Am I Growing in Compassion or in Anger?

I knew I had to change how I follow the news when I couldn’t stop thinking about certain stories and policies while mowing the lawn.

Listening to the radio became a hard way to manage how much I could take in or process at a time. Scrolling social media exposed me to so many different reactions and responses that left me fearful, anxious, or angry.

There are plenty of issues and stories in the news today that can spark legitimate anger. If asylum seekers being separated from their children doesn’t spark anger in us, then we have certainly lost our way as a society.

As sure as we can become angry over the news, I have grown concerned over my ability to remain compassionate and loving toward others. It’s bad enough to be in the grip of fear and anxiety over the news–I know this first hand–but the ways we consume media and news can certainly undermine our ability to remain compassionate and loving toward others, especially those we disagree with.

MIT researcher Sherry Turkle has written extensively about the impact of social media and technology in general on our relationships in her books Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation. Turkle is one of the many researchers raising alarms about our loss of compassion and empathy when we interact with people over social media.

When we can’t see nonverbal cues, notice the impact of our words on others, or even just see other points of view as flesh and blood people with complexity and dignity, we can lump them together into groups that are easy to fear, insult, or hate.

I was an early adopter of social media, and I have felt compelled to use it less and less because of how much I feel it pulls me away from in-person, flesh and blood interactions and empathy.

I live in a very conservative area, and I routinely interact with people who hold views on gender and equality that I find oppressive. They vote for politicians I consider dishonest, cruel, and often racist. If we interacted only on social media, we would surely fragment over our ideas and lose touch with each other’s common humanity.

Adding to the complexity here: even being present for others on digital devices is difficult. We don’t have to sacrifice much or give much of ourselves on social media, and I can see myself slipping into the relational equivalent of slacktivism.

Although I try to think of ways to use technology to be more present for individuals and to share myself in ways that are more sacrificial and loving, there is a difference in being fully present for someone in person vs. being present over technology.

The times that I could be present for others may well be undermined by technology as I consume news and view reactions that could give rise to anger or fear. The more I develop imperfect caricatures of others and apply them to people I meet, the less likely I am to see them, to be present for them, and to treat them with love and empathy.

While anger will always be a legitimate part of the human experience, the ways I consume media can also send it spiraling out of control. And let’s face it, mowing the lawn is a hard enough chore with allergies and intense southern heat.

Who wants to stew on the news while mowing the lawn?

Recognizing the presence and power of thoughts and then meeting them with contemplative practices have helped me identify and respond to the clutter of my mind. Thomas Merton offered the following diagnosis that has often been on my mind:

“The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see we cannot think.” -Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pg 72

I would add, if we cannot see and we cannot think, we cannot love.

 

Photo by Daniel Watson on Unsplash

Monday Merton: Beware Propaganda and Emotions

monday-merton-blog-header

What influences our moral judgments? What prompts us to take action?

According to Thomas Merton, our society is far more reactionary and emotional, settling for the practical, short term fix rather than the carefully reasoned moral path forward. He also asserted this in the early 1960’s, when most our of current technologies primarily existed in the minds of science fiction writers or imaginative futurists.

The simplicity of reading, reacting, and sharing information on social media encourages reactionary, emotional responses where headlines may or may not convey the heart of the story, let alone offer cogent arguments and action steps.

While I generally prefer to share quotes that are a bit more uplifting and positive, Merton’s critique has helped me step back from the edge in my own consumption of news and social media:

 

“Action is not governed by moral reason but by political expediency and the demands of technology–translated into the simple abstract formulas of propaganda. These formulas have nothing to do with reasoned moral action, even though they may appeal to apparent moral values–they simply condition the mass of men to react in a desired way to certain stimuli.

 

Men do not agree in moral reasoning. They concur in the emotional use of slogans and political formulas. There is no persuasion but that of power, of quantity, of pressure, of fear, of desire. Such is our present condition–and it is critical!”

 

-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 59