If the News Is Too Much…

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I’m tired and my back really hurts. Something about discs, and not the fun kind, the kind I like to chase. I can’t do much chasing right now.

The world news is awful. Overwhelmingly, horrifically bad.

Meanwhile, I haven’t written on my blog for weeks or months, because I’m trying to finish a book on grief and the death of a child. I have very little bandwidth for anything else. That was before my back went out.

But today I’m writing because I have thoughts that I need to share and as always, I hope that they help a little.

The government in Afghanistan is crumbling. The Taliban is taking over, again. That’s a nightmare for so many people.

Blaming someone, anyone, does not help anyone at all. I’m not defending by saying that–Trump made a deal with the Taliban, Biden ordered a hurried evacuation, we can argue fault ad nauseum. I’m making a statement of fact. The Afghani infants, school children, women, and soldiers are not helped in any way whatsoever by our debate over who screwed up.

Haiti just had another catastrophic earthquake. 7.2. I feel sick to my stomach looking at those pictures. I want to look away. I feel horrible about that.

I just read that one in five ICU’s in the United States are at 95% capacity right now. Ask someone who works in an ICU what that means. My friend, who has kept me informed on the COVID-19 crisis first-hand, just transferred out of the ICU after fifteen years. She reached her threshold. I’m glad she made this decision. Many healthcare workers are making similar choices. It’s unbelievable that we’re in a nationwide health crisis and still debating whether we’re in a nationwide health crisis! That, in itself, is exhausting. I can’t even fathom how our EMTs, nurses, doctors, and other hospital workers bear that while providing care to the people who are dying every day.

So here’s what I’ve got. I read this quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber. She’s great. If you don’t like her…find someone you like. Keep reading my stuff. But do hear this:

May be an image of text that says 'ljust do not think our psyches were developed to hold, fee and respond to everything coming at them right now; every tragedy, injustice, sorrow and natural disaster happening to every human across the entire planet, in real time every minute of every day. The human heart and spirit were developed to be able to hold, feel and respond to any tragedy, injustice, sorrow or natural disaster that was happening IN OUR VILLAGE.'

None of us really know how to live well in this global community that is hyper-connected yet paradoxically disconnected. I could spend the next twenty-four hours reading about heart-fracturing tragedies from all over the world…of people whom I don’t know, will never meet, and then I could continue on my way without doing a thing. I will not have made these people part of my village.

Is our world worse than at previous times in history? Arguably. But for certain we know more about how bad it is.

I’ll refer to the one area of experience I have in this: Many people felt bad when I told them about those who were suffering in Nicaragua. But the Nicaraguans were still suffering. The feeling bad, in itself, did nothing.

Let’s assume Pastora Nadia is right. Let’s assume you are upset about things I’ve mentioned and many more things I haven’t. Here’s what you do.

Something.

Do something. Do something right now. As soon as you can. Something. Give. Pray. Pray and give. Volunteer. Find an organization that is helping and help them.

Then–here’s the hard part–let go.

I want to be clear here: I assume that you already are doing good in the world–and immediately think to yourself, “Yeah, but not enough”–and the reason all this news hurts so much is people should do something. That’s the right response when we hear that people are suffering. Not to justify why “it isn’t my problem” or rationalize that they caused it themselves. When we see the man lying and bleeding in the ditch, crossing to the other side and passing by is not the loving response, whatever explanation we might provide for ourselves as we do so.

Herein lies the problem: Jesus told that parable about walking past someone thirty feet away. The priest and Levite could see the man bleed. Hear his groans. We see and hear people suffering all over the world. They aren’t thirty feet away. Our village is overwhelming.

A loving and volunteer-y friend just wrote me, “I know what’s happening there is horrible and my problems are so much smaller in comparison, but I just don’t have the emotional resources to handle everything right now, even what’s going on for me. But then I feel terrible for thinking that.”

So let me go over this again: feeling bad for other people’s suffering is good, human, and compassionate, but does not change their situation. Feeling guilty that you’re overwhelmed with your (real but smaller) problems when they have (life-threatening) bigger problems is sane and shows you grasp the disproportionate suffering others experience. But that guilt doesn’t help them. Or you.

