How do you react to the distressing news that streams endlessly at you from your TV, the newspapers, and your devices? Human suffering and wrongdoing are facts of life, and in the information age, we have the privilege and pain of being confronted with a litany of tragic stories 24/7…the latest local murder, plane crash, mass shooting, or refugee crisis.
What’s your usual response? Do you change the channel, or turn off the TV when the news of the day becomes too much to bear? Do you close your eyes to it, or turn the page to something you’re more in the mood to read about?
Or do you sink into the gory details, utterly consumed and unable to look away? Or perhaps you become enraged, indignant, and loudly vocal based on the snippets of information you are being fed?
Most of us have an ambivalent relationship to tragic news: one where we want to know, but don’t want to know. We grapple with a misplaced sense of grief, anger or helplessness, and struggle to interpret the latest tragedy. A painful scar of these stories remains with us, fueling hopeless and helpless interpretations of mankind and the world we live in.
Our relationship to news and events that confront our value system can have a large impact on our sense of connectedness to the world we live in. Difficult truths so often prompt some form of disconnection – we may close our hearts, cast harsh judgements and/or shun whomever we see as wrong doers, whether that’s a person, a political party, or an entire country of people.
These emotionally loaded responses can grow into areas of profound disconnection in our lives, and before we know it, we have a collection of wedges between ourselves and other people that we don’t fully understand.
In that unintentional, unconscious way, I once had very judgmental feelings towards the entire Asian continent because of the many sensationalized stories of environmental wrongdoing I’d heard. I felt like I was constantly seeing stories about the egregious pollution of China, the dolphins being massacred in Japan, and on and on. Somewhere in the back of my mind, without realizing it, I resolved my grief by deciding that the entire continent was a lost cause. It made me never want to visit, and quashed any desire to know or understand their many rich and vibrant cultures.
But when I moved to Indonesia for a year, I found myself completely enchanted with “the East,” able to hold the complexities of their issues, while also seeing the beauty of each of these fascinating cultures. I was also inspired by the many progressive efforts to go green, some of which far surpass those in my own country.
The problem with allowing ourselves to turn away, shut down our hearts, or lay judgement, is that it creates profound disconnection. You have distanced yourself from the world, and often from yourself. And, unfortunately, disconnection feeds on itself. You cannot disconnect in one area of your life without having it spill over into other areas of your life.
Slamming a mental door in your mind on one country or people leads to shutting out many more…and pretty soon you can feel yourself narrowing further and further into the isolated tomb of self-righteousness and indignation. Therefore, it’s incredibly important (and incredibly healing) to learn how to process unfathomable events instead of instinctively disconnecting out of self-protection.
There are three key steps that help us cope and respond productively to SAD news:
Being seen for who we are is something we all crave, and an experience that can lead to the most profound types of connection between people.
When you turn away from grief and pain, you are essentially refusing to see someone – or their pain. Being willing to truly see – even when you’d rather not and even if it is just for a moment – is an act of giving yourself to another, standing willing to witness their pain. This can be very connecting, even if it only happens as a private, internal thought to yourself.
Seeing is the tiniest thing you can “do” to relieve suffering, and it’s available to you even when it feels like there’s nothing else within your power to do. You can always pause to see the injured man on the side of the road as he’s being put into an ambulance, and say to yourself, “I see you, brother, and I see the family who loves you and will be devastated to hear this news. I see that you were probably thinking today would just be like every other day, that you never saw this coming, and that now your life is changed forever.”
You can let a wave of compassion and heart-opening wash over you. This kind of response is far more productive emotionally than making a snap judgment such as chalking it up to reckless or distracted driving. It helps to keep you in caring connection with the people around you, instead of reflexively disconnecting from your fellow beings and the world.
Beware of Cognitive Blinders
Often tragic or overwhelmingly negative news inspires our more primitive “reptilian” brains to take the wheel, leaving us more vulnerable to all kinds of cognitive errors. People have an extraordinary ability to see only what they wish to see…and the only things we typically wish to see are things that support our existing beliefs and narratives about the world.
All too often, we respond to devastating tragedies by becoming angry, self-righteous and rigidly dogmatic in our opinions. While anger and rage can be healthy, appropriate emotions when channeled properly, they are very unhealthy if we are becoming close-minded, one-sided and making others who we don’t understand wrong – in effect, becoming disconnected from others to protect ourselves and our sense of world order. This frame of mind is what’s led to wars and human carnage since the dawn of time.
To make sure you’re seeing the truth of what’s before you, it helps to cultivate what’s called “beginner’s mind.” In this state of consciousness, you assume that you know nothing about what you’re witnessing, and accept that there are many things you don’t and can’t understand.
This perspective allows you to remain open and respectfully attentive to what is unfolding before you. This powerful technique counters our human tendency to be blinded by our pre-existing opinions, and disconnected from objective reality. The truly enlightened man knows how to hold strong to his beliefs, while also recognizing that there is much he doesn’t yet know or understand.
Reminding yourself that you have no idea about the context – what kind of family that shooter came from, or what life looks like through the lens of mental illness – lets you stay humble (not necessarily forgiving or permissive) about the scope of what you actually understand. I find this particular approach helps me the most when reacting to an act of terrorism.
