Maybe a year ago I was reading local news online when I saw a headline that I knew I shouldn’t click on. Not if I was interested in feeling good or staying positive for the rest of the day. I knew myself well enough to know that the headline told me everything I needed to know, and that nothing good was going to come of me clicking on the article.
A four year old boy had been murdered by his mother and stepfather. I only read the first two paragraphs before I hit the back button, but it was too late. I had certain images in my head. I had seen a photo of the smiling boy.
I felt…how did I feel? The hair on my arms was standing up. My mouth was dry and my heart was beating more quickly than made sense for someone who’d been sitting in a chair for 30 minutes.
I went upstairs and sat in my chair. Everyone else was asleep. I tried to read and couldn’t. I turned on the TV, then immediately turned it off.
Have you ever been to a funeral, gotten seated, and then thought, “Hmm…maybe I’m going to be all right?” And then suddenly things have gotten away from you and you are wracked with grief?
That happened to me as I sat in that chair. Suddenly I was crying and all I could think of was the picture of the smiling boy, his life ended by the people who were supposed to care for him.
Nobody is more aware than a parent of how helpless and vulnerable a human child is. I don’t know if there’s another organism on earth more dependent on its parents for protection.
I dried up quickly, but unsurprisingly, I couldn’t sleep. The endless loop played on. After tossing and turning for maybe an hour I called a friend.
He had served in the military and had more horror stories than anyone I knew–not that I was ever eager to hear them, or that he was eager to share them.
He listened to everything I had to say. Then he told me a story about one of the worst days of his life.
“How do you get these things out of your head?” I asked when he finished.
He laughed a humorless laugh. “Who says I do?”
“But what’s the alternative? If I take every single tragedy personally I’m going to curl up into a fucking ball and never go out again. But who would benefit from that?”
“Okay, so if getting the things out of your head isn’t the goal, then–”
“It is the goal. I just don’t know if it’s always possible.”
“So what do you do?”
“Whatever my life looks like normally, I try to do those things. As far as my actions go, I try to structure things so an outsider wouldn’t know anything nastier than usual was going through my head.”
“And eventually I feel better. Better actions lead to better thoughts, hopefully. Eventually. I sleep. I get distracted. The things bug me less and less…but that doesn’t mean they’re not in there.”
By the end of the conversation I felt better. But I wondered about my reaction to this specific story–I try to stay informed and educated on what’s happening in the world. I almost certainly saw a headline about some atrocity the day before, and probably the day before that. But nothing that had upset me like this.
Maybe it was just the proximity. It had happened mere miles from where we lived.
Maybe it was just the mood I was in. Maybe it was a full moon. Maybe I had morphed into one of the hyper-sensitive empaths Octavia Butler puts in her novels.
I didn’t know. But I hated the thought that my peace of mind or happiness was contingent on what I could see as putting my head in the sand. That the answer to “How to stay positive” could be “Don’t pay attention to what’s happening.”
I know it’s not that black and white. But it didn’t feel like it.
And, to trot out a cliched phrase, “staying positive in tough times” wasn’t even what I was really after. I just wanted to know why I had reacted the way I had so that I could avoid it next time around, or do something better.
But I had known. I knew I shouldn’t have clicked on the link. I did it anyways.
Why? I didn’t really want to know what had happened. What had happened was obvious from the headline. A boy was dead.
Did I really need to know more? Would informing myself of the details make me more informed in a way that mattered? Would ignoring it and going to Amazon to read some fun one star reviews (yes, one of my more peculiar pastimes), or doing something else for my own pleasure have made light of that kid’s short and tragic life?
These aren’t questions with clear answers to me. Maybe they’re not even the right questions.
Another question that I find more distressing than just about anything else:
How often do you read about something wonderful than happened in the news?
Not often enough.
Have you ever had a similar experience? How do you deal with it? How do you stay informed without becoming cynical or depressed?
Staying grateful for what I have is a good start–but in those moments after reading the story, knowing that I am fortunate would not have made the nauseating sadness and senselessness of it all less real to my guts.
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