I have seen a lot of people suffering lately.
The rise in ultra-conservative politics. Deep division in our societies over what feel like key issues. Hurtful actions and language towards women. People rising to positions of power that fill some people with a sense of fear, injustice, or powerlessness.
We consume the news like an addict, looking for relief from the very thing that troubles us.
So I wanted to write a post in the hopes it provides some balm, some inspiration, for responsible self-care.
Challenging the myth: Being informed as a virtue in and of itself
First, there’s an idea I want to challenge. There’s a pervasive myth that following the news and being a bit of a news junkie is a virtue and makes us better citizens. There’s some truth to this, but it has been taken too far.
We all know how much more visible and constant news is these days, thanks in no small part to internet and social media. Even when we’re relaxing and scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, we can pick up news or commentary on the news.
These are two different things. The news is the facts of the case. This is often very limited.
What is overflowing in abundance is the commentary on the news. Keeping abreast of commentary does not in and of itself make you a better citizen or more informed. It can be interesting, it can help you see another perspective, but there is SO much of this and actually, very rarely does it lead to more substance to inform your own views.
So if you feel miserable and find yourself sucked into the vortex of commentary and opinion pieces, I’d ask if that’s adding value to your life before you keep going. If not, how might you take a step back from it?
Show yourself compassion
Our brains have evolved to respond to threats. In fact, we respond more quickly to possible threats than to good stuff. If you’re gazing at a beautiful night sky full of stars and hear a rustle that could be a lion in the nearby bushes, your brain will jump to the lion and forget about the beautiful night sky. As you’d want it to do.
But that also means that our brains will focus on the threatening news. Even events that may not be directly threatening, but have the potential to be threatening, our brains act like velcro to these.
So you’re not choosing to be obsessive or paranoid or distressed. Your brain is responding to stimuli. Beating yourself up about it won’t do you any good, as that kind of self-criticism engages the same threat-response areas of the brain. Trying to tap into your calm, contented, compassionate brain can help you. If you do lovingkindness meditations, showing some lovingkindness to yourself right now could be helpful.
Things can be bad, and I’m not trying to shy away from that.
But I’ve also seen many of the people suffering from the news cycle or current political climate are often losing any sense of perspective. Day-to-day headlines feel catastrophic, only to be replaced a few weeks later by the next thing.
One of my favourite quotes comes from Ben Hecht, a Jewish American screenwriter, journalist, director, producer, playwright and novelist who also organised campaigns against the Klu Klux Klan:
“Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.”
And another source of inspiration for me is Mark Twain. In the first volume of his brilliant and funny autobiography, he talks about a story called ‘the Morris incident’ that overwhelmed all of the headlines for days. As he says:
And that reminds me how unexciting the Morris incident will be two or three years from now – maybe six months from now – and yet what an irritating thing it is today, and has been for the past few days. It brings home to one this large fact: that the events of life are mainly small events—they only seem large when we are close to them [my emphasis]. By and by they settle down and we see that one doesn’t show above another. They are all about one general low altitude, and inconsequential…
This autobiography will not see the light of print until after my death. I do not know when that is going to happen, and do not feel a large interest in the matter, anyway. It may be some years yet, but if it does not occur within the next three months I am confident that by that time the nation, encountering the Morris incident in my autobiography, would be trying to remember what the incident was, and not succeeding. [For my part, he’s right. I’d no idea what it was until he explains it.] That incident, which is so large today, will be so small three or four months from now it will then have taken its place with the abortive Russian revolution and these other large matters, and nobody will be able to tell one from the other by difference of size.
He goes on:
Life does not consist mainly—or even largely—of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.
(And Twain wrote this well before the current onslaught of mindfulness references in all walks of life.)
If a particular news story is taking overwhelming precedence in your mind, it may be worth remembering the way people were up in arms and writing column upon column of newspaper space about the Morris incident – which is so insignificant it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry today.
And even those news stories that ARE huge and significant, it can be worth going back to the facts of the story to ensure you aren’t swept up in the ‘storm of thoughts’ in your mind.
Trying to remember what the actual news story is, rather than what your or other people’s thoughts are about it, you may find that much of what is triggering for you is predictions of what this one event will mean. But history is rarely made of one event and is notoriously hard to predict.
Winning the war
The idea that history is rarely made of one event can also be a hopeful thought if you feel discouraged: you can lose a battle but win the war.
So if you feel discouraged about the past couple of years, perhaps the way certain votes have gone, it can be worth remembering that a couple of years is still a blip in the overall trend. One year, one election, one referendum…they won’t foretell or irreversibly change the direction in which humanity is going.
This isn’t to say we should be complacent, but it is to say we shouldn’t be discouraged if we enter a period of some years where there’s a backlash against all of the progress that has been made. Lest we forget, it wasn’t that long ago that American blacks were segregated and lynched, or Europe was fragmented by WWII, or no one believed climate change was a thing. Hell, look back at some old episodes of Friends for a healthy perspective on how far gay rights have come in that being gay is no longer a punchline.
There’s been a lot of progress, so there’s inevitably going to be two steps forward, one step back. But the overall direction is still forward.
Standing for something, not just against something
Obviously we want to fight injustice, and it’s not just a right but a duty.
In a political environment as divisive as the one in which many of us find ourselves, however, this can very easily turn into focusing all our energy fighting something, being against something.
It’s like having a fight with a loved one where you spend so much time reacting to each other that by the end of it, you’ve both spiralled out of control (“Admit it, you never liked my mother!”) and yet you never had a chance to say the thing you wanted to say (“It hurts when I think you don’t appreciate what I do around the house”).
By reacting all the time, your agenda becomes set by the ‘other’. So if you think Trump is the worst thing to happen to America and spend all your time reading about what he’s doing and opposing him, you’re still letting him set the agenda for what you think, care, and talk about.
Again, I appreciate that we sometimes have to oppose what’s happening, rather than hide our heads in the sand. But there’s a way to do this without letting reacting consume you, a way where you are setting your own agenda.
What matters to you? What’s your vision for your country, neighbourhood, your NHS Trust? And how can you promote THAT?
Take a simple step
I think that’s the message I’d like to close with. We may not be able to control what Congress does. Or overturn the Brexit referendum. Or whatever else may be triggering you that you’ve read this far down in the blog.
But you have some control, right now. You can live your life according to your values.
Maybe that’s joining a community of like-minded activists and planning some campaigns. Maybe it’s making your own bread and yogurt at home to avoid contributing to the plastic waste crisis. After a troubling election result I remember attending my first Quaker meeting, where the silence among peace-loving, like-minded people was a balm to my wounds.
After I found out about the separation of children and their parents at the US border, I wrote an email to my representative. It may not have made a difference, but knowing I had done something – even as small as writing an email – felt better than nothing.
Or when I found out about a mother in the US who accidentally killed her 1-year-old daughter by leaving her in the hot car (she thought she had dropped her off at daycare), I wrote a card in an attempt to show her some compassion and sent it to her attorney. I doubt the words of a stranger could do much to counteract the guilt and pain and loss she experienced, but it could help her start to feel like she deserves forgiveness, and it wouldn’t hurt her. And I felt like I was putting something good into the world, and helped me when I was upset by what happened and the pain this other mother must have been going through.
You won’t single-handedly change the world, but you can live with integrity. You can make change. Taking a simple action right away can help ease the discomfort so you can live your life and stand for what is important to you in small, meaningful ways, every day. And who knows, the little steps can lead you to finding bigger, more meaningful ways to promote change and stand for what you believe in.