When the news feels apocalyptic. Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

Because some days are worse than others, and you don’t have to go it alone.

We’re certainly not the first humans to suffer the news-cycle blues: in “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the Beatles gave us the plaintive pop-song formulation, “I heard the news today, oh boy….” Frederick Douglass, in his first autobiography (1845), portrays the mixed blessing of learning about his own enslavement:

I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out.

Although Douglass credits learning to read with starting him down the path of obtaining his own freedom, he acknowledges that the view of the world that becomes available to him through reading also causes him tremendous suffering, grief, and despair. A century earlier, the poet Thomas Gray wrote, in his “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” lines that are now so frequently quoted that almost no one knows where they came from:

where ignorance is bliss,
Tis folly to be wise.

In fairness, the poem, like Douglass’ autobiography, isn’t specifically about reading the news; rather, the speaker gazes at children playing, remembers his own youth, and concludes that it’s better for children to remain unaware of the awfulness that is in store for them as they age than to know that, as Hobbes famously put it, life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes, as his frequently quoted words suggest, was no stranger to pessimism regarding the human condition. The piece of his great work, Leviathan (1651), from which this short quotation comes is about humans in their natural state, before they have constructed a government:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

In the details of this list, I hear frightening echoes of the current moment, in which (to pick a fairly random sample) Alaska’s state university system is under threat of being dismantled, immigrants are being held in conditions that some assert are tantamount to concentration camps, and the president of the United States (so many horrors to choose from) is confirmed to have been ogling women with a convicted sex offender. Nasty and brutish, to be sure.

So goes my thinking on a day when a review of the headlines, delivered to my email bright and early, actually turns my stomach and renders me as exhausted as if I’d lain awake the whole night before, worrying — not that such a thing would do anyone any good. Such news bombards us these days if we’re connected to the virtual world at all, and many of us try to endure the flood of doomsday narratives in the name of remaining responsible. Adult. Engaged citizens. Yet doing so may be counterproductive if we read and watch and read, following the 24/7 news-stream that is now not only available to us but nearly unavoidable and difficult to ignore. There’s a line between being engaged to the end of turning engagement into action and being subsumed in a numbing tide of disaster. Clearly, it would be better for our democracy — that is, it is crucial to our democracy — that we all remain hopeful enough to be able to speak and advocate and vote. But how?

Many have offered solutions.

News-fasts are much-prescribed, and I’m no stranger to them. They do help, but abstaining from one activity leaves a hole in one’s time. While I’m also an advocate of doing absolutely nothing on a regular basis, the reconstruction of hope requires, I believe, occupying oneself with activities that heal or create something.

  • Make bread. Even if you’ve never baked before in your life, even if you don’t think you have time, even if you think that bread is bad for you or too caloric, there are types of bread to suit every diet, and there are methods to suit every level of experience and aptitude and available time. Humans have been making bread for about as long as we’ve been recognizably “human”; to make bread is to connect with something deeply sensual and wholesome and nourishing and alive. One of the best things my mother gave our family was homemade whole-wheat bread, which to me now is like love made material, perfuming the house for hours, sustaining life itself. If you’re feeling beaten down by the state of the world, make some bread. As long as you give yourself license to make it imperfectly, with the understanding that bread in almost any form is not just edible but delicious, you’ll feel better, and so with anyone you share it with. Here’s a place to start if you have neither time nor experience: the NYT’s publication of Jim Lahey’s wonderful no-knead bread. If you need a gluten-free loaf, try King Arthur Flour’s recipe (I can’t vouch for it, as I am a huge fan of gluten myself, but KA is well-respected and I’ve found other recipes to work well).
Sourdough seed-bread. Photo & bread credit: Jennifer Brown.
  • Get yourself a bird-feeder and take some time to get acquainted with the wildlife around you. Some of the most life-affirming moments of each day this spring and early-summer I’ve spent perched in front of the picture-window with a pair of binoculars, watching the fledglings from all the nearby nests learn how to feed themselves and navigate the lush, green world. I’ve watched bluebirds, towhees, wrens, cardinals, cowbirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, and nuthatches as they’ve grown and developed through their awkward, rumple-feathered adolescence, competing with squirrels and raccoons for the prize of suet and sunflower seed. Through all the impingements humans have made on the natural world, it’s still there, still flourishing in spite of us, and, in countless, tiny, precious ways, it’s still beautiful. The birds always make me feel better, as if the world really will continue to exist.
  • Read this poem by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” Or this poem by English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Carrion Comfort.” Or this one, “What the Living Do,” by Marie Howe. These lifelines. These rooms built of words that shelter us, just enough, from the chaos. Read them, and write your own.

It’s how we reach each other, these paths hacked with the power of words into the wilderness of human behavior, and, burden and blessing, they can destroy as well as create. It’s the conundrum of being human, finally, that what harms us can save us, that what depresses us can also fire us into reforming action, that difficulty can inspire as well as discourage.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.