Monday , October 09, 2017 - 9:35 PM1 comment
Our lives are fragmented: work concerns, family concerns, financial concerns, and community concerns. The newspaper attempts to paint with a broad brush to give us a cursory overview of what is going on in the world, and maybe amid all the concerns, we pick up the paper and read an article or two.
Our capacity to take in information is limited, but the world now bombards us with data. The average person in 17th century England received in a lifetime the amount of information equivalent to one weekday edition of The New York Times. Yet even with the information of almost all the world’s newspapers right in our pockets or bags via smartphone, the average 21st century American couldn’t read and digest one day’s worth of newspapers in a lifetime. Not to mention the expansion and accessibility to television, books, music, websites and other forms of information available to us every day.
Given the onslaught of information, maybe it's not surprising that the news to which we're exposed the most is most often horrific and tragic. We don’t have time to pay attention to anything other than the stories filled with the most tragic events. Human nature is to seek safety so we pay attention to signs of danger. Mass shootings or terrorist attacks always dominate the front page and seep into everyone’s consciousness. Mother Nature has long been a threat to homo sapiens, and she only needs to twirl around and bluster for satellite photos to be compelling.
I’ve always wondered about why bad news is so irresistible. It is as if we have a perverse desire to witness death and destruction. But maybe it's just a symptom of information overload.
Emotionally, a mass shooting in the news feels the same as if, while hiking on a mountain path, someone far ahead on the trail starts running towards you, shouting, “Snake!” You go on immediate alert, check your surroundings, and depending on how scared you are of snakes, start walking in the other direction. When you are safely home, you relax.
The next psychological step is to start looking for reasons to avoid the danger for yourself. The snake was just lying on a rock, getting warm in the sun. The terrorist was warped by his religious or political beliefs. The shooter was mentally ill or maybe had lost everything. And it is hurricane season in the Atlantic, so I know where not to travel. Now I implement the plan to feel safe. I must simply avoid snake-laden trails, fundamentalists and gun-toting maniacs and I won't move to a Caribbean island. Problem solved.
The easier the fix, the quicker we'll be ready for the next headline — the next warning shout, which we all know will be coming. Of course, the easy answers are never particularly accurate and the solutions are rarely simple, but who can concentrate on long-term solutions with new threats pummelling our collective conscience daily? North Korea has nuclear weapons? No problem; our weapons are even bigger and more devastating. We have so much information that it is easier to let Twitter take over our sympathetic nervous system. Threat. Resolution. Threat. Resolution. All in 140 characters or less.
I admit, I feel as though I'm displaying no small amount of hubris in adding my own voice to this unholy din of information, but here we are. You got this far, so my faith was not wholly misplaced. What could I possibly say to counter the death we've experienced in the news just this week? The losses can be so overwhelming, I can barely fathom them all.
As I've touched on before, the loss of my friend Kurt Cochran in the March London terror attack has left a massive hole in our lives. It's something I still feel in some way, every day. With only the slightest effort, it's easy to imagine and understand the loss felt by those impacted by the Las Vegas shooting, the hurricanes, or anywhere else disaster has struck.
Yet this is another reason we pay attention to disaster in the news. You don’t have to live very long to feel for those who experience loss. Our human capacity for compassion and charity has expanded along with the overflow of information, allowing us to feel concern globally, not just in an insular, communal way.
The danger is that while remote "thoughts-and-prayers" compassion may provide an individual salve after a disaster, it neither provides any real solutions nor actual help for those in need.
So while our fragmented lives are overwhelmed with data and tragic news, the challenge is to look for real solutions and practice active compassion. Don’t feel compelled to focus your efforts in the disaster du jour. Fix things around you and within the scope of what you do every day. This remains the true locale and impetus for real change.
The results will be phenomenal, even though none of us will probably ever read about it in a newspaper.
E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. Twitter: @KentWinward.
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