QUESTION OF THE DAY: How do you cope with all the horrible news in the world?
I received this question yesterday from a young woman who follows this page, who posted her thoughts about how depressing and anxiety-producing the world's news is these days. She's not sure how to manage it all. As an intelligent and thoughtful person, she feels an obligation to stay in touch with what's happening…but then she is dragged into despair by the suffering and sorrows that she sees on TV.
I was friends with a monk in India who spoke about this subject a lot, and what I remember her saying is that we must be compassionate and aware about the sorrows of the world — but that we also must be aware of the limitations of what our senses can bear. Remember that your eyes and your ears are nothing the servants of your soul. Your eyes and and ears will look at anything and listen to anything that you put in front of them. Your senses can only obey your will. You must be compassionately aware of much your senses can bear. If you know that your soul will be harmed or haunted or destroyed by what you are watching or hearing, turn away. Take a break. Give your soul and your senses a pause, to restore themselves.
This does not mean living in a bubble. None of us can afford to live in a bubble — not in a world that needs engaged people. But find another way to express your compassion and your concern for the world, besides sitting in front of CNN for three straight hours, being assaulted by an endless parade of global horrors.
I am political. I follow the news, I vote, I advocate, I have petitioned my congressmen (in person, by phone, by mail). I have walked in protest marches, I have knocked on doors to register voters, I have gone to Washington to personally lobby for gay rights and marriage equality, I contribute to local and international organizations that support women's reproductive health and freedom, I give to charities that help the homeless and the poor and refugees, both here and abroad. I know what's going on. But I refuse to saturate my mind with the darkest images that are available to us 24 hours a day now, thanks to the omnipotence and ubiquitousness of media. Because consuming that media without pause would be abusive and dehumanizing to my senses (we were never meant to see such awful images in flickering repetition — again and again and again, every hour on the hour) and the harm that this would cause me would serve nobody, help nobody.
Here is my advice: Choose the time and manner in which you will take in your news, and choose it carefully. I read some carefully selected intelligent newspapers in the morning, and then I stop. No more for the day. No more. And absolutely no TV news before bed. Absolutely not. The media won't stop its coverage for you — so you must draw the line somewhere. This is not irresponsible of you; it is RESPONSIBLE.
Also, remember this: We do not live in a time of special horror — no matter how it seems. Every generation has known its horrors. So it has always been, and probably always will be. It is our duty to be aware of these horrors, and to help where we can. But as all the great masters have taught us for centuries —we also have a duty to delight. We find our humanity, our restoration, in delight. We live in a world of both suffering and joy. Both are equal realities. To turn all your attention toward one (suffering) while completely disregarding the presence of the other (joy) is a pity — maybe almost a sin.
I have a friend whose mother — a Holocaust survivor — used to say to him when he was a morose teenager, "Why don't you want to go have FUN? You live in such a beautiful world! Why don't you go outside and play some TENNIS? It's such a glorious day!" This woman's entire family had been shot before her eyes, yet still she pursued joy. Still, she knew a beautiful day when she saw one. And sometimes — as she well knew — you really have to go outside and play some tennis in the sun. Or else evil wins.
In my favorite poem (a poem that I read like a prayer) my favorite poet Jack Gilbert (no relation) says this: "To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil." He goes on to say, "We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world."
The poem is called A BRIEF FOR THE DEFENSE — and it is a stubborn and passionate defense of joy in the midst of suffering. This is how you beat the devil: Through joy. Do not turn your back on the ruthless furnace of the world, but do not turn your back on the world's delights, either.
In other words: Turn off your TV for a while today, for god's sake, and go outside and play.
(The entire poem A BRIEF FOR THE DEFENSE can be found here: https://bit.ly/1tToCJT)
Be stubborn in your gladness.