"I turn on Tape Nine, Omission/Partial Omission. When sadness-inducing events occur, the guys says, invoke your Designated Substitute Thoughtstream. Your DTS might be a man falling off a cliff but being caught by a group of good friends. It might be a bowl of steaming soup, if one likes soup…My DTS is tapping a thin rock wall with a hammer. When that wall cracks, there's another wall underneath."
--George Saunders, In Persuasion Nation
It is Saturday. I am at a coffee shop in Brooklyn with my boyfriend and one of our best friends -- nice guys, guys who care deeply about what is going on in the world beyond fantasy football, music, and their motley crew of friends. We're drinking coffee, eating bagels, and reading my New York Times.
I tend to stick to a quick perusal of the Times online, in addition to a half dozen blogs and online news sites (like this one) during the week, but on the weekends I like to hold the paper in my hands, let my fingertips get blackened, really immerse myself in what's been happening. When I was just out of college and had very little money, I used to wait until late Sunday evening and then scour my neighborhood for discarded papers. When I finally started making money from my writing, one of my first "indulgences" was a weekend subscription to The New York Times. (So fancy, I know.)
Reading it each weekend has become more than an attempt to stay informed. It has become an exercise in witnessing, an act of pure will. Some weekends it feels like a masochistic, last-ditch effort to keep myself from going numb. Some weekends, I can hardly read the headlines without feeling myself being pulled into a morass of 21st century existential pain over the challenges of living aware in a globalized world with so much violence, soulless bureaucracy, and disappointing leadership.
This weekend is no different. As the boys and I flip through the paper, we find the following headlines:
Market Bomb Shatters Lull for Baghdad
Bombs in Northern India Kill 13 Near Courthouses
Barely Getting By, Too Proud to Seek Help and Facing a Cold Maine Winter.
After awhile we look up and get engrossed in a conversation that will last long after our coffee has gone cold -- what, in God's name, are we supposed to do with this information? What are we -- three well-educated, big-hearted, human beings -- supposed to do when we get up from these tables and discard this paper, knowing about the dead people and dreams in Iraq, the injured in India, the starving and old in Maine?
There is so much talk in schools, think tanks, even on Jay Leno's Tonight Show, about how pathetically uninformed the American public is about world affairs. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reports that "a solid majority of the public (61 percent) continues to track international news only when major developments occur, while far fewer (37 percent) are consistently engaged by international news coverage."
But what about those of us trying to keep our ears, eyes, and hearts open? There is so little public dialogue about what an empathetic person is supposed to do with the information they gather, about what an emotional experience it can be to just read the morning's paper or peruse your favorite Web sites.
It's as if we have declared knowing a virtue in itself, without recognizing what a great and potentially painful responsibility knowing is. Knowing is supposed to lead to action. That's what keeps compassion from rotting into hopelessness -- being empowered to do something about the feelings you are experiencing. But in our current climate, the news serves to depress us instead of galvanize us. Staying informed has become -- for so many of us -- a moral obligation that feels like hell.
It seems to be that we haven't figured out systems -- educational, governmental, non-governmental -- for actualizing the inevitable outrage, sadness, and empathy that we feel as a direct result of contemporary world news. Some blogs have created associations between news and action -- links to online petitions or nonprofit organizations directly after a post. But traditionally, journalists are taught to see reportage as their sole role. We provide you with the facts, you figure out what to do about them. There are a few exceptions; newspapers and magazines certainly encourage letters to the editor. And when I write for the Christian Science Monitor, for example, the editors always push me to come up with a solution-oriented ending to my op-eds. But most of these efforts -- with the exception, perhaps, of the great outpouring of relief that followed the tsunami in Indonesia (30 percent of American households gave, according to Bill Clinton's new book, Giving) or Hurricane Katrina -- feel more like satiation for the consumer as opposed to a real, fundamental opportunity to make change.
And it's taking a powerful psychic toll. I've heard otherwise politically active people say -- more often than I can count -- "I can't handle keeping up with the news these days. It's just too depressing." Surely, some of those who aren't informed are actually psychically protecting themselves. The Pew Center also found that 42 percent of those with a moderate to low interest in international news report avoiding it because there is "too much war/violence" and 51 percent avoid the news because "nothing ever changes."
I also can't help but wonder if the average liberal American's love for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert isn't a direct result of the emotional relief that comes from being told: "This is the news. Now laugh at it." The action becomes the laugh. The instinct to torture yourself over how to respond to the situation in Sudan is displaced by a chuckle at how badly other people -- namely our eternally comic president -- are responding.
I enjoy those shows too, but it's not enough. We can't settle for laughing our outrage away when there is so much violence in the world -- some of which we are directly responsible for. We also can't keep shoving the lesson of informed citizenship down good people's throats -- Do your duty! Stay informed! -- if we aren't going to create new ways of responding to all that information. It's actually a destructive recommendation in many ways -- pushing people to grow accustomed to disaster, disconnected, numb, and ethically dumbfounded. At the very least, it's breaking our hearts.
It's certainly breaking mine, and I even have the great fortune of being able to write in response to some of the deep sadness I feel over the state of the world. This column, in part, is my attempt to process those feelings so I can continue to have them. Without writing, I grow desperate -- I imagine getting on a plane to Darfur with no thought of how I might actually be useful there, or quitting writing and going to medical school even though I've never wanted to be a doctor. I know these are haphazard, ineffective thoughts on how to respond to the world's problems, but I can't help it. I just need to stop feeling, stop thinking, and start doing.
Too many of us are experiencing the rotting sensation of so many thoughts with no cathartic action. My friends around the coffee shop table express it as an acute and ever-present pain. In fact, we're all hung over from the night before. That too, we decide, has something to do with this unsolvable angst; there are plenty of ways that people try to numb themselves so they don't have to process the same powerless feelings. It's as if we are well-educated, empathic Frankensteins, created by our own country's privilege and civic dogma, but all we feel is monstrously ineffective.
This has to change. There must be some method whereby we can become informed and inspired to action. Maybe the answer lies in retraining journalists to go one step beyond reporting. Get the story, and also seek information about how a reader might constructively respond to it. This, of course, would require increased support for the work of investigative journalists. It would also require strategic partnerships between the professional media and nonprofit worlds, links that already exist between journalism and international affairs schools like those at Columbia University.
Maybe the answer lies in citizen journalists -- folks who often abandon the old-school idea of objectivity and tackle local issues with a verve for making change, not just reporting on it. This trend is already on the rise, and while it makes traditional journalists wince, maybe it could actually serve to empower some of the country's currently disenchanted readers.
Maybe the answer lies in the readers themselves. Sometimes I can't help but feel like we are on the verge of some new paradigm shift with regard to attention and connection. As technology changes and the world becomes smaller, isn't it inevitable that we will develop new emotional and cognitive ways of processing it all? Our survival depends on our capacity to live consciously and interdependently. Perhaps this ache is our hearts playing catch-up to globalization.
I'm not too cynical yet to believe that this impotence is a natural part of being human. We're too complex and connected and creative. Maybe it's the strong coffee and the good conversation with friends I love, but I just know that there's got to be a better way.