Thursday, September 16, 2010

Nattering Nabobs of Negativity

Having spent the last year-and-a-half living in a monastery in a very remote corner of Canada, I often feel somewhat isolated and removed from events unfolding in the world outside. I'm online a lot more than you might think a monk would be, but most days, I don't look at the news. And each time I do, I'm reminded of why. What passes for "the news" in most media today is an endless wave of fear- and worry-inducing reports of tragedy, scandal, warfare, catastrophe, threats, discord, disease, terror, death, ruin, and danger.

I can't escape the feeling of guilt that comes from being largely disengaged from the news -- as if I'm willfully turning a blind eye to something that needs to be looked at, scoffing my responsibility. And yet I also cannot deny the reality that largely avoiding the news has made me a happier person.

When I do look at the news these days, I get the feeling that I picked a very interesting time to go spend two years living in a monastery in Canada. Things back home in America aren't looking so good. From oil rigs exploding and poisoning the seas to Sarah Palin's Tea Party exploding and poisoning the political seas, it looks more and more like the world I once knew is going to hell in a handbasket.

Perhaps this only proves the old saying that "Ignorance is bliss," but I think it proves something more than that. I'm not completely ignorant about what's going on in the world outside -- I pick up enough of it by osmosis, without seeking it out. I followed the Gulf oil spill story like a hawk. Within two hours, I (and everyone else in the monastery, and probably on the planet) was aware that Michael Jackson had died. And yet by turning down the volume on my media exposure, I have largely silenced the chorus of what Spiro Agnew called the "nattering nabobs of negativity." This has given me more breathing space in my own mind, and more ability to see how easily hooked and hypnotized I am by the trance of negativity and pessimism that dominates mainstream media today.

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Is the world really going to hell in a handbasket, or is that just the way the media makes it look? Surely everyone realizes that newspapers and TV news programs and other media boost their ratings (and their advertising revenues) by painting a dire picture and dramatizing the news to lure more eyeballs. People want to know what they should be afraid of. This fits with what neuropsychologists refer to as the human brain's built-in "negativity bias." We have evolved to pay much more attention to danger and discomfort than to more positive circumstances (because it's more important, for survival purposes, to dodge a stick than it is to find a carrot). That's part of the reason why we dominate life on earth. As a species, we excel at manipulating our environment, and ourselves, to eliminate unpleasant circumstances and maximize our own comfort. In fact, we are so hell-bent on ensuring our own comfort that we are in the process of not only dominating but also destroying much of life on earth. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

On a more personal level, too, the past year-and-a-half has brought what seems like an unusual degree of tragedy and suffering. Just in my own circle of friends and acquaintances back in the outside world, it is heart-breaking to stand back and look at what has been going on. Three friends have died of drug overdoses, one of them probably a suicide and another under extremely ignominious circumstances that made his death into tabloid news. Another very sweet friend died with his throat slashed by his boyfriend. One friend went in for surgery and received irreversible brain damage from the anaesthesia. Another recently began to suffer psychotic episodes and has been in and out of institutions. In the most high-profile episode, one of my acquaintances went berserk in his role as a flight attendant and cursed out the passengers over the intercom before grabbing two beers and fleeing the plane via the inflatable emergency slide. (In true Andy Warhol fashion, he immediately became world-famous and acquired 200,000 fans on Facebook, and is now in discussions for his own talk show and perhaps a Hollywood movie.)

It's hard to take these things in without getting the sense that there is a wildfire raging through people's lives, and the fire has come a little bit closer to me now. Or has this fire always been raging close by, and I just never noticed? Did I have to come up here to this isolated, little monastery at the end of the continent to wake up and realize how much suffering is going on in people's lives back home?

These personal tragedies pull at my heart more acutely than what I see in the news, because they hit closer to home. But my circumstances require me to relate to both of them in pretty much the same way. There's not much I can do to make the Tea Party disappear, or to dispel the horror of BP's Gulf oil spill. And there's not much I can do for my friends, from up here, other than send them an email to say I'm thinking of them -- and to keep practicing so that, hopefully, when I return to their world I'll be better equipped to help.

It is an interesting practice, and a fine line to walk: taking in the suffering of others, and the relentless negativity and fear-mongering of the media, and extending a heart of compassion -- without getting totally swept away. Maybe this curious situation of being physically removed from it all -- relating to the dramas and the tragedies in a somewhat calmer way, from a distance -- is exactly how I need to train right now.

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