Watching the news often feels like playing an extreme sport — a tumultuous experience akin to tiptoeing across a tightrope tethered between the spires of the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel. It can be equal parts exhausting, distressing and simply impossible if you value your own well-being.
While I want to stay informed about the world around me, the line between “staying informed” and “satiating a sense of morbid curiosity” is thin. On somewhat bad days, that line is obscured and hard to find. On worse — and ever more frequent — days, that line has been completely obliterated.
After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, I — like so many others — was flooded with sadness and anger. The reversal sent a clear message: There are people, some of whom hold high positions of power, who believe bodily autonomy is a privilege and some people — some bodies — should not have that privilege. I feared, and still fear, the repercussions and the potential of the Supreme Court continuing to chip away at rights for those of us who may also be deemed less deserving.
The overturning of abortion rights felt sudden, though I knew it was anything but. I wanted to know how we got there, why it wasn’t prevented, and yet I dreaded knowing. I could say the same for climate change, war and other human rights at risk.
I can’t be the only one who is both alarmed but also tempted to close my eyes until the atrocities go away.
As the youngest of three siblings — the “baby,” no matter how many birthdays I’ve had — I grew up internalizing my role as just that: always the child. I saw my older brothers as a kind of protection between me and the rest of the world, a buffer between childhood and adulthood. I secretly reveled in the thought that I didn’t share the same level of responsibility as my brothers and the adults around me, that keeping everything together wasn’t my responsibility (yet).
And even more secretly, I hoped that “yet” would never come. The more I learned and saw about the world, the more it terrified me to think that one day myself and my peers would have to shoulder responsibilities that seemed unbelievably daunting. The older I get, the more perverse that thinking becomes.
When we center our identity around a role of dependency, we are lying about our responsibility and our capacity to effect change. We lie about this because it’s easier. We lie because thinking about the future is hard; it’s intangible and unpredictable.
To understand this further, I reached out to Carnegie Mellon University Associate Professor Russell Golman, who researches decision-making and active avoidance of information. He told me the future is “inherently uncertain,” which makes us approach it tentatively. “The combo of uncertainty of what’s going to happen and the uncertainty of what you can do about it — combined with misinformation,” he said, is a huge reason as to why we struggle to face or outright avoid dealing with large challenges on a societal level.
Our desire to look away from what’s going on is nothing new. It’s understandable and — to an extent — protective. But, as Golman notes, it is also shortsighted and drives us away from taking action, regardless of the severity of the crisis at hand. Golman notes that often, people are actively looking for excuses to avoid information, and we heavily lean into a confirmation bias.
When information goes against what we believe — about ourselves or the world — humans are awfully good at finding crafty ways to justify their inaction.
When author and transgender man Thomas Page McBee discussed his journey of coming into his own in his book, “Amateur: A True Story about What Makes a Man,” he said, “It’s a paradox, to know we need a future that we can’t yet imagine.” That paradox paralyzes us, both individually and on a societal level.
When I asked Professor Golman why he thinks that is, he pointed at two reasons in particular. We simply don’t know what to do or how to approach large-scale crises. And sometimes the things we can conceive of doing — those small, individual, incremental actions — actually serve as distractions to the larger cause. While there’s somewhat of a guideline for how to approach small, personal crises (e.g. a breakup, losing a job), we don’t have that same framework for the crises that happen on a societal level.
While there’s an importance to putting in the work now to see the benefits later, adopting that perspective can be harder than it seems. The concept of doing something “for the good of future generations” is just intangible enough that we can use that statement as a talking point while also not doing much to actually effect change. What — if anything — are we really doing for the people who will outlive us, some of whom we’ll never meet?
In Judaism, there’s a common adage: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” While no one of us is responsible for finishing all of the work and healing all of society’s wounds, none of us is free to abandon the work either.
I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that I often find myself longing to return to the childish feelings of disinterest and disaffection, mostly because I think that being unaware provides some relief.
But what is relief when there are people being stripped of their bodily autonomy?
What is relief when mental health crises and related situations, like homelessness, continue to surge?
What is relief when so many people — including many of my close friends — depend on the kindness of others to donate to their crowdfunding efforts, just in hopes of being able to access healthcare, housing and food?
I’ve always hated the idea that people and causes can only earn our empathy when we know someone who holds that identity; why should we need a personal example before we feel ready to care about something? And yet, sometimes it is hard to act when thinking in abstract.
When I watch the news — when I return to traversing the tightrope between the highest points of the Cathedral and Heinz Chapel — I can’t help but feel scared. Though our capacity for tragedy is limited, our capacity for humanity needs to expand.
On March 30, 2019, during a speech in Berlin, climate activist Greta Thunberg said, “We are failing but we have not yet failed.” In her speeches and writings, Thunberg reiterates that the only way we’re going to give climate change the attention it deserves is if we full-on panic. Anything short of panic, Thunberg says, will go nowhere. We’ve been going nowhere.
Failure to act seems like a failure that we don’t talk about enough. During the Saturday morning service of my bar mitzvah nearly two decades ago, after I read from the Torah, my great-uncle Hal leaned over from where he sat in the congregation, proudly telling me, “I’ve never heard you make so much noise in your entire life!” I think I smiled when he said that, but I felt uncomfortable; in a way, I felt like I had been “found out.” For a long time, I replayed those words in my head, taking them at face value, and mistakenly equating “making noise” with “causing trouble.”
With the time that has passed, I can now see that my discomfort with making noise is not that far removed from my younger self wishing to stave off responsibility or my current self wishing to be young again so I can close my eyes and ignore what’s going on around me.
I still don’t know how to pay attention to the news without feeling completely swallowed by it, but for now, I’m just trying to remind myself that though I will never be able to do everything, I can — and should — still do something. For those of us in the present. And for the future.
Eli Kurs-Lasky, a Pittsburgh native, typically experiences Pittsburgh through writing and photography (self-taught). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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