We Carry Too Much

by Nate St. Pierre on May 29, 2013

In the past 30 days, you have ingested more violence, pain and sadness than people living 100 years ago did in their entire lives.

100 years ago there was no global broadcast medium. Most people had access to a local newspaper, while a few could get some national news through more expensive (and rare) publications. For someone our age living in that time, they would have read about only a few truly awful things in their lives . . . and they wouldn’t have seen anything but what their own eyes had witnessed.

Take a look at our headlines from the current month, May 2013:

World – riots, wars, terrorist attacks
Nation – bombings, factory explosions, natural disasters
Local – murders, beatings, kidnappings

These are playing right now on our TVs, our computers, and in our pockets 24/7, in all their awful HD glory. Every horrific explosion, every drop of blood, every scream and wail and sob and extinguished life captured from multiple angles in sight and sound and perpetual commentary afterwards. It is the constant background noise of our lives.

Violence. Pain. Fear.

What makes me so disgusted with the whole thing is not even the fact that we can’t escape it, but that so few seem to want to. Humans have an appetite for tragedy, and media outlets of every kind are more than happy to serve it up. If it bleeds, it leads. This is why I don’t watch the news.

Have you ever considered that maybe we aren’t meant to carry the emotional weight of all this pain around with us every day? 100 years ago people did occasionally witness some horrible things. But for the most part these were events – brief, finite moments of human suffering, in stark contrast to the rest of their relatively calm lives.

You can call them naive or uninformed if you wish, but I submit to you that they carried only the burdens that were truly theirs to carry. We, on the other hand, saddle ourselves with the emotional devastation and pain of hundreds of people per week, watching from the front row as their lives are brutalized in one way or another. Yes, we feel for them, and we cry with them, and we do what we can to help them, and the internet has been amazing at helping us relate to one another and make a difference for others. I should know – I’ve spent years in that very pursuit.

But at my core I am more than a little worried that this hyper-connected way of life is hurting us much more than we care to admit. Now instead of enduring or witnessing one or two intensely personal tragedies in a lifetime, we get to tangentially experience one or two a week, each bringing out some of the same physiological and emotional responses, along with the requisite mental reframing that occurs in the wake of such events.

I feel like we are tearing our brains and bodies and feelings apart so much faster than ever before, and building up more scar tissue than we were ever meant to have.

It’s a dangerous game, folks, and we don’t know how it’s going to end. We are the guinea pig generation.

I want to know what you guys think . . . let’s discuss. How much do you carry?

(Image source: Pink Sherbet Photography)

  • Lex

    agree to some extent about information overload and the risks of
    bearing the burden of pain by proxy for people and events that have no
    direct, personal connection to us.

    But 100 years ago the burdens were much more personal and direct in the U.S.
    Infant mortality was much higher. Life was shorter. People died from
    illnesses and injuries that are easily treated now. If we lived in
    rural areas our loved ones often died at homes and we buried them

    difficult, perhaps impossible, to know how prevalent suicide was but
    anecdotes indicate suicide was as common then as now. Our ancestors
    didn’t have our concepts of depression or access to medical and
    psychiatric care, counseling and medications to cope with transient and
    chronic depression, anxiety, emotional trauma and stress.

    speaking I believe we now assume a greater burden of guilt and pain by
    proxy because we have *exactly the same capacity* for it as our
    forebears. The difference is that now we have the luxury of worrying
    about other people’s horrifying tragedies because our own are relatively
    minor in contrast. We aren’t experiencing genocide in the U.S. so we
    have the same human capacity for compassion for those who are suffering,
    as well as the luxury of being able to do so because we aren’t
    personally hiding in bunkers hoping the next bomb doesn’t strike us and
    our children.

    • Joan Otto

      I very much agree with Lex. My mom is 78 and the things she remembers PERSONALLY are well worse than anything I will ever encounter. I think that Lex nailed it with the idea that we can afford to worry more about wider issues because our personal issues sometimes pale in comparison. You worry about whatever the “biggest” problem is at the time. My friends who are struggling to put food on the table and find a home are not worried about the state of Darfur right now, but that’s because their own problems are great. I am blessed to able to “worry” about others because I do have enough.