I try to remember that somehow, in ways that I couldn’t possibly understand given my experience and information, the people committing these horrendous acts might actually believe that they are doing something that is right, noble, and even good. It’s a necessary reminder that my perspective is not the only perspective out there, and that there’s never just one truth to a situation. Cultivating beginner’s mind helps me take an honest, open and humble look at what’s happening, and consider all the possibilities without judgment.
Make it a habit to check in with the beliefs and narratives you are spewing whenever you are feeling overwrought or helpless. Chances are good you’re giving in to black and white thinking (absolute right and wrong), exaggeration, crystal ball thinking (pretending you can know what the future holds) and/or other kinds of cognitive errors that lock you into a loop of reactive emotions, and prevent true emotional processing or digestion.
Emotional resolution comes from having a balanced perspective, and is never achieved through reactive thought patterns.
Combating Cognitive Errors
During my time working at Harvard Medical School, we practiced quite a bit with combating cognitive errors. Often it came down to a simple technique of writing a problematic belief at the top of the page – something like, “Everyone from the Middle East is a terrorist.” Then we would draw a line down the center of the page to create two columns with the headings “evidence this is true” and “evidence this is false.”
This exercise helps us focus on actual facts, rather than feelings, in order to restore more rational thinking and reach reasonable new conclusions. It always amazed me how simply discussing these cognitive errors never managed to replace an old belief as powerfully or consistently as working it out on a worksheet did.
This technique is the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and has been successfully used to combat some of the most rigid unmovable beliefs out there.
Find Our Solidarity
So often, we reflexively make people we don’t understand separate or alien to us, writing them off as “others” to whom we bear no relationship or resemblance. This is one of the ways we protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable to the pain someone else is experiencing.
The problem is, separating ourselves from others – even in an imaginary way – causes us pain, in the form of disconnection. We withdraw from the world, and into ourselves. We stop seeing the humanity of the other.
Seeing solidarity with a stranger in a faraway, strange land says to yourself and to the universe, “We are not so different…you are human, and so am I. Your situation could easily be mine, if I had happened to be born elsewhere, or just found myself in the wrong place at the wrong time.” It brings us closer to the suffering, allowing us to see it more fully, and humbles ourselves in the process.
The heart softens when you open your heart and allow yourself to experience kinship with the “other.” Cultivating a sense of solidarity also simultaneously protects you from overwhelm, since it operates from a place of strength and honor, rather than fear and avoidance.
There is a saying that what you resist, persists. We so often want to fight reality and rail against the truth of evil, suffering, and ignorance in this world…yet our denial keeps us stuck in fear, grief, and rage.
By actively leaning in to the truth and reality of hardships – even those you cannot possibly understand – and allowing the associated feelings to wash over you, you are actively practicing acceptance, which leads you more quickly to a sense of peace and resolution.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that you condone or “are okay” with what has happened, but it means that you accept the truth of it…and are willing to face it without running away or putting your head in the sand. Acceptance is where character, maturity, and courage are built…being willing to face the facts and stand strong in the face of them.
When you accept the truth of a situation, you are staying in connection with reality, since you are willing to engage with it, as it is, without attempting to distort it. A momentary mental gesture of acceptance keeps your heart, your mind, your eyes, and your perspective open…putting you in the best position for whatever wise action you decide to take next.
Tools for Acceptance
Acceptance is easier said than done, though. Fortunately, two classic psychological techniques can help acknowledge (and contain) our emotional response: Mindfulness and Self-Compassion.
Mindfulness: Be a Neutral Observer
It’s very common that we react to tragedy by lashing out emotionally and finding someone or something to blame. Having a scapegoat soothes our grief topically, in that it gives us a sense of restored order to the world – it makes things clearly right or wrong, and counters the senseless, chaotic, out-of-control events we seem to witness.
It’s much easier to decide that a country is to blame, or a political party, or the parents, or the break-down of society and the family systems. But blaming doesn’t remotely help us to truly resolve the grief, and in fact can stick us with grief that never gets processed or resolved.
Acknowledging the emotion of a situation starts with mindfulness: taking a neutral, non-judgmental, curious, observation of the experience of grief. During this process you attempt to honestly look at your grief reaction, examining all sides of it, while keeping one foot outside of the experience, almost as an observer would. This observer stance keeps you from getting swept away in the emotional experience, and lets you have a little emotional distance to witness the truth and depth of your reaction, while prompting no “additional” reaction to what you are noticing.
Even 10 seconds of performing this kind of mindful perspective-taking can have an extraordinary benefit – helping you snap out of an emotional spiral, and make room for greater perspective to enter. It helps tremendously to combine compassion of any kind (self & other) to the mindfulness exercise.
Self-Compassion: Feel and Heal
Self-compassion is one of those nice-sounding ideas that everyone agrees with in theory, but hardly anyone actively makes time for in practice. This is a mistake. Self-compassion is a powerful emotional tool and a critical step in processing difficult information – if skipped, it can end up blocking any emotional resolution.
