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“Covid Rage” and the Breakdown of Civil Behavior

January 10, 2022 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

The accumulated tension, stress and fear of Covid has given rise to a seething anger that has gripped a significant part of the population.

Have you noticed?

The global pandemic sems to have brought with it not just frightening physical symptoms but also a significant change of acceptable social behavior.

Megan Hays, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine, has a name for it: “Covid Rage”, a kind of seething anger that seems to have gripped a significant part of the population in response to everyday moments of frustration which far exceeds the immediate cause of its rage. It has far more to do with the accumulated tension, stress and fear of a virus than a kind of reaction which otherwise would have been considered normal and appropriate.

Social scientists understand it. After all, most of us thought things would look different after almost two years of quarantines and hospitalization, of isolation and death. When Covid 19 vaccines finally rolled out in spring of 2021 and cases hit an all-time low in June, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. At last, we had good reason to hope that Covid was under control.

But the Delta variant had other plans. Soon late summer brought us an unimaginable sense of déjà vu. Masks and distancing were back. Trips were canceled. Our lives were no longer our own to manage.

And then came Omicron.

Civility, simple acts of courtesy and consideration for others, is giving way to antisocial meanness and irrational behavior

The physical toll is now in the millions. The mental toll has yet to be fully recognized and acknowledged. And civility, simple acts of courtesy and consideration for others, is giving way to antisocial meanness and irrational behavior reminiscent of childish temper tantrums.

A recent study concluded that only 39% of the respondents said they believed America’s tone was civil. Employees who need to interact with other people are refusing to go back to the workplace. People are beating each other up on planes, raging against flight attendants asking them to mask up or to wait a moment until they finish moving the cart past them in the aisle. Across social media and inside crowded grocery stores we’re seeing regular outbursts of rage and frustration

Perhaps, it has been suggested, that hiding one’s face with a mask has created for many a sense of anonymity that allows for behavior never before possible.

Meanness is in; politeness is passé. Screaming has taken the place of conversation. And rage appears to be the default emotional state for many stressed out from the Covid pandemic.

Therapists are overbooked. Rage victims need help. And the first step in correcting any serious problem is to properly identify it.

The Negative Effects of Anger

I believe that Jewish wisdom can play a prominent role in helping us cope with today’s threat to values and ethical codes of behavior.

When Jacob, the last of the patriarchs, lay on his deathbed and desired to bless his children by identifying to them their character failings which would most stand in the way of their finding spiritual fulfillment and happiness, he condemned the anger that had arisen in his sons Simon and Levi: "Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel” (Genesis 49:7).

Biblical commentators explain that Moses wasn’t permitted to complete his mission and enter the holy land as punishment for his anger against the Jewish people, a sin which caused him to forget the word of God, to curse the Israelites, and ultimately to bring death upon himself.

As King Solomon powerfully wrote in Proverbs: “He who is slow to anger is better than a strong man and he who masters his passions is better than one who conquers a city” (Proverbs 16:32).

One who is consumed by anger is as if he has worshiped idols.

Anger, says the Talmud, will cause a sage to lose his wisdom and a person who is destined for greatness to forfeit it. The Talmud says that one who is consumed by anger is as if he has worshiped idols.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains the parallel between anger and idol worship in light of the truth that one who has become angry disregards Divine Providence – whatever had caused the anger was ultimately ordained from God and by coming to anger one thereby denies the hand of God in one's life.

Jewish law consistently emphasizes the primacy of health and proper care to insure the safeguarding of life. Pikuach nefesh is the Jewish principle that the preservation of human life overrides almost all other considerations. Anger threatens life itself.

According to most recent medical findings excessive anger can lead to everything from the common cold to heart attacks. An angry outburst puts your heart at great risk. Most physically damaging is anger's effect on our cardiac health. “In the two hours after an angry outburst, the chance of having a heart attack doubles,” says Director of the Mood Treatment Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

More, it weakens our immune system. In one study, Harvard University scientists found that in healthy people, simply recalling an angry experience from their past caused a six-hour dip in levels of the antibody immunoglobulin A, the cells’ first line of defense against infection. In short, they conclude that “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

Guarding our health is a Jewish imperative; it is not merely good advice but religious law. Judaism believes that anger can be controlled and reined in. It can be overcome if we comprehend its negative consequences.

Anger is the failure of a spiritual test. Anger management is a mitzvah. We need to learn to master anger by strengthening our spiritual connection with our soul.

So too we need to acknowledge that “Covid rage” is a threat to the social order.

In the aftermath of unwarranted rage, it is often followed by decent people admitting their mistake: “I lost it.” Perhaps unwittingly they have identified the cause of their inexcusable behavior. The “it” is their divine image. Anger temporarily forfeits our link to our Creator. We lose control and lash out like an animal.

In addition to defeating the Covid virus, we need to cease being victims of the “Covid rage” syndrome.


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