      The other thing I’ll add is that I don’t think connection is only a tool for worry. I find that the number of connections I have (through my job in media, but also through a wide network of friends and business contacts) increases the amount of GOOD news and positive attitude I find. The question is, what are you focusing on? If it’s just the bad, the quantity almost doesn’t matter.

      That said, are there people who seem to make every world crisis a personal one? Who get OVER-involved? Absolutely. But I posit their equivalents did the same in their own way in the past as well.

      • So Joan, do you think that people are wired a certain way, to always be devoting xx% of their thought to worrying about whatever, and they will always put the biggest thing at the time into that bucket, whether it’s their own stuff or, barring that, someone else’s? That’s an interesting way to look at it if that’s what you’re saying.

        As for using this connection to find and do positive things, you’re preaching to the choir. It’s how I’ve build my career, such as it is. I am one that always creates the good, and seeks it when I’m not creating, and I make a very conscious effort to not consume the barrels of grief that (ALL) media throws at me. But I gotta tell you, it’s really hard. It’s a huge percentage of the information being megaphoned out into the world. And sometimes I wonder if we’re wired for this kind of barrage of negativity.

        Agreed on your final point about the personal crisis folks. Certain types of people always have and always will live as if everything is dire, and take it personally.

        • Joan Otto

          I don’t know if I originally thought of it quite that way, but now that I examine it more, I do kinda think that – that we’ve got a certain “general capacity to worry.” Some people take it to extremes – the “no worries” crowd that figures someone else will take care of everything as they get foreclosed on and all that, and the “personal crisis” crowd, like a woman I know who felt she had to memorize all the information in the obituaries of all the Newtown shooting victims, though she didn’t know anyone connected to that event personally, even remotely. They hit the ends. But I think most of us, if we look back over our lives, have always had that “one big worry” and some smaller worries, and whatever our circumstances, the quantity changes very little. It just becomes more or less personal-focused or community-focused or global-focused, you know?

          I think, too, that there’s a huge difference between national media and local media in this regard. The paper I worked at full-time for years often gets lambasted for “missing” national stories of interest, but today’s front page centerpiece was on a high school physics teacher who gets kids into the swimming pool at the end of every year to study buoyancy. While it covers serious issues, I feel like it’s more often balanced than, say, what I see on CNN.

          • Afarmer615

            Joan, I like that you bring up the local paper that reports, here it is now, LOCAL news. I think that’s what they need to be doing. We need to see the good around us. For those that worry too much, I think that could really help them to see that the entire world is not burning down around them. A friend of mine just brought that point up to me today and she was so right. We aren’t trying to please everyone in the city or other places, we are trying to make the event a success for the people IN OUR town. We should be working towards making our part of the world better for someone who lives in it vs. worrying for the sake of worrying about the rest of the world. Those events have their place but I can appreciate a paper or news outlet that reports the stuff we really need to know about our own community.

        • Beth Bortner

          I believe that worrying is not a good way to spend time and energy. Its much better to be present. When you find yourself worrying, then meditate.

          • Big Mike

            I agree. I view worry is a motivator. To have value it needs an achievable goal. If you’re worried about something you can change or prevent (like getting sick), then act on it.
            But if you’re worried about stuff you can’t control (like the boys in Afghanistan) then find a way to replace worry with faith in a favourable outcome. Excess worry is harmful, and it comes from a lack of control.

    • I think you make a great point, Lex – that people today have the exact same capacity for it today as they did back then. And you’re right – back then they used it to deal with a lot of the bad things they had then that we don’t have to worry as much about today (early mortality, killer diseases, etc).

      But now that we have the luxury (i.e. free space in the brain) to consume the equivalent amount of tragedy in the present day (I still say it’s more), albeit not our own, does that mean that we *should*? When people on this thread make the argument that 100 years ago life was a lot tougher and there was all kinds of badness about, they are implying that that was not a good situation. Granted. Then why make today’s situation the same when we don’t have to?

