Recently, a young woman asked me how I cope with all the bad news in the world 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. Here’s the advice I have for this woman, and anyone wondering how to stay in the loop on what’s happening in the world without letting the despair of bad news take over your life.
Be Aware of Your Senses
I was friendly 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 but the servants of your soul. Your eyes 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 how much your senses can handle. If you know that your soul will be harmed, 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.
Set Limits on Your News Consumption
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. Find another way to express your compassion and your concern for the world, besides sitting in front of CNN for three straight hours while 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 causes that matter to me. 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.
In other words, I know what's going on, and I care. However, 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 the media. I also know that the media figured out a long time ago that the best way to keep our attention (and they need our attention for profits) is to horrify us. I don’t sign up for non-stop horror. I know that consuming modern 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 the responsible thing to do.
Remember: Life is Full of Suffering—and Joy
Also, remember this: We do not live in a time of special horror—no matter how it seems. Every generation has known its horrors. There has never been a moment of human history that was a utopia. The violence and depravity has always been woven into our lives, right next to the grace and beauty. This is how life has always been, and probably always will be. It is our duty to be aware of 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. Otherwise, evil wins.
Be Stubborn in Your Gladness
In my favorite poem (a poem that I read like a prayer), my favorite poet, Jack Gilbert, 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 this 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.
Be attentive to the world’s needs, but be stubborn in your gladness, as well.