Choose your illusion or: how I learned to stop worrying and watch the news.


I stopped watching the news a long time ago. Stopped listening too; even CBC Radio 2, with its half-hour “rape and murder report” and quarter-hour quickie reminders (yep, everything still sucks!) between classical music and tips on wine collection, was too much. I ended the pretense of adulthood that my Globe and Mail subscription provided, even when the media arrogantly claimed that a lack of readership in the nineteen to thirty age range was a sign of youth apathy. Surely it had nothing to do with the pearl clutching and editorializing that was creeping into nearly every news story, delivered by a collection of performance-journalists who appeared to believe whole-heartedly in the coming Armageddon. They even seemed kind of energized by the concept! They still do.

“The Terror Report,” people called CNN. I think CNN even called themselves “The Terror Report,” but sans sarcasm. But this kind of reporting was all over more reputable news sources as well, since it was obviously selling to the masses. Even people who claimed that mainstream news was all bullshit continued to shovel it into their systems with the devotion of a three pack a day smoker. These people also worked themselves up into a froth about the bullshit, as if that was somehow dissipating it, exposing the true state of world issues to them and them alone. This just seemed exhausting, and frankly, misguided. Anger has not traditionally been a very effective path to absolute truth.

After it became clear to me that I was going to have to spend a few years getting my personal issues with anxiety in check, I started therapy, learned how to meditate, changed my diet, started taking vitamins, and stopped watching the news. Only the last choice seemed to alarm friends and family, who genuinely feared that a few years out of the loop might result in the demise of my precious worldliness. A modern worldliness that I felt had contributed to an unwillingness to even leave the house by myself.

For a while, my parents (bless their hearts) tried to help out with my misguided campaign of willful ignorance by filling me in on world events every time I called home. They seemed to double their viewing efforts, and read a lot of books about global economics, global governance and the globe in general. To be fair, some of it sounded really spot-on. John Ralston Saul clearly has his shit together, and Margaret Atwood managed to write a pretty sweet book about economics in between the penning of award-winning poetry and fiction. No biggie.

My mom was particularly big on the situation in Africa, an issue that had seemed impossible to fathom since I had learned that all those earnest ______-Aid concerts I had sung my heart out to in the eighties had been a complete disaster. Now, even throwing money at a problem wasn’t going to help. And how on earth was I qualified to do anything BUT throw money? I’m not interested in world politics. I’m not the slightest bit interested in economics. And even if I was, how many years of education and dedication would be required to qualify as someone who could help? The entirely qualified, utterly rational voices seemed to be hopelessly drowned out in a sea of performance-journalism. A morally outraged Anderson Cooper, screaming at red-faced US Senators, before running off to his photo shoot for People Magazine’s 100 most beautiful people. Shit.

Now, five years after acquiring some stellar tools to deal with the daily onslaught of anxiety that modern life guarantees (Surprise! There is no cure for anxiety. Only dogged daily maintenance) I am tiptoeing back into the loop. To be honest, I still don’t see the benefits of trying to get a handle on everything that is going wrong in the world. But I have made good on my goal to begin slowly incorporating carefully-chosen news sources into my weekly viewing. And to make an effort to learn more about issues in my community, since this is the only philanthropic path that doesn’t induce a feeling of utter helplessness. I choose to read and share stories about peaceful demonstrations, community events and yes, even vigilantism, because I like to hear about people who take action. Even if I don’t agree with their methods. Finally, if I’m going to to follow a world news story, I make an effort to educate myself on the relevant history of that country. Otherwise, trying to follow the current state of global affairs is like trying to trying to solve a math equation without understanding arithmetic.

I just finished a book by Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible. This is a book that absolutely slogs through the miseries of the Congo on its way to becoming Zaire; one of many African countries cursed by its wealth of resources and its lack of imperialist ambition. If this statement sounds hopelessly lacking in nuance, forgive me, I still have very little understanding of what actually happened in Africa, and what is happening there today. Baby steps.

But how is it that I finished Kingsolver’s book with a desire to learn more about African history? If anything, she shone a light on my feelings of global impotence by dragging her characters through their own struggles to effect change. I think the answer is simple really, I needed the cushion of narrative. And not the kind of hysterical narrative provided by these braying idiots on Fox News. By easing in to an understanding of political history through fictional characters, I could lower my personal defenses and actually pay attention. Kingsolver doesn’t pull any punches in this book either, I was constantly bombarded with the endless complexity of globalization, the destructive power of greed, and the inability of the characters to make any difference in the situation around them, despite being utterly immersed in it. Somehow, I still didn’t want to slit my wrists after reading.

I’m not saying that reading a novel makes me an expert on African history. This would be like claiming that watching CSI would make me a forensic scientist, or all those Matlock episodes prepared me for a career in law. But it did spark an interest in me.

I had the same response to A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a darkly comedic story that introduced me to Russian-Ukrainian conflict in a way that left me googling the Holodomor and Ukrainian independence movement for days. I’m still reading about it, in fact. And in my own rudimentary way, I’ve started to work with international history in my own writing.

This is where my perspective has really changed on the need to shake off the ignorance that sustained me through my healing process- I actually do feel like maybe I can contribute positively to change, and perhaps in my own small way, I already have been. I write a lot of stories about mental health and recovery from addiction. I have a personal agenda to help de-stigamatize both of these topics, not by preaching but simply by telling stories of characters who are dealing with these issues. I don’t want these stories to stand out in their radical point of view, but rather to add to a point of view that will one day become so voluminous, it will seem like the norm. My politics may be relatively moderate. I may not be attending the marches, holding the megaphone, or writing the new manifesto. But I am doing something. And in order to contribute at maximum efficacy, I need to be educated. But I need to protect myself, too. Blowing out all my energy cursing the state of the world is going to deplete my precious resources. In the end, the only thing I have control over, is me.

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