  • S. Stanford

    It is a terrible thing to try to strike a balance… The need to be informed enough to be a decent citizen and vote intelligently etc without driving yourself mad or falling into compassion fatigue of some sort.
    I think it is important to step away, recognize when you don’t need to ingest any more news or maybe even allow yourself a complete break from it, even if that seems difficult. People are addicted to consumption in every form.

    • I think “compassion fatigue” is a telling phrase. I’ve had this myself over the years, trying to do all the philanthropy projects. There comes a time every once in a while where I just can’t see another painful story of someone who needs help, and everything starts running together. Sometimes I worry that I won’t have enough emotional compassion juice (haha) left over for the things I need to attend in my own life. You’re right, you gotta find that balance.

    • Sarah Rivera Corrice

      Agree with S.

  • Afarmer615

    I like what Lex says, I believe the capacity is there. I also think we are way too connected. Too much information for the sake of it sometimes. I don’t watch the news, its so depressing. I lived in southern CA for one summer and every single day they talked about another child that had been murdered or kidnapped. I lost interest then. I know bad things happen all the time and sometimes we do need to do something about it and the internet has made that simpler, thank goodness for technology but at the same time, ‘they’ are always talking about how ‘desensitized’ our children are to violence and all and they are right. Because ‘they’ put it right in front of them. And we allow it. I do my best to talk to my kids about what is happening with much less fanfare than the news companies, because lets face it, they make money from the drama they help create. I can only try to help them understand the things that happen and learn how to not let them happen again or how to not take it so hard. It is painful and I believe empathy is an important quality in a person, that’s the best I can do with what we have been given.

    • “Too much information for the sake of it sometimes” and “they make money from the drama they help create.”

      Yes and yes.

      I believe in reporting of the news and making people aware of the important things going on. The Boston Marathon bombing, for instance. But when you then fill literally DAYS of programming with commentary, analysis, guesswork, theory positing, and FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt), you’re not helping anyone – you’re just making it worse. You’re making normal people afraid to step outside of their homes. Which as you said, sadly, is exactly where they profit the most – when they’re sitting in their homes watching the news on TV because they’re scared to go out into the big scary world that they’ve created for you.*

      *And no, I’m not naive to the fact that there are plenty of bad things in this world, but when that’s all you see promoted, it gives you a very unrealistic perception of what it’s actually like.

      • Afarmer615

        totally agree with you there too. There is an unrealistic perception of the world and the news companies perpetuate the problems. They feed the fires every chance they get. Reporting is supposed to be objective but I have yet to see it. It is somebody’s opinion somewhere. And yes, the positing and OVER-analysis drives me nuts. I get the idea of dreaming of better things or whatever but why do we need to ‘dream’ of what will happen if Mr. Politician/world leader does this, this will be the ramifications and this disaster will come to pass. Its too much talk about all the wrong things. I think if they spent more time talking about the good people are doing you could make such a better world instead of a fearful one.
        I know the bad things are there. They always will be. Lets accept that and move on to better things.

  • Concerned

    YES !!, GREAT article and good points !! You are very right it’s a terrible overload of tragedy to handle and process.. as tho we are capable …when in fact we have never had such CONSTANT and huge daily doses of horrible tragedies and events !! As a child I was never allowed to hear or see anything that would be frightening !! Now there is no shortage of blood, sex and violence for children to see on TV and the internet. Why is it that Movies are rated but the daily non stop horrific news stories are not ?? They are much worse than most movies !!. There is no diagram to tell children how to think and handle their fears and I worry every day that my grand daughter will see what is being shown and discussed in the news. I think it is extremely damaging to everyone and more so than we realize. Nothing is off limits ?? Get real !!

    There has always been terrible violence but now it is manufactured for mass consumption in a grand scale !! If the news wasn’t enough violence for you find some more anywhere on the net or just rent a movie. Now how do we treat all of that depression and sadness..hmmmm ?

    • That’s something I hadn’t thought of – the movie rating system. I would say yes, that the *real* things that are put out on regular local broadcast TV news are equivalent to the themes/images in an R-rated movie (I could be wrong here, and corrected by a news-media person).

