Last week, I decided to read social media only once a day, so I wouldn’t have twenty strangers’ voices in my head while trying to create.
Yesterday, I went one step further. I installed the FB Purity browser extension, and set it to filter out all posts containing the words “Trump,” “Republican,” and “Democrat”.
Presto! The political vitriol that was dominating my news feed is almost entirely gone,and I can read about the cool stuff my friends are doing/seeing/writing again.
Do I feel bad about “sticking my head in the sand” about vitally important information? Don’t I feel the need to stay up on current events?
Nope. Here’s why.
First, the world contains an infinite number of horrible things. Child abuse, environmental destruction, animal cruelty, pharmaceutical greed, excruciating poverty, rape, drug addiction – any of those should provoke outrage in any decent person. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. These are all terrible issues; they need to be addressed.
But not by me. Nor, for the most part, do I want to hear about them, unless one of my friends needs me to listen.
This is not because I don’t care. Quite the reverse. I don’t want to hear about them because I do care. I agree that these things are horrible. And hearing about them makes me angry.
Anger is a funny thing. It can be a powerful force for good, or it can be horrendously destructive. If anger prods you to action, you can change the world. But living in a state of continuous outrage – as Facebook encourages you to do – can quickly lead to feeling overwhelmed and helpless. And that can lead to hate.
I spent a lot of time in my twenties volunteering with organizations that worked with sexual abuse, rape, and domestic violence survivors. Every day, I would hear about a different horror. There was the woman whose fiancé had deliberately infected her with AIDS, then abandoned her. Another woman had been sexually abused and beaten by her entire family; when she went to a priest to ask for help, the priest molested her, too. The domestic violence survivor whose husband had battered her until her jaw collapsed and all her teeth fell out. The other survivor whose husband, a doctor, not only broke her bones, but wouldn’t let her use birth control because he enjoyed performing abortions on her.
The outrage I felt – every day – was so intense, so horrifying, that I had to find some way to come to terms with it. Because these atrocities were happening every single day, to thousands of innocent people, and I felt totally helpless in the face of all those stories. It’s one thing to know intellectually that terrible things happen; it’s another to look into the eyes of someone who has been beaten, abused, or raped, and hear her tell the story of her assault. It becomes personal, visceral.
I struggled hard with this. How do you hear this over and over without dying of outrage? How can you hear all these stories of cruelty, torture, and abuse without starting to hate?
Then one of my fellow volunteers told me the starfish story:
A man was walking along a beach, picking up starfish stranded by the tide and flinging them back into the ocean, one by one.
Another beachcomber walked by, and, seeing what the man was doing, said, “Why are you doing that? There are thousands of starfish washed up on this beach, and thousands more will wash up in the next tide! You’ll never make any difference!”
The man stopped and thought for a moment. Then he reached down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the ocean.
“Made a difference to that one,” he said.
And that, to me, is the answer to outrage. Surviving outrage requires focusing not on the terrible things you can’t change, but on the positive steps you can take to improve the situation. I can’t stop all domestic violence, but I can tell the woman in front of me that she does not deserve abuse, and that her partner’s violence will almost certainly get worse. And I can connect her to resources. I can make a difference in her life.
But listening to all those horrifying stories without taking positive action doesn’t work. If you do that, you will drown in a sea of outrage. That doesn’t help you, and it doesn’t help the world. The only thing that helps the world is the positive actions you take.
That’s why I’m not interested in reading all the outrage on Facebook. It isn’t that I don’t care about these issues; it’s that I don’t have the time/energy/money to take positive action on them. My volunteer resources right now are entirely devoted to supporting the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. I’m the President of the Board there, which is a great privilege, but also a great responsibility. About half my time/attention is consistently focused on the Museum. So I’m maxed out. Any additional outrage won’t prompt me to positive action; it’s just going to make me feel angry, stressed, and helpless.
No, I don’t want to hear about the latest outrage. Not because I don’t care, but because I do care – but I’m not in a position to change things. The only thing that hearing about the latest outrage will do is make me angry, and further destroy my creative life.
So I’m opting out.
Outrage is great if it prods you to action. But choose your outrage wisely.