Confronting Trauma in the newsfeed

[Warning: article contains some graphic wording and links that may be triggers]

It’s night time; I’m snuggled in my bed, the bright blue glare of my device the only light in the room. I have told myself time and again- no phones or laptops in bed, no dark TV shows right before rest… wind down girl. I work on a computer all day long. I take in disturbing stories and images all the time. We all do, and many live them. And yet…there I was.  

And that’s when I saw it. This beautiful, heart-broken man in the war-torn streets of Aleppo with his dead and dust-covered baby in his arms. My own heart broke apart and I sobbed for a long while, mostly in my husband’s loving arms. The only break in my sobbing was a couple minutes when I picked up my peacefully sleeping son and held him … trying not to awaken and frighten him with the sadness of this world. And I felt embarrassed- embarrassed that this was my great, white, middle-class American with an iPhone fear in that moment- that my son doesn’t wake up afraid by seeing his parent so afraid.

But then again, maybe that’s a pretty valid fear. Because I suddenly remembered something that I keep forgetting: that shutting down, unplugging- is not so much important because of the screen’s light or the depressing vibe that scrolling so often gives us. It’s because of the content itself. It’s about the ambiguity of what we will see- other than being pretty confident that it will be overwhelmingly negative, and the inability of the human heart to take in that much sadness every day without ill-affect. 

We have a situation now-a-days where we have unprecedented access to media combined with a social contract or narrative that puts Fear above all else. 

I cannot imagine what so many are enduring, and I am glad to have seen the photo/keep informed. There is immense trauma in the world. I am very embarrassed to admit that I have gotten a little loose about the word “traumatic” in recent years (no, a daycare feeding my son solids before I ever did was not traumatic. Nor is Portland traffic, or even a horrific stomach flu). But what of my experience that night? Was it direct trauma, like the man in the photograph was experiencing, like thousands living in warzones and refugee camps and many other oppressive circumstances? Absolutely not. But, I want to say- it was and continues today to be a kind of secondary trauma. And I think this is critical to name, because we are all experiencing it pretty much daily.

I want to be able to know and understand very difficult situations in the world. But through what lense? How do we stay truly informed and be helpful without drowning?

The photo I saw that night (it appeared on the cover of the New York Times on September 28th) was the third of three deeply disturbing images of children that I had seen recently in my Facebook news feed. This is to say nothing of the relentlessly maniacal, hateful, and divisive election coverage clogging our news feeds of late- a deeply disproportionate amount of which is wasted on the fear-mongering insanity of he who shall not be named

I have truly had to pause, step back, and ask myself two questions. First, what affects (cognitive, behavioral, spiritual) are a constant barrage of fear, violence, and hatred having on us and our ability to affect positive change? And second, what are we going to do about it? Because that night was a breaking point. Maybe some of you are much better at unplugging or managing what you see, but I realize that I need a more conscientious path forward, as well as to allow for regular media detoxification coupled with more active participation. 

Coincidentally, after beginning work on this article, Rolling Stone published a feature story on fear in the media- it is well worth a read. Of course, it is crucial to search-out an education on injustice in the world, current global events, politics, as well as to contemplate one’s place in it all.

But ironically, too much un-directed, random exposure to the overwhelming perception that all is dark in the world actually lessens our ability to respond to what truly is dark. It lessens our cognitive ability to cope, open our hearts, and rouse ourselves into true awareness and meaningful action.

From Vice Magazine's photo essay on September protests in London advocating for opening UK to more refugees.

From Vice Magazine's photo essay on September protests in London advocating for opening UK to more refugees.

The article explores just this phenomenon, delving deeply into the sociological, neurological and biological effects of what has become the (dark news) norm – and it’s not only big trouble, it’s Big Business. As the article states,

“For mass media, insurance companies, Big Pharma, advocacy groups, lawyers, politicians and so many more, your fear is worth billions. And fortunately for them, your fear is also very easy to manipulate.”

There is privilege inherent here in what I am saying. There is literally nowhere to go, no turning off from the loss that beautiful man is experiencing at this very moment, that millions of children are experiencing. Does my suffering, does me taking their sadness into my body in such a profound way really help my brothers and sisters and children throughout the world? Perhaps sometimes it does. Does my anger? Sometimes. 

But when we deny or neglect our own well-being; do we somehow deny that man his own well-being, however horrific his loss in this moment? By choking out hope in our hearts, do we not also rob all of these beautiful kids of it, who desperately need a better world?

It seems deeply important to me- indeed I owe it to that man- to know when to stop and unplug, reflect, and find a way to take action. To think critically, and to know when to say “enough” before I become depressive, hateful, incensed, confused to the point of complete inaction.