      But these things are just plopped out in front of anyone who will watch, which includes a ton of kids with no input or guidance or moderation from a parent, and they get to see kids their age getting beaten, kidnapped, stabbed, shot and killed every day. What does that do to their developing minds? I talked about scar tissue in the main article, and my goodness, kids today grow up with a lot of it.

  • alexandra

    I found myself hit with a case of “I can’t anymore,” I had forgotten how to smile and for the first time in my life ever, I felt scared. I now listen to Daft punk’s “Get Lucky.” My kids like me better this way.

    • I need to listen to Get Lucky – now grabbing it on Spotify. 🙂

      You also said this on Facebook: “I just don’t have the space in my heart and it’s starting to weigh on me, and I have 3 children who need me.”

      When I talk with my kids, I want to show them the good in the world, and show them how to be someone who CREATES that good, not someone who’s so afraid of the bad that they try to live in a bubble.

      Additionally, for everything that we choose to intake from local/regional/national stories of pain and tragedy, we have that much less emotional/empathetic bandwidth to distribute to the people in our own lives who need us the most. I think we should regulate our intake. “Get Lucky” is a good start. Now turning it on. 🙂

  • SarahInMI

    I’ve actually had to tune a lot of it out – I have a tendency to get stuck into a story (example: the recovery of the kidnapped women in Ohio), but it gets too much that I get overwhelmed by the negativity, and the fear.

    I admit, I’m prone to fear of things that aren’t likely to happen, but, I mean – I never ended up getting SARS *or* bird flu, despite the media’s insistence that we all were going to.
    I hate feeling ignorant when I have no idea what’s going on with South Korea – just that SOMETHING is – but I opt to limit the things I am fearful of to things that are somewhat within my control, otherwise it’s JUST. TOO. MUCH.

    • The point about SARS or bird flu or whatever – that’s something I’ve always said about watching news programs – for the most part, they choose the worst of the worst stuff, whatever will get people’s attention, and they focus on that. And this editing and focus happens every day, so every day you’re given a heaping helping of all the worst things that are happening or could happen to you. Watch enough of that, and pretty soon the reframing takes place, and you think that’s what the world looks like, when in reality you have about as much chance of getting the bird flu as you do of getting hit by lightning. Yet we don’t worry about the lightning (except I saw on a local news promo the other day for the weather about how this station is the one KEEPING YOU SAFE during storms. They were talking about thunderstorms and lighting. Sigh.)

  • bootsystar

    point taken on how much ugliness we are exposed to every day….but also, because i look for it- im exposed to awesome acts of kindness, funny cats, kids telling me to ‘dance about it’, opportunities to help (love drop and love bomb anyone?) and love. i choose to see the good and to be the good.

    • I know you do, and so do I (love drop and love bomb anyone?, haha).

      But that doesn’t mean I want to have to fight tooth and nail to GET to that good, through a sea of perpetual awfulness.

      That’s pretty good: The Sea of Perpetual Awfulness.

      That goes in my next book. 😉

      • bootsystar

        thats the thing….i dont have to fight to get the good. i look and its there! i acknowledge the bad, the hate, the violence…but i let it move through me and then i double my efforts to do more good to counteract the bad. sorta like you do!
        awww man, let your next book be ‘the sea of perpetual awesomeness’!!

  • EmilyHornburg

    I find myself tuning out of things and hardening myself more and more. It sounds awful, but after hearing about the tornadoes in Oklahoma I didn’t even react. I’m a really emotional person (which… I’m sure you’ve picked up on) and when I take things in, I take it ALL in. So I’ve started to condition myself to turn it off. It’s awful and I don’t like who I’m becoming because of it – but with everything that we see and experience, I feel like I have to. Even with the teenagers sometimes, I probably aren’t as empathetic as I should be. I turn it off. I like that we can be so informed because it gives us avenues to do something about it. Which is wonderful! If we don’t know there is a problem, we can’t do anything to help solve it. However – how much can we take?

    • Yep, this is my point. The shutting out, the hardening, the turning it off. We are empathetic creatures, which is a wonderful way to be made and exist, but if we constantly bombard ourselves (intentionally! which is the craziest part about all this) with this kind of pain, then it begins to lose its impact.

