Humans are brutal and selfish. Insanity goes unchecked. One need only read the news to confirm this assessment, and it’s against that stream of information that I’ve been waging a silent war for the past three years.
My entire adult life I’ve been faced with a difficult dilemma: I care about what’s going on in the world, but I can’t actually handle the daily paper. Twitter grosses me out (although I do use it) and don’t get me started on 24-hour news channels.
Since I moved out into the country three years ago, the car has been more of a regular part of my life. I started noticing something. When I would get in the car, the first thing I would do is turn on the radio. The news would follow me to work, and I would justify this practice by saying that I needed to know what was happening in the world. It was my responsibility as a human being.
But before I started driving every day, I didn’t feel irresponsible, necessarily, that I would be “out of touch” for three or four days, only hearing about the remote happenings in the world from friends or neighbors.
Right now — and I’ve managed to avoid the news so far today so correct me if I’m wrong — the reporters are interviewing survivors, and experts are calling for gun control.
Whether or not I’m an expert, I’ll say this: We need gun control for the same reasons we need DNA sequencing. We haven’t evolved enough to overcome our natures, and it’s technology that could save us from ourselves. Scientists are now cataloging our genetic information to prevent disease, so why are we not employing the technology of legislation and enforcement to prevent psychopaths from getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction?
And now I’ve violated my own rule. If it were my child who was murdered, I wouldn’t be, couldn’t be, talking about how their death could have been prevented. I would be mourning. I would be attempting to find some reason to continue living.
We live in a global village. Those children are our children. Unless you have an unusually isolated existence, you know someone who has a boyfriend or an uncle or a former boss who has a cousin or a coworker or a tennis partner who was at that concert. They might be posting something on Facebook right now. But stay here! You don’t need to read it.
Listen, I don’t mean to sound selfish, but what matters is our own process. Everyone greets tragedy in their own language, but we all have the instinct to stuff our true feelings about it. We all have the capacity to grow numb to the endless series of disasters that fill the news. Maybe it’s time to reconsider how much of that we really need.
Imagine what would happen if you stopped watching the news, unfollowed anyone who posted about current events, and only listened to your knitting podcast on the way to work. If you’re like me, you’re thinking of what people will say.
“Are you living under a rock?”
“Where have you been?” “Wouldn’t it be nice. Well, I can’t ignore the world around me.”
But what do they really know about the world around them?
My war on information began when I realized I was turning on the radio in order to tune out my own thoughts. I was working a job I cared about in some ways but not in most. It was a paycheck. Listening to the headlines, or a detailed news story, or even just an interview with some tormented immigrant or post-traumatic soldier, made me feel like I had more of a purpose than I really did. I was a recipient of information. I was participating in something.
But the practice reinforced the dilemma I’ve been ignoring all these years. How an one person handle so much trauma without becoming a monster themselves? Maybe I’m just two empathic, I told myself. So, like many people, I redoubled my efforts to resist empathetic impulses. I took a hardened perspective. People are bad, the world is screwed, etc. I stopped looking people in the eye as much, and toned down my smile.
The battle waged. The wisest voices among us suggest compassion. They advise courage against the onslaught of evil, to generate hope in hard times. To do that, I had to turn off the radio. When I did, I could go further in trying to understand people one at a time. The only way out of our human mess, I believe, is through recognizing the humanity in each of us.
It didn’t last. When did my resistance begin to erode? It must have been the election. Then the drama of international intrigue and an imploding administration. Then the summer — earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, floods. Then this most recent horror in Las Vegas.
I needed to know. I needed to keep up. These days I listen to the news in the car at least half of the time, and scan the headlines or Twitter at least once a day.
Tuesday morning, I picked up the paper lying on the counter at a cafe. I tried to pick and choose my reading but my eyes teared up anyway. What got to me was learning that the man was just an ordinary man, no apparent motive.
I put my sunglasses on in the cafe. I didn’t want anyone to know of my weakness. They were all looking at their smart phones, anyway. Or facing the world with a clench-jawed determination. Eyeing me suspiciously. Yeah, I would too. We’re all suspicious.
Are we — or is it that we’ve come to feel defeated in the face of tragedy after conspiracy after stupid hopeless politician in the form of the information that gets funneled to us daily, nightly, everywhere we look?
That’s my theory, and the natural extrapolation is that we’re not equipped to handle this. To read about Puerto Rico, then hear about the destruction in Mexico, then watch a segment on opioid abuse, then read a few Tweets or Facebook updates from women who are being harassed for no reason, is a form of self-annihilation. There’s nothing I’ve been taught — there’s nothing my body knows — that can make this a reasonable practice.
