"The Problem of Caring" by Kim Brooks

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The following essay was written for our episode, "If My Body is a Text," which explores how to absorb and address the flood of images, video, and information online when paying attention can be painful and exhausting. Listen here.



Once, it was several years ago now, I decided to turn my back on the world. Not in an ascetic or monastic sort of way but in a very deliberate way, one designed to protect myself. I’m not proud of it but know that it was necessary.

I was twenty-eight at the time, married a few years, relatively aimless both geographically and professionally, wanting to find a way to support myself as a writer, but clueless about how to actually make this happen, when, a few weeks into the year, I learned that I was pregnant. My hormones surged. My insides shrunk. The thought of everything made me nauseous. Thankfully, my husband got a job that provided us with health insurance and enough money to live. But with our situation suddenly stable and the need to insert myself into the world less of a financial necessity, I indulged the lethargy that accompanied my pregnancy. I grew despondent. Some might call this perinatal depression. I think spiritual cocooning sounds nicer. Day after day, winter to spring, I sat on our sofa with our two small dogs, watching the snow fall, balancing my laptop on my growing belly, nibbling my way through packages of saltine crackers, telling people I was writing, but not really writing at all. What I did instead was read, occasionally books, but usually just news of the world. Usually, then as now, that news was terrible.

These were post-MySpace, pre-Facebook/Twitter days, and it seems very odd to think about seeing the news delivered in an uncurated, mostly commentless way. There was still slant and spin but the din of countless voices that accompanies our news now was largely absent. You picked your ideological flavor, and then you sat back and listened. And let it all pour over you.

I read the gory details of the overseas misadventures of George W. Bush’s second term— the blood baths in Iraq and Afghanistan. I read about melting polar ice caps and mega-climate-warming methane gas bubbling up from the sea floor. I read about deadly cyclones in Bangladesh, failing wheat crops in Australia, soaring food prices across the globe, bursting housing bubbles foundering banks and a surge in foreclosures. When Al-Qaeda set off bombs in Algiers, I read as many details as the Times could supply. When Sudanese troops attacked refugees in Darfur, I looked at the pictures. When a mentally ill student slaughtered thirty students on the campus of Virginia Tech, the school where my sister had been an undergraduate, I read the details and viewed the pictures. This was before the smartphone-Instagram-hashtag pipeline allowed for instant, scene of the carnage imagery, the pictures that arrive on our browsers blurred and with a warning that clicking is going to reveal something grisly or worse. All there was, was news. For most of my unemployed second trimester, I made myself a kind of morbid repository for all the documented horribleness humanity had to offer. It won’t come as much of a surprise that my depression worsened.

The urge to stop and look away was slow in arriving, the same way Spring and Summer take their time arriving in Chicago. I knew there was so much more that I could be doing, not even in a response to what I saw but just as a way of not feeling like such a tremendous lump. There were leaves on the trees now, and the wind rustled them. The dogs wanted to go outside. There was a novel I realized I had to write.    

I closed my computer. I stopped wallowing in the ceaseless stream of misery. I got off of the couch, got a part-time job, stopped reading the latest news and and started reading the news from a period in history that had always interested me, the years in America right before our entrance into World War II. I began writing a novel about people during this time period who were as angry and afraid and helpless as confused at their inability to help refugees in Europe as I was at my inability to help anyone today. I worked and I wrote and I became a mother.

But I found that this need to keep looking away had taken root. I was a content person on the North Side of Chicago, inching into the periphery of success, with children who did cute things, and a desire, something I hadn’t always had, to keep moving forward. If I moved my head a little too far in this direction there were flames in the distance and too far in the other direction I could see untold millions weeping. But as long as I kept my gaze forward and ignored whatever flared up in the corners of my eyes, I could see a relatively happy world. I didn’t want to look at it any other way.

It’s perhaps overstating the case to say I became a better person through this new willful ignorance, but I will say that I became a happier and higher functioning one. And yet now, eight years later, as we’re once again inundated with daily doses of awfulness— shootings in Minnesota, shootings in Louisiana, shootings in Dallas, the presidential candidacy of an actual Fascist (as opposed to all the pseudo and crypto and just-for-fun Fascists we’ve courted in the past), I have to wonder if I did the right thing in unplugging in order to stick my head in the sand. For the truth is, this wasn’t a one-off decision. I continue to do it regularly, and I know others who do the same.

Last Friday, for example, I emailed my editor some silly question about an upcoming event.

“Hey, Dan,” I began, “Happy Friday.”         

“Um,” he wrote back. “Only happy if you’re not reading the news.”

It so happened I wasn’t. I was in the middle of one of my regular news fasts. For five days, I hadn’t read a single report. And while I fasted, the rest of the country was watching their fellow citizens shot and killed at traffic stops, arrested at peaceful protests, murdered by snipers.

And while all this was going on, while most people were posting their expressions of outrage and sympathy, their thoughts and prayers, I was ploughing through work, taking my kids to the pool, trying out a new recipe for green gazpacho.

If I’d been paying attention, I would have been waving my fists and cowering under a chair like everyone else. But I wasn’t, and so I wasn’t. Did this make me a bad person? And if it did, what was the solution? In a world where news of the human consequences of injustice, racism, xenophobia, guns, and greed are always only a click away, what is the morally appropriate posture for a regular person? Do we have a responsibility to stay informed, even if being informed makes us feel  overwhelmed by the volume of bad news, even if it makes us feel embittered and hopeless? I didn’t know the answer, and so I did what I usually do when I’m plagued by uncertainty. I found someone else who was equally uncertain, a person struggling with the same dilemma. In this case, that someone was a historian named Daniel Greene.