      And then what happens in our *real* lives (like you and your teens) when we should reach into our well of empathy and really care about what they’re struggling with, especially since we’re in a position to help them mightily? But we can’t, because we’re burned out from quasi-dealing with it for the past three months of disaster coverage. Blah.

  • Matt Utley

    I don’t know, Nate. 2013 has antibiotics. We have insulin. The only 1913 does better is moustaches. Out greatest moustaches were commonplace back then, so, I dunno, maybe you’re right.

    • Is it possible to smile and sigh at the same time? Because that’s what I’m doing right now.

  • Sarah Rivera Corrice

    I forgot what movie had the line, “Your focus determines your reality.” I chose to carry no drama. I am ultra sensitive to it so I stay away from it when I have the power to. I mentioned last night that we (here in the States) don’t have the infant mortality, child labor, etc.. that we death with 100 years ago. An American woman 100 years ago could expect to watch her child die to a simple cold. She didn’t need to find drama and death, it found her. Knocked on her door, came in and had a cup of tea. And warfare is different now. The weapons are smarter and the strikes are strategic. In WWI I could expect to sit in a trench and die of pneumonia. I also wouldn’t be able to talk to my son via fb like I can with my deployed friends now, who sit in air-conditioned rooms, scared sometimes, but well-fed.

    What I think is different, and what it seems like you are shining light on, is that we have instant access to the death and destruction that is outside of our backyard. Some people are inviting death to sit with them. All of that negativity is in my pocket. But it’s only there if I chose to read it, listen to it, or ask for it. I chose positive things. They riddle my twitter feed. I download the positive apps. For every negative thing out there, there is a positive, and I try to focus on the positive, so that will be my reality.

    News channels run on money. Disasters bring advertising revenue. Conflict brings revenue. I see my mother get swept up in it, and then she texts me some horrid story. I have to warn her over and over to step away from the TV. They don’t care to inform her, they are using her to generate ad revenue. It all boils down to money. They can create drama and reap benefit from it. I know that, and I never, ever watch the news. NEVER. I have AP on my twitter, and can casually scroll past it or read it. My choice.

    My burden is when my coworker, who loves listening to news radio, fills my space with negative airwaves. So I understand your concern. That is a daily negative environment, and it has taken its toll on my personal relationships. It may have ruined one already. It makes me (his listening to news in my cubicle every day makes me) an angry person. It takes extreme concentration and lots of bossa nova to create a mental shield. Coworker is negative. He choses to listen to the news. His focus determines his reality. Thankfully, he retires in a month. (Nate, I’m wondering what your environment is like, if you are forced to experience negative news in your environment, like me.)

    I like to change that negative programming when I can. My boss at work turns the TV to CNN. All waiting rooms either have some horrid Springer-style show or CNN. People think that it’s some default programming. It doesn’t have to be, and I try to change that. I will purposely change the channels to Science Channel, Smithsonian, or PBS. If I can affect a change where people are learning about how machines are made, or what treasures their ocean has, I do it. I change the channel. If no educational choice, I try to get them to turn it off. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. If I can’t, headphones go on or I wait somewhere else. I want it to be my choice.

    • I will agree with you (and everyone with this counterpoint) 100% that the world overall is a better and safer place than it was 100 years ago. In almost every measurable category of badness, things have vastly improved.

      My question is, if things are so much better, WHY do we spend so much time and energy trying to fill our lives up with so much bad stuff? I’ll keep saying this – awareness is one thing, but soaking in it constantly is another. I love the way you put it: “Some people are inviting death to sit with them.”

      A big part of what I’ve been thinking about with this stuff is the fact that the majority of people must be thinking/feeling that way, because it’s what sells right now. It’s what makes money. It’s what drives the news and so many other media platforms, and that depresses me. It means that at some point, at some level, the collective “we” have chosen this. *insert sigh here*

      I think we can do better.

