27 July 2016
Our Terrible Stories
News comes in one ear and flies out the other, barely pausing to be filtered, to be thought about, to be noticed.
Is this a consequence of the 24-hour news cycle? There must be something to report every minute, even if that something is a story on how someone took offense to an earlier story: news about news.
Or is it a consequence of social media? By the meaning of its very words, we are all reporters—both of our lives (“Look at the pizza I’m eating right now!”) and of the world around us (“Look at my thoughts on the election!”).
Or is it that we live in a more connected era? Snaking deep in the oceans are the cables that carry all this information, like a belt cinching the earth together and squeezing every last bit out of it. Flying high above us are satellites that bounce all this information from one point to another, like a net cast over the earth to hold us all in place as we wriggle through our lives. An earthquake in India is instantly reported in Indiana as the cables and satellites ignite with information, always more information.
Our lives are filled with an ever-increasing stream of information, a trajectory that was set in motion the first time a caveman etched a drawing into the rock. We are made to communicate, to share our stories. We want to know more, be more, do more—and we know that we want more—and that’s what more or less sets us apart from the domesticated dog and the wild tiger.
Every generation has seen its technological advancement, and I sometimes wonder if, when telegrams first came to the masses, people were astounded.
“You mean I, from Chicago, can instantaneously tell my mother in Iowa which train I’ll arrive on so she knows when to come to the station?”
“You mean the New York Times can relay a story to the Los Angeles Times all the way across the county? From Atlantic to Pacific, we can all read the same news?”
It must’ve been astounding, this speed of communication, when they were used to writing letters and waiting—and waiting—for replies. (But let’s mourn just a small moment for the lost art of letter writing. The crisp paper! The formal questions and loopy handwriting! The charming sign-offs—“Always your most affectionate friend!” The proof that someone cared and that someone thought of you when that letter was delivered!)
In those early days of telegrams, it must’ve felt like the world was starting to spin faster and rush at humanity from all corners as trains picked up speed, ocean liners picked up speed—and then even saying hello picked up speed.
Now, not so many years later in the grand scheme of that little thing called history, we are not astounded by the speed of communication.
We are tired.
We are overloaded.
We are—it’s like when there’s a certain path you walk every day. You figured out that by cutting across the lawn here, you can save a few key seconds, so day after day, you cut across. A new path is worn down, and you forget that an old path ever existed. You trudge along, barely taking note of where you are, because you’re so used to where you’re going.
We are like that: we are in this time where everything new immediately feels old, and we barely notice. We keep moving forward as this news stream flies at us.
ISIS. (ISIL? DAESH?)
Black lives matter. All lives matter.
Avoid sugar to live longer. Avoid fat to live longer. No, eat fat, but only the good kind.
Killer cops. Cop killers.
Hillary’s a liar. Trump’s a demagogue. Bernie’s a sell-out.
Who is Taylor Swift dating?
Munich shooting. Orlando shooting. South Side shooting. Shooting. Shooting. Shooting.
110 dead in a suicide bombing in Syria.
Here’s a new cat video. Cats with cucumbers! Cats with lemons!
Russia has hacked us. China has hacked us. North Korea has hacked us.
The media is in the pocket of the politicians. The politicians are in the pocket of the corporations. That is a very large pocket.
On and on the news cycle goes, and I feel this urge rise up within me—like the urge to scream in a very quiet place. You know you shouldn’t do it, but you sense in a primal way that it would be so very satisfying. From deep inside as I listen to the news, the urge to bury my head in the proverbial sand rises.
I want to binge watch Friday Night Lights, where there’s anger and tension but also football and passion and Connie Britton’s enviable hair.
I want to listen to nothing but the Broadway cast recording of She Loves Me with its songs about vanilla ice cream and selling perfume and a surprising trip to the library. It is quotidian joy with Laura Benanti's coloratura soprano, and listening to it is the equivalent of a spring walk with the magnolias in bloom: you can’t help but be thrilled and content.
I want to read Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Sense & Sensibility—any book with a guaranteed happy ending.
I want to do anything but think about where the world is today, and then something like this happens: I woke up yesterday morning to the BBC World Service, as I do every morning. The announcer said, “We are now following the developing story of an attack at a church in Normandy. It’s believed that the priest has been stabbed.”
Normandy, where I used to live: what a way to wake up.
I reached for my phone—always on my bedside table overnight—and took advantage of those cables crisscrossing the oceans, the satellites in the sky, the instantaneous news world we live in, and the fact that my “phone” is really a small computer: I found out more in less time than it took to get my little pug out of her kennel for the day.
I learned this was happening in St-Etienne-du-Rouvray, just across the Seine from where I lived in Rouen. I learned that the priest’s throat had been slashed while he was saying mass. I learned that ISIS was claiming responsibility and that the French president was angry and sad.
Another tragic story, but this one hit close to home, and I stopped to pay attention to the news; I didn’t let it stream right past me. I was reminded by my very small personal connection to this that we have to pay attention to these stories; they are all personal to someone. We have to hear them because it’s only by listening to each other that we have any hope of getting through this.
It is easy to say this from the safety of my kitchen in Glen Ellyn as I make puff pastry and sing along to She Loves Me. But I don’t know what else to say, and I think it’s sometimes enough to simply say: I will listen. I will pay attention. I will be present to these terrible stories because while they are terrible, they are our stories and they must be told.