What Do You Do With The Sadness?
The unanswerable weight.
I spent last Thursday night with a beautiful, healthy baby and with her mom, one of my dearest friends. As we smiled watching her crawl about, developing her first connections to the world, an earthquake and a resulting tsunami hit the coast of Japan.
Saturday and Sunday found me in New York City, drinking gin, baking, and relishing a certain happiness in quiet corners of the West Village. As is to be expected on a drive from Connecticut, there was Manhattan traffic. While a friend and I welcomed the opportunity to catch up, we periodically griped aloud regarding the delay. Sure, it was frustrating. But we were happy and laughing. We were connecting.
And yet, at the same time, strewn across a highway in the Bronx was the wreckage of a tragic bus accident in which fifteen people lost their lives. Interstate 95 was closed for hours on end as crews tried to make sense of what credible news sources called "horrific." That I had even commented on the traffic situation wrought me with guilt.
What do you do with these sadnesses? How do you shoulder their weight?
The world bears a substantial burden of information which we voluntarily, digitally ingest on a near-continuous basis. The sadness is on the news, on the radio, on our favorite websites, on social media. The sadness is in pictures and in sounds, in stories and in memoirs. The sadness is in causes and in diseases, in freak accidents and in planned destruction. It is the infinite, the unfathomable, and the inherent dichotomy of humanity.
The internet as your depressed lover.
I was born in 1985. My family got our first computer around 1996. I was eleven. I remember the sound of dial up, but really, who could forget it? AOL -- with or without mail -- was a new type of playground. It was exciting and lighthearted and totally, totally cool.
But in 1996, the internet was chain email with pictures of cats. It was chat rooms with friends. It was goofy. Today there's grit and gore. There's the dark web. There are people in South East Asia who are employed to monitor and flag inappropriate content on the web. They routinely suffer from PTSD.
It's true that the internet has redefined how we consume information: in an inescapable fashion.
We now live in a world which not only expects that you consume your information digitally, as instantly as possible, and around-the-clock, but one which practically demands it. By the nature of our interaction, of our preoccupation with tidbits of knowledge, we perpetuate the dissemination of such. We crave awareness as a means to connectedness. We want to know everything about the world -- the good and the ugly -- such that we may relate. We participate in these never-ending, information-based mediums to feel. We consume insatiably. We are stuck in a befuddled cycle.
This essential awareness, the increasingly critical nature of "knowing," is no easy feat. We bind ourselves to technology such that we may interact, or be inundated rather, with the infinite information. We believe that we must tether ourselves to these machines because to be shut off is to be shut out in 2011. We are online always. If not at a desktop computer, we're touting a laptop. If not with a laptop, we're stealthily carrying a tablet. If not donning a tablet, we're on, or otherwise caressing, a phone. And if not on a phone, many of us, myself included, feel naked.
The prerequisite of awareness, or knowledge, for connection was not always a reality. Previous generations forged connections which were hardly as reliant on current events or on a steady stream of vacillating information as ours. For those cohorts before us, the availability, quantity, and speed with which they received and processed information was, by today's standards, inexcusably slow.
Yet this trickle -- as opposed to a plethora-- of awareness afforded more compartmentalized, manageable lives. They relied on television which was watched leisurely, outside of work, as an information source. They relied on newspapers printed once a day for colorful accounts, details, stock market fluxes, the weather. They relied on landlines to connect to those they loved at a distance. The terrible and the awful ran concurrent to everything else, as it does today, but the parallels were more clearly defined.
That is to say, there was a time when you just didn't know everything about everything, always. And this not knowing was okay. A limited awareness was okay. Detachment from the weight of the world was not only possible, but acceptable. The role of and the function of information and of connection in day-to-day life were separate.
As there is shit now, there was shit then. As a feeling of connectedness is central now, it was central then. The difference is that now sadness is our bed partner. And our beds, the internet.
If awareness assumes the burden of the sadness, what, then, do we do with these feelings?
Consumption as a means to connection.
The approach to human connectivity was once lighter. Built within communities and within the four walls of homes, social circles were relatively small, families were nuclear, you dated the boys or girls from town, perhaps someone your aunt suggested you meet. Certainly, the interaction was similar to today's dynamics: the human animal is still the human animal. However, the means were comfortably limited by, for example, something which is practically obsolete today: proximity. There was no E-harmony connecting soul-mates across continents. You didn't have "friends" on social media that you wouldn't otherwise approach at a bar given your level of unfamiliarity. You didn't just apply to jobs in California because you were bored, like I did.
