Coping with global catastrophe without narcissism
What do you do when the news is full of depressing, devastating horrors like Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq and West Africa? How do you deal with such a steady stream of awful intrusions on your life?
Sounds like a selfish question, doesn’t it? We’re not the ones who are suffering.
But it’s a tricky one when we’re faced with situations in which we’re quite powerless. You can apparently email the Kremlin through its website, but I’m not too comfortable making an empty gesture that might also turn over my identity to some Russian hackers. I’ll happily give to relief efforts as they turn up.
Then what? Should we feel guilty that we’re worried about school and soccer teams while thousands of families are worried about survival in the face of utter brutality? Do we still have the right to worry about our own daily business, much less putter around playing games on our phones, while so many are reduced to the most basic human needs of food, water and medical care?
What do you do?
Some people turn to prayer. I still consider myself a Christian, but I don’t see prayer as anything but a meditation tool. I can’t believe in an interventionist God who makes a college athlete’s ACL surgery go smoothly but leaves thousands to die of thirst on an Iraqi mountaintop. My faith tells me their burdens will be eased in heaven, but that should happen regardless of how many words I address to God on the topic.
Some people turn to history and other means of remembering that these global flare-ups aren’t unusual. Now is a good time to do this — it’s the 100th anniversary of World War I, a conflict so cruel and vicious that we can hardly put it on the same scale as today’s troubles. Every once in a while, we hear statistics that war, disease and violence are actually on the downswing these days. One branch of my family has a graveyard in which a couple of kids who never made it to age 10 are buried alongside their parents, who had to watch their beloved children die of smallpox or whatever now-preventable strain of illness had passed through town that summer.
Remembering that violence and illness are constant in our history is both comforting and disturbing.. It’s disturbing in the sense that all of the things we’re reading about now are things that happen somewhere in the world every day. It could be a partial genocide somewhere in Africa, daily illnesses in unclean parts of Asia, or simply the daily toll of auto accidents and homicides throughout the world. That’s not a happy thought.
It’s comforting in the sense that we deal with all of these things every day, many times far worse than we’re seeing today, and life goes on.
One of my favorite TV miniseries is Simon Schama’s A History of Britain. I’ve always loved Britain’s creativity, intellectualism and orderliness — three sure traits of a great civilization. Then you watch Schama’s history and see how much Britain suffered — horribly violent and negligent rulers, terrible plagues, devastating fires, attacks from overseas, and everything else imaginable. There’s a reason Marsellus Wallace warns he’s about to get medieval on someone’s ass.
Somehow, Britain persevered. It even thrived, producing great works of literature and science. Today, it’s a peaceful and prosperous land — not without its problems, but with so much to offer its residents and the rest of the world.
So perhaps the lesson is that those of us who have the good fortune to live in peaceful places must do exactly that. Live. Take advantage of what you have.
"Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it," Gandhi said.
And so for the last hour, I’ve done this. (And a few stray things at home.) Insignificant? Perhaps. But it’s been good therapy for me, helping me come to terms with swirling thoughts in my head. If it helps one more person, great.
And now, back to my life of relative ease. I haven’t solved anything, but I know now what I must do. As Rush said in its Voltaire-inspired The Garden, we all have,”in the fullness of time, a garden to nurture and protect.”
(But I’ll leave the weeding for another day.)