Think about it. As a species, as an animal, we grew up in tiny communities. The world population was never that big. Three hundred years ago, we had barely cracked a billion people worldwide. The number of people committing rape and murder and suicide and terrorism was never that large, but it is now by sheer statistics.
We’ve never changed. We never learned to stop isolating the stranger from our tribe, whether they are a different color or gender identity or religion. We never completely learned the moral tools to handle weapons, to distribute abundance fairly, to listen before we act. Instead, we created power structures to do it for us — and even then, our leaders are barely equipped. The result is war, segregation and unchecked capitalism.
Information is the same way. What’s been puzzling me is how we have completely lost control over it. The news is forced upon us in airports, even in the gas station where I filled up last week, on the tiny screen that normally just tells me to swipe my card. When I go online to look up the latest mortgage rates for an article I’m writing, CNBC graciously offers me the top news stories of the day in the sidebar. My eyes read everything they see.
In a way, it’s a form of force-feeding. Information is food for our minds. It can nourish us, or it can make us sick to our stomachs. If it’s making us sick — and I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt physically ill when they learned what happened — then why are we eating it?
I’m not saying, don’t find out. I’m not advocating plugging our ears and blindfolding our eyes so we can never again learn of a tragic event. I’m asking us to be choosier, to step back, and to wait for our second or third impulse.
The shooter’s occupation, the heroic act of the father who ended up being shot, the details of the police hunt. Does it lead toward a greater understanding of what happened and why? On a cosmic level, no. It sends us down the path of further isolation, pain and anger.
What would our ancestors do? If the earthquake happened in their village, they would grieve. They would wonder what they did to anger the gods. They would rebuild, and remember the lost. If that earthquake happened in their neighbors’ village, the process would be similar, but less intense.
If it happened in a village too far away for the news to travel to them, what would they do?
What difference would it have made?
Global news was never part of our human existence, but somehow by the 20th century we decided that it needs to be. To justify it, we invented a sense of obligation to the rest of the world’s problems.
I suspect the real reason that the 24-hour news channels stay alive, the reason we keep scrolling through Twitter rather than stepping back to process, is that it helps to keep us numb.
It seems to be a contradiction — learning more to feel less — but it works every time. Gaining that piece of information most recently uncovered, the live interview, the smoking gun, makes us feel important, and the way the information is presented doesn’t help matters.
“The news YOU need to know,” screams the broadcast tagline. All of those reporters, working just for us, how kind of them. How rude it would be to ignore them.
I’m reminded of a Charlie Brown cartoon in which Lucy is reading a book she claims to dislike. Then why read it? asks wise Charlie. Because, says Lucy, someone went through all the trouble of writing it, the least I can do is read it.
The irony is that choosing to engage with the information actually disengages us from understanding the impact of the event on our fragile selves. What we forget is that we can’t run forever. The knife is going to sink in, and wouldn’t we rather have it do so now, while the wound is fresh, than a year from now when we wake up in an unnameable state of panic?
That would be true gun control. To heal from the modern world as it is inflicted on us. To make the choice between consuming information out of obligation versus genuine curiosity. To ask, is this actually helping me, or the victims, or the future of this particular trend in our society?
If we don’t question, we risk becoming the next one to snap.
Here’s what I’ve done: Kept the radio off. Stayed clear – very clear – of Facebook. I’ve made a point to talk about the tragedy with my friends, my therapist, with anyone who seems ready to have a real conversation.
In one of those conversations, I learned of another tragedy that happened over the weekend, here in my small town. A man with a rifle attacked a cook in a restaurant at a mountain lodge, then positioned himself on the freeway to fire at oncoming traffic. He was taken out by one of those drivers.
Since then I’ve been contemplating another layer of this mad media universe: How events are distorted, how information is presented completely arbitrarily. In that paper I picked up at the cafe on Tuesday, no mention was made, at least not one that out-shouted the four or five articles about Las Vegas. I had to put it down after that.
To put myself in the shoes of that cook, I am struck by how random life really is. We are lucky to be alive at any given moment. When I imagine myself as the shooter, I am grateful for the sanity I have that he obviously lost long ago. I feel fortunate that in all my travels, I’ve never met such a person.
Or maybe I have. Maybe the fact that I smiled at him, or at least made eye contact, or had a brief conversation in the convenience store, or allowed him to merge into traffic ahead of me, was the difference between him clinging to his last bit of humanity and letting it all fly out of the barrel of his rifle. What gave me that capacity?
In the car, I must have had the radio off. In the store, I might have kept my phone in my pocket. In my heart, I might have held a space for quiet, and for a different story to emerge.
I’m not saying that individually, any of us have the power to stop a monster. I’m saying that collectively, we absolutely do.