A friend wanted to talk to me about the dire state of American politics, specifically the terrible foreboding he had about the man who will be our next president.
“Oh, that’s right,” my friend, Joe (not his real name), said. “You’re not following the news.”
“If you want to talk to me,” I said, “I don’t mind hearing the important stuff second-hand. But for now, I’ve chosen to avoid reading it myself.”
“I’m very, very scared and worried,” Joe said. “You need to read the news.”
I sighed. “What’s the use of sitting around wringing my hands and feeling scared and worried? After Election Day I stopped reading the news and instead have read lots of books, done a lot of writing, and felt calmer and happier.”
“But your country needs you now!” Joe said. “You’re intelligent and a great communicator. You’re going to sit around reading novels while the country falls apart?”
Although he didn’t intend it, I felt hurt by his words. Was he right?
I’ve always believed I have a responsibility to take action when I see people treating others unjustly. I believe we all have that responsibility. I’d thought long and hard before making my decision to take a vacation from national, international, political, and violent news.
“I’m not just reading novels,” I said defensively. “I’m reading biographies of historical figures and books on Darwin, neuroscience, 19th century English history, botany, and existentialism.”
Why did I need to defend my choice? By mentioning only my non-fiction reading, I betrayed my beloved novels, the books that make life worth living. I’ve learned more about people and the world from Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Jane Austen, than I’ve ever learned from reading the newspaper.
I told my friend, “When there’s an action I can take to help my country, I’ll take it. For now, I’m counting on friends, family, and activist organizations to tell me when I can take part in a protest, write a letter to my congressperson, sign a petition, make a phone call, or donate to a cause. If there’s no action I feel willing to take, then I refuse to discourage myself by reading the horror stories in the news.
Taking in a diet of upsetting news drains many people of their energy and will to act. They sink into despair and say, “There’s nothing I can do.”
That’s why I decided to protect myself from getting demoralized like that.
So what should we give for our country when we think it’s going in a dangerous direction?
I recently read Hitler: Ascent, 1889 – 1939, by Volker Ullrich. This gripping new biography about the evil tyrant is a horrifying and illuminating page-turner. (When I checked the thesaurus to find another word for tyrant, Hitler was in the list of synonyms.)
I know what happens when people don’t stand up against injustice, discrimination, and the spreading of vicious lies.
My grandfather was a boy of 12 when he fled tsarist Russia and the pogroms. He came from a little village called Kryzhopol, located in what is now the Ukraine. His birthplace was very much like Anatevka, the town in Fiddler on the Roof, from the stories by Sholem Aleichem.
When my grandpa caught his first sight of the Statue of Liberty and disembarked on Ellis Island around the year 1909, he told me he dropped to his knees and kissed the ground. As a child, I believed he really did.
He loved the promise of the United States: public education, human rights for everyone, religious freedom, and economic opportunity. He learned excellent English (to add to his Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Ukrainian, and German.) He read the news and felt voting was a sacred act.
I made my current choice to protect myself from negative, soul crushing news when I realized how dispirited I was feeling. The news was bad for my health.
It’s important to be sensitive to the needs of others. Not everyone can improve the world through activism, but they may improve lives in their quiet, intelligent, compassionate ways. Don’t make them feel they’re failing at being good citizens.
I will continue my self-education through all kinds of books, and travel, and meeting new people. I hope I can touch the lives of others with my writing, my psychotherapy practice, and by being kind.
I will also take quiet action, participate in peaceful marches, and make my voice heard by the leaders in my country so that they promote and protect what I believe is right.
Most important, I will respect the sensitivities and choices of others.
How do you balance the need to keep informed with the need to protect yourself from unnecessary anguish?