If you’ve never seen poverty at that level, I’ll tell you it’s crazy to imagine that “it’s the same everywhere;” it isn’t. But adding guilt to your problems because others have worse problems doesn’t help them. It doesn’t. And in the end, if we care about their suffering, doing what we can to help is the point. Not what we wish we could. Not what we might, if we weren’t raising kids or pouring our hearts into others already. What we can now, as we are.* The rest is wasted effort, to put it couthly.

If you need to do something, do something. Something small, Anything.

Also, if you need to stop taking in too much bad news, do it. The question Kim and I asked each other this morning is: how much do we need to know to be “informed” and when is it wrong to shut it out?

Let me ask it in the reverse: are we obligated to know about everyone’s suffering? The lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” If everyone is my neighbor, am I required to know all the horrors every single one of them suffers? Am I somehow less loving if I decide I can’t handle knowing about the tragedy Afghanistan or Sudan or Mauritania or Canada or Australia…or the United States?

I think we’re measuring our answer to this question by the standard of “A loving person would care.” So let’s try it this way: there are many people suffering horribly in your local hospital. You don’t know all their stories. If you did, you would feel like vomiting. Annalise went to the ER a month ago. We were next to–separated by a curtain from–a man in severe distress who was belligerent, verbally abusive to his wife (threatening violence, among other things), and caused hospital security to come racing over multiple times in the hours we were five feet away with that nice fabric between us. I prayed for her a lot that day. I don’t know what he had, but he was in bad shape, and I prayed for him, too–for healing and repentance.

I heard this–overheard this, I wasn’t there for them–and therefore I responded in the best way I could. I wanted to talk to hospital personnel to make sure someone else had heard his threats against her. But then they released Annalise and she was more than ready to go, so we went and I said one more prayer.

Now imagine you’re responsible to go to your local hospital and visit each person and take on what they’re going through. Too much, right? It’s not overwhelming you right now because you don’t know. That’s the only reason.

“But Mike, it feels wrong just to ignore what’s happening in Afghanistan.” I’m not saying ignore it; I’m asking you to be honest with yourself about how you can help versus how feeling bad costs you but does nothing for them.

Another wonderful and compassionate friend, when asked what he does to deal with his anxiety regarding world problems, responded, “Doomscrolling,** mainly. But prayer and work help.” I told him that I, too, find doomscrolling very effective…for increasing anxiety. Seriously, this compulsive urge to keep reading more and more bad news when we’re already overwhelmed is not only counter-productive for ourselves, I’d argue it reduces our ability to respond and help in any practical ways. It impairs our ability to care for and love those in our sphere. Yes, I consider prayer a practical way to help. (No, i’m not looking to debate that. Did I mention my back pain?)

I’m fully aware that I’m stating the obvious. As my dad loved to say, “Mike, you have a firm grasp on the obvious.” But this isn’t one of those complex, how-can-we-wrap-our-heads-around-it concepts. Obviously, we’re ovewhelmed. It’s an “even-if-we-know-this, we-still-aren’t-making-healthy-changes” issue. I know that “throwing money at a problem” isn’t a complete solution, but even acknowledging that for a moment, giving twenty bucks does more than feeling anxious for two hours. Giving twenty bucks to an organization or person making a difference for those suffering makes more difference than feeling anxious for two hundred hours. Back to my dad again, “Do you get it or do you want me to keep going?”***

I think Pastora Nadia is 100% correct and I, for one, have not yet worked through the implications. We have blithe and accurate-within-limits statements like, “Think globally, act locally.” Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “love one another as I have loved you.” None of that love is embodied in doomscrolling. If you feel like it’s too much, it’s too much, and that doesn’t make you a bad person. Because knowing all of it and taking in every ounce of it does not make you a loving person. Loving others makes you a loving person. People need your love and you need to love them. To the degree that overexposure to tragic news impairs that, you are being unloving to yourself. And to them.

