Just a reminder in these troubled times that there is paying attention — and there is hyper-vigilance. Paying attention, noticing, holding an open awareness keeps us informed about what’s going on for ourselves and others, and it reminds us of our connection to all beings; hyper-vigilance, or anxious obsession, is “repeatedly basting ourselves in … distressing circumstances over which we are helpless.”
I came across Anna Sproul-Latimer’s essay “Hypervigilance Won’t Keep You Safe” today at How To Glow in the Dark, which is a newsletter for writers but her words are equally perceptive and helpful for anyone (though the Tolkein analogies went right over my head). She starts by addressing that terrible ambivalence we feel in the face of something disastrous and dangerous beyond our ability to in any way fix it, her feeling that “it’s at once immoral to be a bystander and immoral not to be one.”
Then she reminds us that
“unless we are directly involved in matters of global geopolitical strategy, our eyewitness to every terrible development and opinion available for consumption today helps exactly bupkis.
“I mean, unless it helps you. If you need convincing that war is bad, watch away. If you need this information to make some important life decision, ditto. But I’m going to go ahead and guess most of you don’t.
“Rather, you’re like me: you feel a vague, almost obsessive conviction that you ought to be glued to something this serious. That being glued to it will somehow make the future more legible and you personally more safe. That not being glued to it is a form of denial.
“Wrong. Do you know what’s actually a form of denial? Mistaking self-insertion for safety, obsession for agency, and hurting yourself for helping others.“
It’s tempting to feel that focusing on news of war — or climate change, environmental disaster, the pandemic, crime and violence, human rights violations, terrorism, democracies in crisis, wildfires, the plight of refugees, and other global emergencies, catastrophes, and tragedies — is necessary, helpful. But once we’re aware of the basic facts, and have done (or are doing) what we can actually do to help improve the situation for ourselves and others, then continuing to monitor the news constantly is just wearing, and it doesn’t make things better for anyone.
Even though we have constant opportunity in these modern times for following every second of every unfolding and dramatic crisis, doing so isn’t beneficial to anyone except those who have to take decisive action in the midst of them.
Feeling outrage over what’s happening in Ukraine might make us feel like we’re doing something to help the people of Ukraine. Worrying about a growing nuclear threat or threat to global democracies might make us feel more in control (as Sproul-Latimer writes, we may imagine that “I can fix everything I see that’s bad and broken if I just monitor and obsess about it hard enough”) — but those are both delusions, not reality. There are some actions we can take in some situations to help avert the worst or protect ourselves and others from the worst should it occur, and it’s important to know when that’s the case and do it; and we need to admit when we are powerless to do much more than stand by and hope. Being exposed to 24/7 news from every part of the earth (and beyond) can make us, if we care at all, feel like impotent bystanders.
If you have a practice — meditation, journaliing, prayer, yoga, shinrin-yoku (forest bathing), beach-walking, checking in with a trusted circle — now (and always) is the time to take refuge there, to cultivate wisdom and compassion for your own benefit and for others’. If your practice helps you step off the neurotic immediacy treadmill and preserve the basic truth that we are all connected, then now seems a good time for it. But remember that practicing compassion and taking time away from the news for sanity’s sake aren’t strategies for insulating ourselves from a scary situation. The purpose is not to safeguard ourselves from the pain of others’ suffering or others’ wrong-doing, but to notice and hold our own reactivity, fear, grief, confusion in the spaciousness of calm awareness. This is how we can keep from hardening our hearts when we may feel we have plenty of reason to do so.
Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön spoke about “Practicing Peace in Times of War” in a 2007 talk (later, a book) and said this:
“War begins when we harden our hearts, and we harden them easily — in minor ways and then in quite serious, major ways, such as hatred and prejudice — whenever we feel uncomfortable. It’s so sad, really, because our motivation in hardening our hearts is to find some kind of ease, some kind of freedom from the distress that we’re feeling.
“Someone once gave me a poem with a line in it that offers a good definition of peace: ‘Softening what is rigid in our hearts.’ We can talk about ending war and we can march for ending war, we can do everything in our power, but war is never going to end as long as our hearts are hardened against each other. “
And Sproul-Latimer concludes: “[N]either you nor I can obsess pain and suffering away. So let’s give ourselves at least the occasional mercy of not giving into the temptation. Our actual power to change the world depends on it.”