By SHAWNA BETHELL
For the Kansas Reflector
I talked to a friend of mine recently. She has always been one of those people who began work around 8 a.m. and could easily be found editing her final report a good 12 hours later, taking a break only to go on an arduous hike to reach her daily exercise goals. But now, she said, she’s often ready to go back to bed by noon, too tired or indifferent to work or even go on the gentlest stroll.
I understand. I often find myself ready to hide under the covers by noon and I’m beginning to think it is not allergies or illness or even a less-than-quality night’s sleep. It is simply world fatigue: too much doom, darkness, drama. Too much news, too much social media, too much bickering just to bicker. The world is burning and I — who have been an activist all my life — just want to pop in a movie and let the flames rise.
But I am beginning to wonder how much of the doom is cultivated by major media outlets angling for our attention. And as a writer, it pains me to say this.
I do believe our climate is changing. I believe we are facing a dangerous pandemic. I don’t dispute these events. However it is also well documented that humans are geared to fixate on the negative. It is theorized that early in our evolution, we had to focus our awareness on danger — the negative aspects of life — because it was necessary for survival. Media outlets can prey on this tendency.
The problem is that a fear-based existence also creates apathy, a numbness that eventually prevents us from engaging. I am afraid that for the past few years we have been in such a permanent “high alert” status, that we have tuned out, out of self-preservation.
A journalist friend wrote in his newsletter over the summer that after researching his work and flying across two continents shrouded by smoke, his optimism is finally eroding. I have felt the same myself, until recently.
It’s not that I’ve become a Pollyanna or that I have my head in the sand. Often, even, I have been called a pessimist, though I prefer to think of myself as a realist. I still believe that humans will not act for change until they find themselves face to face with whatever dread thing is happening. For example, we are appalled at images of sea animals dying from masses of plastic in their stomachs; however, unless we were on the beach with the suffering beast, most of us will continue to buy plastic trinkets.
But my fear is that we are reaching a point when even the people who do care and who do act are becoming unable to do so. I fear, in our fear-based, media-fed apathy, that we will not dredge up the fortitude to make plausible change happen. I am afraid we will only ask ourselves, “What’s the point?”
Last night I watched a nature show, which I rarely do anymore, and I braced myself. Understanding the issues of climate and extinction, I dreaded the feeling of despair I knew would come when the show ended and they gave me the dire warning about what we are losing. But the warning didn’t come. Instead, the narrator explained in a single sentence the richness we still had and the opportunities to protect it. It left me hopeful, enamored with our natural world and re-invested in its protection. The television producers had used a different mental tactic, and it hit its mark.
As a writer and activist, I understand the anger and the urge to shock people into action. But I have also come to believe it doesn’t work; people revolt against feeling guilty.
Of course we need to be informed as to the hard realities that exist, because they are real, and we must rely on quality journalism for that information. We also need to understand that quietly and without fanfare, people across the world are doing amazing things. Instead of scrolling for doom, we must acquaint ourselves with solutions and share them.
It is true that our world will never again look the way it did when any of us were born. Change is happening rapidly. But it is possible to work within the parameters we have and move forward. That, too, is already happening. It is OK to hope. Let it be as contagious as our fear.
Shawna Bethell is a freelance essayist/journalist covering the people and places of Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. Before returning home, she wrote for several publications in the southwestern United States.