I learned through a mutual friend that Greene was in the process of curating an exhibit at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum on the subject of America and the Holocaust, the same subject on which I’d based my novel. We met at a coffee shop in Evanston one morning after each dropping our kids off at camp. It was the kind of resplendent, June morning Chicagoans wait all year for— sunny, temperate, a light, Northerly breeze skimming in off the lake. All around us, people were chatting, reading, listening to music, smiling at contended babies over cups of very good coffee. And yet despite this idyll, Greene and I found ourselves talking almost immediately not about what a lovely morning it was but of the terrible news of both the present and of the past. In preparing to curate this exhibition, Greene tells me the museum conducted numerous polls of high school and college students throughout the country, trying to gauge their knowledge of Americans during this period. Many of them, they found, believed that Americans had little to no information of Nazi persecution until after the war. In reality, they had a great deal of information.

Even before Facebook and Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle, an interested, informed citizen in the late 1930’s had access to plenty of information about escalating discrimination, persecution, and violence across the sea. They didn’t have visual evidence, but they had headlines. They had news and information. “The problem,” Greene told me, “then as now, is that people didn’t know how to interpret the information they were reading. They didn’t know what we should do about it as individuals or as a country.”

This gap between information and insight, between awareness and empathic action, it turns out, is critical. Greene goes on to tell me how when people find out he’s working on the subject of the Holocaust, they always ask him why the Jews didn’t leave. “It’s a natural question,” he says, “But also an ignorant one.” Greene, and anyone who’s studied the period, understands that for years, Jews tried to leave Germany, were even encouraged by the Nazis to leave. All through the thirties, leaving wasn’t the problem. In his exhibition, he tells me that he’s trying to reframe the question from “why didn’t they leave” to “why didn’t we let them in.”

We both understand, of course, why people prefer not to ask such questions. Today, for example, it’s frightening to ask questions about our country’s escalating atmosphere of racial hatred, gun violence, class inequality and climate change— the answers aren’t pretty. They can be terrifying, in fact. And yet still, in talking to Greene, I’m reminded of how essential it is not simply to read and watch and feel appalled, but also to think, to question, to challenge received knowledge and accepted notions. Greene tells me about another poll he studied, this one taken after World War II had ended. Americans were shown the new visual evidence of atrocities they’d lacked before, photographs and news reels documenting the human corpses of Nazi carnage. Those polled were asked if, now, after seeing these images and this footage, they believed that America should accept more refugees. Ninety-five percent said no.

Of course I’d like to believe that I’m different. Wouldn’t we all? But I also know what it’s like to feel paralyzed by fear, to act and think from a place of anxiety. I know how easy it is to read the news and think how it hardly matters what any one person does, that we might as well put our feet up and call it a day. Because how can anything we say or do or learn or feel possibly matter? After the massacre at Sandy Hook, The Onion summed up the atmosphere of national despair with poetic brevity: “Fuck Everything, Nation Reports.”

I’ve felt this way a hundred times since. And yet now I’ve begun to feel as though appalled indifference is just another style of fearful evasion.

After so much time studying Americans and the Holocaust, one of the things both Greene and I found most disturbing was the ability of so many people to be undisturbed. “This should have been unbearable,” he says simply. “But for too many, it wasn’t. This should have been so unbearable that it upended your life.”

As he talks, I’m reminded of a line from Saul Bellow in 1973: “Our media make crisis chatter out of news and fill our minds with anxious phantoms of the real thing,” setting off “endless circuits of anxious calculation.” He was writing this in 1973.

For anyone with a serviceable internet connection— the phantoms have multiplied a million fold, the circuit expanded to new dimensions. When I read stories of suffering, I still feel something. It seems inhuman not to. At the same time, I’m more aware than ever of how little my feeling is worth, of how, if we are to truly keep alive the conditions that make ethical life possible— it is not empathy that’s needed, but insight, organization, and action.

A few days after sending that embarrassing email to my editor, I was driving back from a writing conference, thinking about all the terrible things that had happened during my week-long media fast. I was thinking about going home and reading the news, seeing the pictures, browsing the posts. But I decided to do something else. Instead of spending three hours ingesting information on-line, I spent ten minutes reading the essential facts, and then I called a friend I hadn’t talked to in a few months, a friend who never fails to be not just informed but also insightful and compassionate and intellectually brave.

“How about them Yankees,” I started out the conversation. She laughed, but it was the kind of laugh that is pretty damn close to a sob because in addition to being a friend and a teacher and a poet, she’s also an African American and a part of her now worries every time her mother gets in the car to go somewhere.

Laughter and sobbing and months of catching up ensued. And as we talked about what was happening to our country— I wondered if the sharing of stories and honest dialogue and saying the difficult thing, not just on Facebook but to actual other human beings, is a small but real antidote to fear.

“It’s so good to hear your voice,” I said. We talked for hours about all the awful news of the world; we talked and debated and wrestled with this information about what’s happening to people in our country, not just headlines and images but actual people.

Together, we struggled not just to know, but to understand.