Whereas once we found solace in our surroundings, in the instant gratification of connection, we now find a world of endless possibilities. Infinite connection avenues. The internet's assistance in broadening our perspective has been proven, in a number of studies, to create a confused, ambiguous, and a nearly paralytic psyche. When combined with the proliferation of a world rife with tragedy and with the persistent call that we remain abreast on all issues at all times, it is easy to see how this gets away from us so quickly. It is easy to see why we feel small and afraid; easy to see why the unanswerable questions are asked often.
We participate -- we seek knowledge and the most basic awareness -- so that we may feel alive. But we cannot separate our reliance on information from our desire to feel connected. Our needs are inextricably related to bad news.
To be clear, there are certainly benefits to this quest for awareness. The internet has afforded positive change, equal voices, and political reform among much else.
Still, today's news is heavier than at most times in our recent history. And so our awareness establishes a new burden. We carry this weight such that we may relate. Generations before us carried on without it being front-and-center daily. Generations after us will know nothing except the proliferation of (literally) everything. The latter will have known the sadness in the same way they have known the laughter. There will be no optionally concurrent living. The information arrives at once, often unfiltered. The questions follow suit: what do we do with the bad news?
Why did we laugh at Charlie Sheen?
The immediacy and urgent tone with which we receive gut-wrenching information can make it seem as if we have no right to smile. So many are suffering, so very much is going on.
Just look at NPR headlines from Wednesday, March 16th:
- The death toll in Japan is over 5,000. The tragedy, on every level, speaks for itself.
- Gadhafi is being called "unstoppable."
- Four New York Times journalists are missing in Libya.
- People are dying among unspeakable violence, destruction, and oppression in Bahrain, fighting for their basic rights.
- Pro-democratic protesters are being viciously attacked in Yemen as the country's month-long political movement becomes increasingly unstable.
- Pakistan continues to be a volatile area as a CIA security contractor who killed two Pakistanis (fact), being held hostage pending investigation, was released this week. The deceased's families were paid a total of $2 million USD. Of course, there is mass outrage on this case for many reasons.
That's almost exclusively in the Middle East, too. What about the devastating earthquake in Christchurch?
Of course the stories don't end with the headlines, that's never been the case, but it's the shock-value of the sub-text that I find unnerving. The unveiling of an underground child abuse ring in the UK. The genocide in Sudan. North Korea. Global warming. There were at least fifteen instances of mass deaths of animals in January.
It just never stops.
- The housing market is in shambles.
- Food, energy, and gas prices are creeping up.
- The impact from Japan's tsunami has spread to the coast of California. One harbor has been, reportedly, "crippled" with the sinking of sixteen boats and with damage done to upwards of forty others.
- Public schools are suffering on nearly every front.
- Fathers are getting depressed and then turn to hitting their children.
What about that tiny little BP oil spill last year?
Our young soldiers are dying overseas, one of whom was among the very first, openly gay soldiers in Afghanistan. Wisconsin's unions are in a pickle, to say the least. A senator was shot in the head and survived, while a nine year old girl lost her life. "Fracking." The state of our food industry and the ramifications of such. Unemployment. The lack of healthcare. The vast hypocrisy of American politics which annoys me beyond words.
There is more. The volume is the message here. The sadness is everywhere.
There are at least 200 types of cancer in the world today, many with their own research facilities and programs, and more yet with their own walks, runs, benefit concerts, and events. If it's not cancer, it's a degenerative disease. Maybe it was a freak accident: wrong place at the wrong time, now what? The ASPCA commercials alone remind us of animal suffering and the cruelty that humans can, and often do, mindlessly inflict on those weaker than us.
Everyone needs funding. Everyone wants to tell their story. Of course we are affected by the message and by the delivery. Roadkill upsets me, personally. I find snow plows destructive. I am not -- many of us are not -- at a loss for empathy. Yes, we want to donate and to listen. Yes, we want to hug every last soul. We want to connect now as we always have, as is our anthropology.
But there are two things we'll never have enough of: money and time.
And we're lost. We're torn. We're sad. We're paralyzed. We're heart broken. The world is heart broken. So what do we do, America? We laugh at Charlie Sheen.
