A familiar scene played a few nights ago. I lowered my swollen, pregnant body into my memory-foam mattress, arranged my pillows with effort, and connected my iPhone to its power source. Before switching to night mode and setting my alarm, I saw my final notification of the day: a reminder of another disaster, more dead children, the latest rash of violence.
I swiped fast and locked the screen. I can't read more today.
There won't be sleep now; not in the immediate future. There will only be grief, guilt, elevated heart rate, breathless prayer. I'll hold my belly, I'll stare at my sleeping toddler over the baby monitor, I'll imagine it was my children lost, my city blown to rubble, my shopping mall desecrated by violence. It feels too close—always too close.
I attended an intriguing lecture three or four years ago by Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist and Harvard professor. His premise: violence is declining, and humanity is safer now than it has ever been.
I remember him often, his insistence that humanity is becoming more civil. He talked about the "better angels of our nature," telling a room of undergrads and graduate students that, as a species, we were on the upswing. His words feel hollow nearly every day when those notifications and news updates flash across my screen, even though he backed them up with an 800-page book and extensive, impressive research. But the thing I remember most about his lecture is this: the average person knows more today about the violence happening around the world than we ever have—and it might not be good for us.
Pinker notes that media—particularly the internet—has created an always-on stream of bad news, and our bodies don't know how to differentiate between real and immediate threats and those happening thousands of miles away. We used to know what happened in our house, in our neighborhood, and our county. National and international news were slower coming, more filtered, less immediate. It's not that we didn't have fears; it's that the fears we had were much closer, more immediate—they were things we could ostensibly exert some control over.
I never feel less in control than when I read the news. I never feel smaller, less powerful, less able to change a damn thing about this dark world. And what's worse, I can't escape from the news. Not because I can't power down the phone, delete the New York Times app, or filter my Facebook feed. I can't because I think I shouldn't.
Here's my confession: I hold a mistaken belief that the world needs my pity, my tears, and my bleeding heart—that my heartbroken iPhone scrolling does something. I can't look away from those updates because the least those aching, hurting individuals deserve from me is my tears. But that's just it: that's the least they deserve.