In Defense of Negativity

Or, a Year of Reading The Economist

When I was in my 20s, I proudly avoided the news. Especially in my early 20s, riddled with anxiety, I didn’t want to tip the scales and have more panic attacks. Life was already dark enough without me steeping in the stiff tea of the world’s pain.  

Maybe that made sense at the time, and maybe I’ve grown less sensitive with each passing year. I don’t think that’s true; the indiscriminate consumption of it can still bring me to tears. If the radio is on, I’ll listen to politics and climate change discussions, but as soon as they discuss a murder trial, or a kidnapping, I turn it off.

It’s easier to control news consumption if it’s not television or radio. Reading is the best way to do this, but there’s a downside – you could get stuck in an echo chamber ideas you agree with. That’s why I made the choice to only consume my news from trusted sources – with the one exception that I’m not a perfect person and I enjoy a good Reddit discussion as much as the next person. Reddit is a good way to feel the pulse of the people. I wouldn’t source all my news from there, but it’s a good way to gauge how others react to the news.

A few years ago, I decided there was a major gap in my knowledge. I wasn’t a total idiot, but I had no idea what was happening in the world. What were the major innovations and discoveries? Who were the major players? In what countries was democracy threatened? What countries were at risk of war, or worse?

And – do I need to know these things, as an individual? After a year of deliberate and careful reading of The Economist – every single issue, often spending 3+ hours per week with each one – I feel strongly that the answer is yes, yes many times over. But why? What’s happening in Ethiopia hardly effects my day-to-day life. Why do I need to know these things?

I am privileged enough to live in a wealthy country with a functioning democracy, and part of that privilege is being able to go into my bubble and ignore the many problems of the world. That’s what I spent years doing, and it was fine. No one reprimanded me. My decision wasn’t even particularly uncommon.

Other countries live in a bubble by force, not by choice. China is shielded from reality with historical events being scrubbed and narratives carefully spun. No news reaches the people that isn’t CCP-approved.

Or countries like Ethiopia and Afghanistan are so immersed in their own problems – rebels overthrowing the government – that there is no capacity left to exit the bubble.

Isn’t that how it is? When you are wounded, you need others to care for you. But what about when you’re healthy? You could carry on and live your healthy life. But what about when others are wounded? Who cares for the wounded, if not the healthy?

One way to express care is through understanding. I’ve spent a lot of time this year learning about the world, and the problems and triumphs within it, urged forward by a sense of caring. Because I’m privileged enough – healthy enough – to care. I have extra energy at my disposal to do something, anything¸ even if that something is as simple as picking up a reputable magazine. I hope to one day do much more than simply understand, because understanding is not enough.

To care for the wounded, you need to understand wounds and how they heal. You need to learn about ointments and bandages and all the other things. But at some point, understanding needs to be followed by action. I feel this acutely and I consider it often. How can I help? People, and animals, are suffering, and I’m just reading in the comfort of my own home.

My strength has been in teaching and communicating, which frankly feels rather wimpy. People are suffering, the climate is changing, and I want to teach and communicate? There’s nobility in ground-level action – tinkering on my laptop feels small. But I don’t choose my strengths out of cowardice. My strengths are my strengths. Why waste time fighting myself, wishing to be a different person than I am? I only wish to be a better person than I am.

I envision a path with a foundation of deep knowledge and understanding, which I can share with others through teaching and communication. In some small way, I want to participate in, and inspire, positive action. The path is unclear, but it’s walked one small step at a time.

It all begins, I think, with confronting the negative and exiting the pleasant bubble that I have been so lucky to build around myself. I thought perhaps the negativity of world news would pull me under and kill my spirit, but in fact something rather different has happened. It has been kindling to my spirit. The fire in my gut has grown, not diminished. Anger is a force that can destroy, but also a force that can create. Without anger, without facing dark truths about the world, we welcome complacency. A cushy life that we are lucky enough to enjoy, while many more people despair in their ill fate.

My favorite television shows have always been “save the world” types. Misfits who band together to make a difference, despite every stacked odd against them. How do we help anyone? How to we make things better? It’s insurmountable, it has always been insurmountable. Us humans will inevitably destroy ourselves. Except, except, except. There’s a small chance we won’t. In those television shows I’ve loved, the heroes grab that tiny chance and fight with immortal spirit. It’s not the victory that’s the point; it’s the trying. What you’re willing to fight for, that’s who you are.

The thing that gives me hope, as I immerse myself in the negative happenings of the world, is that there are many, many people out there who really care. Who have a fire in their gut enough to devote their lives to making the world better. And not in a touchy-feely way, making rich people feel happier, but in a real way, reducing the suffering of those who suffer the most.

There’s a flaw in creating a divide – rich and poor, us and them. Rich people and poor people both suffer, I know. I have suffered, and though I’m not rich, I am certainly very privileged. But I have not suffered. I have not gone hungry, or without shelter, and I have not lived in a warring country. I will not suffer the worst effects of climate change, and I will not die from air pollution. I live in a democracy, and I have access to clean water and decent education. My social net is wide, and I do not face destitution if something goes very wrong in my life.

I believe it is my moral obligation to do something about this. This is what brings me to my laptop while my child is still sleeping, before the rest of the house wakes. This is the thought I need to share with you, no matter how imperfect it is. What is more important than reducing suffering? What is kinder, what is more compassionate? What is a better use of time?

Please, those of us who are privileged enough to do so, let’s burst the bubble and find the strength to confront the suffering of the world, in whatever way we can, big or small. If we are lucky enough to choose to insulate ourselves from negativity, then we must help those who live the very negativity we avoid. There are others who exist in the very reality we don’t feel strong enough to face.

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