I wasn't part of the raving crowd of Sheen fans, but I giggled at least once. It was difficult to discern if his bizarre antics were intentional, but we now know they were not and are not. Charlie Sheen is a sick man. Yet our country is so, so desperate for relief, that we laugh at him. We crave the humor. We would implode without the exhale. I understand. But this is someone's life.
What did we do with this flavor of bad news? We laughed. Just like we laughed at the eccentricity of Gadhafi. And while neither were ours to laugh at, we laughed together, we laughed over the internet, and we forgot -- at least momentarily and for however apathetic -- about the shit storm outside.
Self versus X.
Disease, politics, countries, catastrophes, nuclear threats, natural threats, the instability of human nature, the information. Droves of information. It is paralyzing to attempt to understand it all, even slightly. To let it roll off your shoulders, wash over you, or trust it will pass are certainly easier mantras to repeat than to put into practice.
And yet, we have to practice something. We have to do something, right? Certainly there must a solution for our need to consume information, and to feel connected, and to manage the sadness. But what of the consequences? What, then, of reality?
Are we faced with a situation of do nothing or do everything? Does doing nothing make you a bad person? Does doing everything make you a good person? It can feel like that -- like all of these are plausible and correct -- sometimes. It is difficult to discern the appropriate, fulfilling, and useful grays from the black and white. Further, when we ask ourselves these questions, we're ignoring the inquirer: the self. The me.
It may seem like these are two, separate discussions: "the sadness" and "the me." But they're inextricably related. The sadness flows through us. The sadness challenges us. The sadness incites endless questions. Importantly, our adoption of the internet and technology disrupts not only our relationship with each other -- how we connect -- but also with ourselves.
What do you do with the persistent stream of heartbreaking information that comes to you each morning on the news? What do you do when stories regarding toddlers laughing at ripped paper are followed by stories of the rape of an eleven year old girl? Or stories showing the aftermath of our bombing Libya?
What do you do when someone in your life doesn't love you, when you hate your job, when you're drowning in debt, when you have a sick parent, when your dog dies, or when you're just, understandably, exhausted?
There needs to be a separation, a dichotomous approach to the world's problems and pain, and to our own personal troubles. Combining these together makes for an awful mess of suffering in which, inevitably, the self will always appear less compelling, or less severe in immediacy and thus less "solution-worthy," than the world. What we are left with, then, is a formula for justified self-negligence. The opposite approach, self-exaltation and an ignorance to the world which surrounds us, most definitely isn't the answer. We are all worthy of love and tenderness. We have to be gentle with ourselves.
Ultimately, we're seeking a solution for how to fit the complicated puzzle pieces of the world we live in as audience members, and the world we live in as lead actors and actresses, together. We want a way to do and have everything: the information, the gadgets, the connections, the anti-sadness. We live in a Chicken Soup For The Soul world. We live in a world of many solutions and many more quick fixes.
The Rumpus's "Dear Sugar" advice column posits one solution while speaking to the twinge of loss, specifically death. She writes:
"But compassion isn’t about solutions.
It’s about giving all the love that you’ve got."
And maybe that's just it. Maybe compassion is the short answer. Maybe love is the shorter answer. Maybe there is nothing you can do with the sadness, but to find your love, to own your love, and to give your love. We carry the weight of cancer, and of disease, and of bus crashes. We carry the weight of politics, and of Charlie Sheen, and of Japan. We carry our own, quiet battles. We are aware. We tune in and power up to find connectedness. We have no choice.
But for the destruction and misery that this world holds, there is beauty. There are sunsets and full moons. There is the sweetness of cupcakes, the scent of sunny spring afternoons. It is there. The sadness is always present. It is present as the baby crawls. It is present as you laugh about ex lovers. The sadness never leaves, but neither does the beauty.
There is no solution. There never has been. There isn't supposed to be.
Undoubtedly, humanity has always been plagued with injustice. Atrocity is not novel. But the world has not always had such a powerful, immediate, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-opinionated conduit for its inevitable wickedness. The internet is an overwhelming, complicated labyrinth whose longterm effects on society, psychology, and the global landscape are yet to be determined.
You and I, we bear the sadness. The sadness binds us. And, insofar as we're together, maybe it's a necessary, beautiful burden.