  • Beth Bortner

    Since this post was released, I have been thinking a lot about what I carry and how it affects me. What i have come to realize is that what I carry: the pain of betrayal, the heartache, the depression in my own life, all of it is ment to remember, to keep that mind/heart link. There is a way to stop carrying what is goiing on around us. We need to remember that we choose what baggage to carry with us. And ultimately, the thoughts and actions of others are NOT our own. What we have to remind ourselves is to disconnect from the guilt. The guilt is what is tearing us up. As for the scar tissue, well that too would be taken care of if we would disengauge from the guilt. We need to remember so as not to repeat in the future. There is a shift in consousness happening and it is always darkest before the dawn.

    • Someone the other day told me something like, “It’s not your tragedy,” meaning we don’t have to own the pain and grief of all these different things that we have access to.

  • Big Mike

    This article hit a nerve for me. I participated in this very phenomenon for most of my life, and the result for me was the development of a burning, all-consuming misanthropy. It is a miracle I didn’t end up in prison.
    years ago I had the good sense to block it just out, and now I’m slowly
    getting over my loathing for mankind. It’s a frightening shame that we
    condition our kids to accept this gluttony for horror as normal. And
    people wonder when kids take shotguns to school and kill each other. It’s a nice touch how the media blames video games and fiction for that sort of thing.

    • Wow – that is actually a huge point I never thought of – media questioning whether video games or movies are making us a more violence-prone people, when THEY SENSATIONALIZE VIOLENCE EVERY SINGLE DAY.

  • Melody Mullens Hodge

    I never watch the news on t.v. I watch it online and get to choose what i read. I like having a choice. 🙂

  • Timothy Paul Perry

    Having lived in Haiti and the Dominican Republic for several years I have seen my share of tragedy. I am kind of amazed that so many people invest their time in following the Jodi Arias trial as an example. I wonder what is wrong with them to glue themselves to the tv for weeks on end. Worse then that are the people that travel to be at the courthouse to listen to a verdict. BTW I was in Haiti when the verdict was read for the OJ trial. The Haitians were jubilant. Not many white people were. Anyway I have seen many poor people who do not have access to tv laugh and be happy. They live each day to work and eat. They go to bed when it is dark and they get up just before dawn to make it to the market to sell their wares. They work hard and their demeanor is admirable.

    • Don’t even get me started on the trial stuff, much less trampling each other to be there. I would probably vomit all over my keyboard, and cleaning it up? Ain’t nobody got time for that!

  • This is pretty profound issue. I happen to agree with you. I haven’t watched the news for years (I also don’t own a TV). It is more palatable (and less depressing) to read it on-line than see video. And sometimes I give myself a break from even that. I found myself after 9/11 glued to the TV and went into a funk, seeing the horrifying images replayed over and over. Sometimes I go to my MSN home page and three or four heartbreaking stories pop up as headlines within half an hour. I already know tragedy and cruelty exist I don’t need to read the latest. I like to find the happy stuff. I LOVE the quote Sarah mentioned, “Your focus determines your reality.” I teach happiness for a living (really!) and it seems from my classes that most people have a TV in their bedroom and the last thing they do before they turn out the lights is watch the news. The last thing I do is list 5 things I am grateful for that happened that day. Makes a difference.

    • I’ve heard a couple people now talk about listing 5 things a day that they’re grateful for. I may try that.

      I can’t imagine watching the news before bed – I already have enough nightmares, thank you.

      Where do you think this seemingly endless appetite for the heartbreaking stories comes from, though? That’s what I’m wondering.

  • Jen Eighty-six

    I agree that we are surrounded by too much negativity. I don’t listen to the news, although I do occasionally research big stories for myself, I tend to listen regularly to positive news outlets and remember the good in the world.

    I feel that there is enough bad stuff, enough negativity already without choosing to seek it out. People are pretty rude and unpleasant to one another on a day to day basis. I also find that some stories impact me profoundly and I don’t need that drama.

    I also believe that the hearing bad news multiple times a day immunises people to the horror of war and murder. They become desensitised to it. You know, people rally round when something horrible happens on their doorstep, but can happily just ignore suffering a little further afield. We are just subjected to so much of it that it is hard to know where to start helping and apathy sets in.

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