“We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?’”
A good question is powerful. Someone can tell us—solicited or not— what we ought to think or do, but this approach is never as compelling as a probing question that provokes us to seek those answers for ourselves.
The question above comes from Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. I’ve read the prophetic story multiple times, and I’m stopped in my tracks by this nagging question each time.
How long has it been since you were really bothered?
On the surface, the answer seems almost comically simple. A quick glance at social media seems to give an emphatic response: All. The. Time. In an outrage culture, surely there is no lack of “bother” to go around. Every day presents a new target on which to unleash our fury. TV and internet personalities fill their daily programs with outrage about how outrage-addicted our society has become, and round and round the crazy carousel we go. It seems we should be less bothered, not more.
Today’s culture is undoubtedly saturated with anger and outrage, but how often are we truly bothered?
We tend to conflate “outrage” with being “really bothered.” Yet the two sensations are not only different but also often in conflict with each other, with our habitual outrage distracting us from being truly and deeply bothered.
When the apostle Paul arrived in Athens and perceived that the city was full of idols, he was “deeply distressed” (Acts 17:16). The Greek word used here has the connotation of meaning tormented or anguished. He was not angry. He was something far deeper and more unshakable than that. He was deeply bothered, and it drove him to enter the heart of the city and share the Gospel with anyone he could find—the religious leaders, the marketplace workers, and the philosophers and culture makers.
Perhaps today, in our country full of idols, we too need to go beyond mere outrage, and become deeply bothered to the point of action.
There are at least three key differences between being outraged and being deeply distressed or bothered.
1. Outrage is external; being bothered is internal. Outrage is a surface-level and frequently grandstanding emotion, typically focused on demanding change in others. It is fueled by the applause and validation of “taking a stand” and often doesn’t motivate any real change.
Being bothered goes much deeper within us and causes introspection and soul searching. It forces us to ask, “What can I do to make a difference?” It is redemptive, not vindictive.
2. Outrage is fleeting; being bothered is lingering. Outrage is typically an instantaneous and reactive response to something we deem offensive. We read an article headline or a disagreeable social media post that ignites our outrage and so we vent our indignation. Many people do not even read the content of the news article, as the inflammatory headline itself proves enough to light the fuse. A day or two later, that object of outrage is forgotten in favor of the next thing.
Being bothered slowly festers within us, resonating into the deeper parts of our soul. Although it can eventually result in a righteous anger, anger itself is not the driving emotion. While outrage endlessly cycles through the flavors of the day, being bothered lingers and nags.
3. Outrage is undemanding; being bothered necessitates action. Outrage is a performative action. It has become the emotion of choice for countless keyboard warriors precisely because it asks for nothing in return. Ranting and raving on social media costs us nothing. We can unleash a furious tweet thread and then log off and go about our day as normal.
Being bothered demands far more. Unlike outrage that burns hot and quick, internal distress is not abated by an ALL-CAPS social media rant. The only way to quell distress is to take action and do something about it. When Paul looked over the city of Athens, he could have bemoaned and complained about the godless culture, but it would not have calmed his anguished soul. So, he entered the city and allowed God to use him to point people toward Jesus.
I still can’t shake that question: How long has it been since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?
Outrage may make us feel better (at least temporarily), but it rarely drives us to action. There seems to be no shortage of Christian anger about what is happening in the world, and every day offers up a new target for our fury. But anger is not enough. As Christians called to represent Christ in this outrageous culture, we must go beyond mere outrage. We must allow ourselves to become deeply bothered about things that truly matter. We must become distressed and anguished within our souls and driven to action.