So if you need to turn it off, turn it off. Look away. Put your phone down. Pray for more capacity to love. Love the people God has given you to love.

If you need to respond, remember:

Actions (not a comprehensive list)

  • Vote
  • Write or call your elected representative
  • Get involved in your local school board election (relevant to my situation currently)
  • Pray
  • Give
  • Research about organizations already involved
  • Promote these organizations
  • Volunteer for these organizations
  • Volunteer for local organizations
  • Reach out directly to people who are struggling and need help
  • Spend time with your kids
  • Help someone else with their kids
  • PRAY
  • (fill in your own)

Not Actions (also not a comprehensive list)

  • Arguing on Facebook and Twitter
  • Criticizing people who can’t hear you about what they’ve done wrong
  • Reading more articles/watching more videos without acting on them
  • Worrying****
  • (fill in your own)

I don’t expect that I taught you anything new here, but if I’ve given you permission to lighten up on yourself and/or freed or encouraged you to act in any way, I’m pleased. We try to live faithfully in an impossible situation, in a world overwhelmed with need. We have to choose what our village is–and it may be the children in Afghanistan first and foremost–and love them.

When we choose, when we’ve done what we can do, we have to let go and trust God. I don’t mean, “Trust that God will fix everything else.” I mean trust God that we have given and loved and done what we can (not “all” or “the best,” you perfectionists) and that this feeble faithfulness to our village is enough.

Mostly, I’m preaching to myself like the extrovert I am, but I do pray it helps you, as well. Also, this is the first time in thirteen days I’ve been able to sit in my chair and type, so that’s worth celebrating.

Two concluding thoughts, from Nadia Bolz-Weber and Brene Brown

So I try and remember, 1. We are still living through a global pandemic and that means the baseline of anxiety and grief is higher than ever and shared by everyone. 2. The world is on fire literally and metaphorically. But 3. I only have so much water in my bucket to help with the fires. The more exposure I have to the fires I have NO WATER to fight, the more likely I am to get so burned, and inhale so much smoke that I cannot help anymore with the fires close enough to fight once my bucket is full again. 

“What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.” Brene Brown

*Of course we might decide/feel called to shift our priorities to open up resources to pour into something different. It happens. We moved to Nicaragua. But not guilt for “I could (or should) make changes to do more.” That’s just the same loop.

**”Doomscrolling and doomsurfing are new terms referring to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing. Many people are finding themselves reading continuously bad news about COVID-19 without the ability to stop or step back.” Merriam-Webster online.

***Yeah, he’d always keep going.

****I’m not suggesting that an anxiety disorder is “fixed” by just not worrying. I’m saying anxiety in any form is likely exacerbated by overconsumption of bad/troubling news with no action for outlet.

2 thoughts on “If the News Is Too Much…

  1. Mitchell Yoder

    ┬┐Que tal, hermano? This reminds me of Neil Postman’s Information-Action Ratio. You can look it up if you’d like, but just this morning I was talking with a colleague about discerning the appropriate volume of news consumption so that concept has been on my mind.

    For me, I have framed your question as “Does this information help me love my neighbor better?” And that does not mean only the “abstract” neighbor* on the other end of the news feed, but also (and, I believe, more importantly) the neighbor who is actually in my city. The one I might interact with, given a little bit of effort on my part.

    I’d also extend this conversation to the gifting of Christ’s church. Not everyone has God’s anointing to address the issues that make national news, but we all have God’s anointing to address some issue that falls within our skillset and gifting. I can teach elementary students and make music that glorifies the Lord our God, but I cannot evacuate Afghans in danger of oppressive rule, you know? Nevertheless, there are a few more things that I could add to the “can” list, if I seek His will.

    Keep preaching. Keep writing. I’m looking forward to reading your words.

    *I know that my “abstract” neighbor in this example is someone made in the image of God. IMAGO DEI all the way. But this neighbor is abstract to me because we will not cross paths. (Am I allowed to use some Mike footnotes in my comment? Well, I’ve done it, regardless.)

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