Miserable & Magical: Sometimes, you have to look away

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In my first column for The Phoenix a few weeks ago I said my pieces would be a mix of sincere and snarky. But honestly, I’m not sure how much sass and wit I have to offer this week.

I know, that’s an uplifting and promising way to start a column and hook a reader. But, bear with me.

I also promised I’d always be honest in my pieces, and this week I’ve been feeling very, uh, meh. I’ve been walking around with my head down wondering why the world is such a dumpster fire. Every time I pick up my phone, some new and terrible thing has been said or done, or some sort of disaster or tragedy has occurred.

Usually I’m not such a cynical person, but you’d be lying to yourself if you said this constant barrage of negativity has no effect on you.

To combat these feelings and protect my sanity, I’ve been trying to do something that makes me feel pretty guilty – I disengage. It’s an extreme privilege to turn a cheek at the atrocities happening in our country and around the world. To be able to look away from this ugly thing that’s affecting millions of people and pretend it’s not happening is such a privileged thing to do.

And yet, I know what it’s like to not avert my eyes.

There have been times in my life where I’ve been glued to screens full of trauma and suffering and haven’t been able to look away. I followed the trials of the Boston Marathon bombers and the St. Paul’s School rape case like a hawk, unwilling to miss a single moment. I felt myself shrinking as new details arose and seared themselves into my memory. It hurt to watch, but it felt important. Maybe I had FOMO for bad news.

When I worked full-time as a journalist, I wasn’t allowed to look away. I wrote about suicides and accidental deaths, things that would make me cry in my car and struggle to interview the people left behind. These stories would break me down. I knew I wasn’t supposed to let my emotions rule me or my reporting, but I couldn’t help myself. I took the pain of others into myself and let it take hold.

Eventually I learned that there are some things I can’t handle. In those instances, I completely disengage and shut all the news out. When the hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh took place in the fall of 2018, I looked away. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave powerful, moving testimony, and while I’ve read a few unavoidable quotes here and there, I’ve never heard her voice. When U.S. Sen. Susan Collins turned her back on Mainers and on survivors, I wasn’t tuned in. I get the gist of what she said, but I’ve yet to read or hear a single line of her traitorous speech.

Admitting things like that make me feel guilty. I feel like a bad person, like I’m weak and at the same time, uninformed. But you know, sometimes I’d rather be sane than in the know. I need to protect myself. If people think that’s a cop-out or that it makes me a bad feminist, I don’t care. I may have cared at some point, but people passing judgement don’t know me. I know me, and I know what I can handle. 

I wish as a society that this was the norm. Instead, we push ourselves and everyone around us to the breaking point, mental health be damned. It’s not healthy to expect we all live in this constant intake of trauma and disaster. So, lately I’ve found myself striking more of a balance.

I read the headlines, maybe a couple paragraphs depending on the content, and then I step away. I get enough information to understand what’s happening in the world around me, but not so much that it suffocates me. And the No. 1 rule I’m setting, which I wish was written as a prescription and given to everyone who needs it, is to never read the comments.

Kate Gardner is a Portland-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, SELF, and Bustle. You can follow her on Twitter @katevgardner.