Worse, many are driven to despicable actions encouraged and born of the dark narrative they are consuming.  We won’t actually be able to do the important work that we are called to do to if we are not vigilant. It’s crucial that we start now- because part of the work for many of us is raising sane and peaceful kids, ones who are watching us interact with media every day.

Some suggest curating your newsfeeds more carefully. But there is no curating. The term curate has become so popular that it has surpassed buzzword status to the point of losing all real meaning. And that is incredibly ironic when you think about it, because here we are with an unprecedented ability to choose from an infinite pool of media and yet it is dauntingly impervious to curation.

Interestingly, the origin of the word “curate” is “spiritual guide” and later came to mean “one responsible for the care of souls.” And maybe that is where the possibility of being so connected, all the time, in real time to events across the globe, lies. As a friend aptly posted; “Things are not getting worse. They are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” It’s a new experience in the history of humanity, with enormous potential to inspire billions to become more responsible for the “care of souls,” including our own. 

At the same time, as the Rolling Stone article also points out,

“Around the globe, household wealth, longevity and education are on the rise, while violent crime and extreme poverty are down. In the U.S., life expectancy is higher than ever, our air is the cleanest it's been in a decade, and despite a slight uptick last year, violent crime has been trending down since 1991. As reported in The Atlantic, 2015 was "the best year in history for the average human being."

So we clearly need to balance awareness of what’s going wrong with awareness of what’s going right! Even climate change is something that we can choose to make the most important thing and solve it, or we can get lost in the fear of it and do nothing. The need to question how we both consume and share (especially mainstream) media is paramount. Unchecked, anxiety (masquerading as valid fear) has a strong tendency to shut down our most compassionate and capable selves. It’s inherently divisive, leading to stereotyping, intolerance, aggression, fundamentalist ideology. But there is so much good happening.

Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris Pioneers Way to Treat Stress in Children. Read More at goodblacknews.org

Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris Pioneers Way to Treat Stress in Children. Read More at goodblacknews.org

We must teach ourselves, and our children, how to manage and monitor media consumption as well as how to confront the corresponding narratives we are running in our minds. When we do, we may well find them to be alarmingly and unnecessarily negative, fear-based, and anxiety-ridden.

This is not about trying to sugar-coat the real problems of inequity, brutality, and divisiveness in our world. It’s about taking a solutionistic approach, a humanistic approach… It’s about believing a new story: that we live in the smartest, most collaborative and diverse global community in the history of mankind, and we are, as a global people, overwhelmingly intent on positive change. 

I also think we have to confront our grief head-on, and recognize the affect the current media tone has on our emotional and psychological states. These images truly rocked me- not for their shock value, but because of the desperate stories they represent. But I have had to find the good, the redemptive, and I’ve been moved to honor this man by remembering the wonder and happiness and hope that is also a part of his life. To not let he, himself, be a tragedy.

I saw a post by an African-American woman the other day, of beautiful photos of black children being born into their loving parents’ arms. And the caption was, to paraphrase; “I refuse to continue to force myself to look at images and videos of black men being killed and arrested and abused. That is not our whole story.”

Indeed it is not. There may never be “not seeing” in the digital age, and yet there’s also a lot of mindless looking. I am determined to ask myself on a regular basis- 

How am I coping with traumatic, negative, and terrifying imagery? Am I being activated or am I shutting down? Where is the good in this story? Or do I just need to pause and grieve? What am I assuming? What am I looking for right now, or am I just bored or addicted or avoiding something? What parts of my day or week can I commit to being totally unplugged? 

Perhaps most importantly, I want to always return to Bombilore's organizing principle by asking myself: How can I help?

Confronting trauma in the newsfeed- and in real life- will look different for each of us. But it is ultimately together that we will decide how to use powerful access to media. Together, we can grieve across time and space while allowing as much well-being as possible to stabilize ourselves and our world. Together, we can transform the distorted, fear-based, screaming media into a much more uplifting and life-sustaining one. And together, we are (!!!!!) changing the world for the better. So go forth, and don’t believe the hype.

*All that said...The Syrian proxy war (this link explains a lot), resulting in an unprecedented refugee crisis and the continued slaughter of the Syrian people, is one of the most profound and troubling happenings in modern history. It is particularly devastating in Aleppo at this time, following the failure of a cease-fire, where 100,000 of the estimated 250,000 residents trapped there are children. Here are some reputable charities on the ground & practical things you can do:

9 Ways You Can Help the Syrian Refugees NOW

American Relief Coalition for Syria

International Rescue Committee

American Refugee Committee

header photo: Photo: UNRWA/AP