July 29, 2014 by Natalie

What Makes Me Better

I’ve been going to the gym a lot lately, and here’s one thing I’ve noticed, since I can’t avoid the TV hanging above me as I workout: CNN does not make me a better person. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the constant barrage of terrifying world events ticking across the screen in front of me raises my heart rate more than sprinting on the treadmill does. I get anxious, sad. I feel helpless and powerless. This does not make me a better person.

I try not to look. But there’s something about the power of the screen that compels most of us to watch, even when we don’t want to. Next time you’re in a bar, restaurant, or gym with a TV, try not to look at it even once. It’s almost impossible.

Worldwide, the past few weeks have been dizzyingly traumatic. Three commercial planes crashed, one of which was shot down out of the sky. 1,000 Palestinians and 50 Israelis have been killed in and around Gaza, and a lasting ceasefire or truce seems impossible. Ebola is spreading in West Africa. I’m sure I’m missing something.

Happily there hasn’t been a mass shooting in the U.S. for a month or so, but we’re all always holding our breath. CNN will let us know as soon as it happens, and there I’ll be, on the treadmill, panting and sweating, powerless and sad.

There’s a fine balance between staying informed and staying sane, but there’s also a deluge of real-time information. Facebook used to be a kind of respite. I hid all the stories that bummed me out because I realized I didn’t have the emotional fortitude to handle a constant stream of problems that I have no control over.

But then Facebook added its Trending Events section, and now when I log in to do client work or to check my own profile, there it is. Murders, mean-spirited celebrity gossip, assaults, racism, war, disease. How are my friends doing today? Did my awesome friend Dan from high school post any more photos of his weird baby snakes? Did everyone else see that stunning double rainbow last night? It was amazing!

Oh, also, 1,600 people died in Syria yesterday.

There’s a war in Tripoli.

More girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram.

Southern California is turning to dust.

How do we stay informed without becoming more and more hopeless? How does this constant assault of information inspire action rather than apathy and feelings of nihilism?

I can give as much as I have, but it’s not going to stop the honeybee population from dying. It’s not going to solve the Israel / Palestine crisis.

So what helps, then? If we really are powerless, what can ease the burden of world trauma? For me the answer is poetry. Poetry makes me better. 

When the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened at the end of 2012 someone on Facebook posted this poem, by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski:

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

The everyday tragedies, which are just a reality of living, have inspired some of the most powerful art. We can sink into despair, or we can use our despair to build something beautiful. While Facebook makes me crazy with its Trending Events section, I may have never learned about poet Adam Zagajewski without it.

My friend Brigid posted a portion of a Mary Oliver poem to Facebook this week, and as I read it and re-read it, I felt my heart rate literally slowing down, felt my breathing deepen, felt my shoulders relax. In her poem, Oliver asks us to notice the sun. To remember the pleasure and passion inherent in something as simple as watching the sun rise.

There will always be tragedies. We will often be powerless to stop them or to help when they do happen. We can support organizations who do good, but we cannot obsess about how terrible things are and expect to stay remotely sane.

We can take a moment to create something out of tragedy. We can take a moment to watch the sun rise above the mutilated world, and we can crawl out of our despair long enough to make beauty out of it.


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