I was watching an ad for a firm that uses DNA to trace ethnic ancestry, and the spokesperson said that having this information would help to give her a “sense of identity.” I turned to my wife Terry and said, “Sense of identity? No problem. I’m the one on the inside, and all of you are on the outside.”
But that is not entirely true. It’s been a violent, angry, scary, anxious week in the country, with nothing to reassure one that next week will be any different. The political season is a toxic swamp stretching beyond the horizon. All the screens before my eyes are full of people yelling, or weeping, or running for their lives, or staring at devastation. And the words of the professional explainers tug at the heart, inviting one to bring the awful outside within, to empathize, to “identify.”
What do we do when, to paraphrase Tom Robbins, the world situation is desperate–as usual? Psychologists endlessly advise us to “own our feelings”–and that is good advice–but what about those feelings that don’t arise from within our actual circumstances, that are shopped to us relentlessly in the virtual world?
There are practical basics that can help in the moment, like deep breathing, or like taking a break from the 24/7 news channels and social media, where endless repetition of the awful adds no new information, only reinforces an infectious feeling of desperation. And there is the traditional American standby—taking a vacation—something I will be doing after the coming week.
Curiously, that is something many fewer of us plan to do. A Siena poll this week found that 42% of New Yorkers plan to take no time off at all this summer.
Bad plan. When else can we take some time to sort out our own anxieties from those we have borrowed from the rest of the planet’s suffering multitude? When else can we stop obsessively watching the distant disaster and start watching the nearby water?