"The Better Angels of Our Nature" and How I Cope When the World Feels Dark
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.
I'm calling my own bluff. Reading the news—rather, inundating myself with the headlines—doesn't make me a better person or help a single soul. It might assuage my guilt at lying down every night next to a living husband, down the hall from a safe, sleeping child; healthy, happy, whole. But it doesn't help the people around the world who don't get to do that. Instead, it makes me far less able to love my own family or do something for my neighbors or—here's a thought—do something for global victims of violence and oppression.
I've decided it's time to unfollow the bad news.
It's time to rid my daily life of updates that remind me of things I can't control. I know I'll still hear about them, but I'll be able to control how and when rather than being assaulted by bad news through groggy eyes every morning. I know that I know that this simple act will make me more present with my family.
But that's not all I want to do. I want to start being more intentional about sharing, spreading, and being the good news. I recently started following Branden Harvey, a friend of a friend who has an incredible role as a good-news teller. He's a fellow story-lover, and what he says resonates strongly with me: "I love telling stories filled with hope, joy, justice, and love because I trust that those stories hold the power to change the world." He even has a good newsletter, a weekly email dedicated to uplifting, positive news stories. The headlines never read "Thousands of Flights Land Safely," or "Countless Babies Born Healthy" or "Billions Didn't Starve Today"—but maybe they should.
So here's the good news in my life this week:
A friend's baby was born, early and traumatically—but alive and thriving. We brought them a meal and marveled at that tiny miracle.
My daughter fell down a flight of stairs headfirst—and escaped with hardly a bruise.
A talented fellow writer received word that two of her pieces are being published.
A local fire was contained before it could engulf several neighborhoods. One house was lost, and the community is rallying to support the family.
It might seem cheesy or insincere or kitschy. Maybe focusing on the good makes you feel less active, less aware of the world around you. But let me tell you how it makes me feel: able to go on, empowered to help heal, ready to join other humans in world-changing. And that's worth it.