Self-compassion starts with mindful, non-judgmental acknowledgment of the difficulty you are experiencing, and then goes a step further to offer yourself the kind of supportive, nurturing words that you might say to a beloved friend or child who is suffering.
You can actively engage in it with a series of mindful, accepting, self-reflective statements, something along these lines: “I can see that I’m really struggling with this right now.” “Wow, this is really hard for me.” “It’s really painful feeling like there is nothing I can do to help or prevent all of this suffering.” “Feeling helpless is brutal and very difficult to deal with.” “I wish so badly that I could help these people, and it kills me to feel like there is nothing I can do.”
Self-compassion is an outstanding tool because it helps you soothe and heal your own vicariously wounded heart, without alienating yourself from others or inspiring you to continue the cycle of hate.
The icing on the cake for fostering acceptance is if you can add some forgiveness practice towards yourself, and towards the inherently flawed nature of all human beings. I find that even saying quietly to yourself “I forgive” without even having a target or a complete thought has immediate healing and softening effects, which allow greater perspective to creep in…and ultimately relief.
Whether we’re facing small senseless tragedies in our local community, or large-scale international catastrophes, we typically experience helplessness as one of our primary emotional reactions. Helplessness is an awful feeling, often regarded by those in the mental health profession as a kind of “canary in the coal mine” emotion – a strong predictor of depression and/or suicidality.
Having a sense of control is hugely important to human beings, and helplessness by definition makes us feel powerless and out of control – experiencing what psychologists call “an external locus of control.” One of the ways we can counter this feeling is by taking action.
Any time you are feeling helpless in the face of tragic news, take a quick scan to see how compelled you feel to do something about it. If it’s strong, ask yourself whether there isn’t something you could do. It’s true that in many situations, such as a natural disaster or an act of terrorism, it seems like there’s nothing we as individuals can do, and that any effort would be just a futile drop in the ocean. But I’d invite you to reconsider the benefit of taking some action…even a small action, like writing a letter or email to your legislator, or expressing your opinions to your social media community, or pledging $5 to a relief organization.
Taking some action, regardless of its scope or size, helps to neutralize feelings of helplessness and communicates to yourself that you are capable, powerful and your voice matters. It also helps you feel solidarity with society, and include yourself as affected by the suffering of others. It helps you stay engaged, by activating you instead of defeating you.
There are dozens of tragic stories each day in every newspaper around the world, and it’s not realistic to take action on everything. But now and then something will really get under your skin in a way that’s hard to shake, and you have a choice in that moment. You can disconnect from the issue (and part of yourself), or you can honor the strength of your feelings and take some form of action.
You might find that a small, insignificant act inspires you to take bigger actions, and maybe even take on the issue as an important personal mission. Or, you might not. But in either case, you have consciously taken some action that acknowledges the event and advances your beliefs and goals about it – confirming you do have some agency over your life and place in the world.
A MOVIE EXAMPLE THAT BRINGS IT ALL TOGETHER
The Oscar-winning movie Avatar, by James Cameron, has a great scene that teaches all of the essential coping mechanisms for responding to tragic events.
In this fictional tale set in the year 2154, a more enlightened humanoid species called the Na’vi believe in the interconnectedness of all life, and maintain a reverence for their fellow species. In the scene I’m thinking of, a human invader (a former combat solider) kills one of the Na’vi forest animals in self-defense, and displays a sense of pride at his superiority. His Na’vi companion and forest guide scolds him heavily for his ignorance, and shows him by example the proper way to honor a “necessary” but unfortunate death of a fellow being:
She kneels in front of the body with the arrow sticking out of its side, lays a loving hand on its heart, and says solemnly, “I see you brother….” She closes her eyes and takes a moment of silence to connect with the dead creature and acknowledge his loss of life.
In that moment, you can see her reflect on his impressive prowess and beauty, his important role in the ecosystem, the possible family he left behind. The Na’vi princess goes on to kill many creatures herself in the forest (defending herself and her human ward), but each time she pauses for a nano-second to feel genuine grief and compassion, lay a hand on the heart of her victim, and acknowledge the loss.
This beautiful storyline encapsulates the vital steps you need to take when you are feeling the need to disconnect from the pain in the world: see the tragedy, honor and accept the loss with compassion, and do something – in this case, laying a hand on the heart of the fallen.
I actually borrow the fictional Nav’i princess’s honoring ritual myself, to keep myself from disconnecting or becoming willfully ignorant to pain and suffering. As I read about a horrible refugee situation, for example, I might say silently to myself, “I see you brother….” As I do, I let my heart open to feel a kinship with the afflicted, I acknowledge their suffering, I pledge my solidarity, and silently commune with them from the other side of the globe.
I allow a wave of honest emotion to pass through my body…and then I let it go. I may get involved supporting efforts to improve the situation, or this may be the resolution. But this three-step approach reduces my feelings of helplessness, and allows me to feel like I am doing and giving something productive. It lets me stay open and warm-hearted towards what I don’t understand, can’t fathom, or couldn’t otherwise bear.
Try it for yourself, and let us know how it goes.