely intervene? I wasn’t trying to pick fights per say, I just wanted to bring people over to the right side of history. What’s so wrong about that? After all, if a person posts something to the public sphere, aren’t they inviting criticism? I was an Internet vigilante! Yet every time my frustration got the better of me online, no matter how gently I broached the disagreement, my targets responded with the same vitriol — nobody cared what I had to say.

Gasping for Breath in the Belly of a Whale

Over time, engaging in online disputes started to make me feel even worse than reading the posts themselves did. In trying to exact some sort of control, I became increasingly aware that I had lost control. And expressing my opinions wasn’t releasing the mounting tension in any size, shape, or form; the rage was boiling at fever pitch. I began to “mute” certain people online — not out of disdain for them, but out of disdain for the person I was becoming in this bizarre arena of megaphones.

Even the Facebook bots had seen me for who I was. The same two advertisements showed up repeatedly in my newsfeed: one for a t-shirt with the phrase, “I’m not arguing, I’m just explaining why I’m right,” and the other was a festive sweater that read, “I’m only talking to my dog today.”

Before I knew it, I looked around and realized I wasn’t just staving off the rot and stink in the belly of the whale — I was the rot and stink.

The sailors had cast lots, and the lot fell on me.

I was exposed. And the person I saw in the reflection of my computer screen wasn’t just angry, she was sad and scared, lonely and exhausted. My sage and upright Internet presence hadn’t changed a thing about my circumstances or the pitiful state of the world around me. Like Taylor Swift sings in “evermore,” I’d been “writing letters addressed to the fire,” — I’d felt frenzied, my words futile — and was ever “barefoot in the wildest winter, catching my death.” I started to wonder if the people I was writing to online felt the same way: sad, scared, lonely, exhausted. Maybe we were every last one of us like the Israelites, who talked themselves into believing God and Moses had abandoned them at Sinai: just stiff-necked and slam dancing around our own golden calves, doing the very best we could to survive, barefoot, in a very harsh, very lonely, very wild and wavy global wilderness.

I was the dummy, the short-sighted, ignorant, narcissistic buffoon. Not because I was wrong, necessarily (only time will tell). But because I had clung so desperately to my own righteousness. And it did not, it could not save me from drowning. I was, like Jonah, not just shipwrecked, but overboard and sinking fast. And I had never been more aware of the truth of what Tim Keller says so pointedly: I am more sinful than I could even dare to imagine.

Whenever I’ve reflected on the scripture about Jonah — in which he prays inside the whale — I’ve always focused on his sense of grace and surrender. I’ve imagined that he spent his three-day sojourn serenely pondering all of God’s greatness: “You brought my life up from the Pit, O Lord my God.” If you think about it, though, more than likely between his humble prayers of gratitude Jonah was also round-the-clock fending off a hideous onslaught of incoming sludge and sea water, and the stinking carcasses of much smaller fish. Where do you sit or lay your head inside the intestines of a great beast? After three days, he must have looked and smelled like a monster himself. But so often our vehicle of rescue is just that — more of a septic tank than a sanctuary.

Where Does She Go from Here?

Mid-lockdown, my family moved home to Alabama from the temperate beaches of southern California. Fall in California was marked only by the slightest change in the color of sunlight. You’d have to be a meteorologist or a photographer to notice; I happen to be the latter. In an Alabama fall, however, the air slowly turns from muggy to crisp, and the once strong and vibrant leaves begin to fall like precipitation — an aftermath, I tell my children, of fairies dancing in the trees.

Our first October back, the pandemic was cruising along, I was still raging on the Internet, and leaves blanketed our front lawn brown and orange. The patter of my children’s playing feet outside was accompanied by a rhythm of crunch crunch crunches. That fall, our landscaper would work all morning to clean the yard up tidy. Only an hour later, it was covered with the dead yet again. Rake the leaves, bag the leaves, rake the leaves, bag the leaves — the cycle felt eternal.

This is often what it feels like to reckon with our sin as Christians. The job is never done, the leaves just keep on falling, everlasting, evermore. Then, in December, all stands still. And we wait like that in lowly darkness, dead leaves quietly fertilizing every last inch of the earth; until Eastertime, when all that death and rot give way to something new, something altogether breathtaking and alive.

Speaking about Jonah and the whale, author Chad Bird says in Unveiling Mercy, “He went down and God brought him down. Sometimes it’s only at our lowest point that we can truly hear words from on high.” In a year characterized by extreme low points, becoming a social media troll was surely my lowest low. But like the autumn leaves, “We go down and there discover Christ awaiting us,” says Bird. As sure as winter turns to spring, I found salvation in that septic tank of a situation. “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me,” Jonah says. “From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry.”

In the tempest of 2020, I had gone to the Internet to cry out, instead of to the God who was already there, already listening. On social media, I could cry out with some false tone of certainty and control. But when we cry out to Jesus, it is a cry full of helplessness and surrender, like the leaves who let go of their branches.

In a time when we were so absolutely helpless, it probably brought some of us an immediate sense of godly control to rage online. But to cry out from the pit is one of the most courageous acts I can think of, and it cannot be accomplished on our own terms. Like Jonah, we have to be brought down. But also like Jonah, we find awaiting us this Jesus who, as Bird puts it, is the one who blazes for us our very trail out of the depths.

For me, this year has been full of surprises — not the least of which was contracting the actual virus we were all so afraid of. I’ve been surprised by the people I’ve disagreed with. I’ve been surprised by my own snarling sin. But even more than that, I’ve been surprised by the new depths of mercy and grace I’ve found here at the wintry bottom. The humbling yet beautiful suspicion that my online opponents and I are the same: they and I, more of a we.

Blessedly, God has put in place some divine stopgap between my lethal self-righteousness and those I disagree with on the Internet. And I’ve been given a renewed certainty, in this catastrophic shipwreck of a year, that the only true posts to cling to are Taylor Swift and the hope I have in Jesus Christ.

And I couldn’t be sure
I had a feeling so peculiar
This pain wouldn’t be for
Evermore.

Find out more about The Mockingbird magazine here!


Featured image via the Boston Globe.