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Apr 15 2013

It’s Okay to Look Away

Sometimes it’s even a good thing.

When large-scale tragedy strikes these days, the news is everywhere, and it’s constant. It’s keeps our social networks constantly updating. It keeps 24-hour news channels churning. It takes over the regular channels from our escapist entertainment. Everywhere, people are telling us, “Look! Look at what has happened! Look at the new pictures, new ‘information’, new interviews, new clips of people reacting to tragedy!”

I’m just one little voice, but I’m telling you something else.

It’s okay to look away. It’s okay not to see all the pictures and all the reactions. It’s okay not to hear or read every new thing that all the reporters and friends of the affected and bystanders hear or think. It’s okay to put your head down and walk away. It’s okay to go do something that makes you feel good even when this many people feel bad.

I, for one, can’t take it all. The stress of hours spent on this is bad for me. I’m hardly alone. Whether the tragedy is due to unpredictable occurences, negligence, or malice, spending too much time dwelling on the fact that the world contains all these things just isn’t good for many of us.

It isn’t any abrogation of our duties as human beings to take care of ourselves. Once we know that our loved ones are safe and help pass that news along, there’s very little that most of us can do in this age of global news. Looking after our own mental health (or that of someone close to us) is more productive than most of the choices out there. The time will come when we know what happened, and sometimes why. If we’re in good shape, we’ll make better choices about how we deal with that information.

It isn’t coldness or callousness to shelter ourselves either. If we didn’t care, it would cost us nothing to watch. Emotional callouses are what happen when we can’t get away from something too painful. Limiting our exposure to overwhelming pain and confusion helps to stave off compassion fatigue.

Just a few decades ago, our exposure to this kind of news would have been limited for us. We would have had newspaper printing delays and space constraints. Television time was not something we were so desperate to fill. News from our friends came at a higher cost and, so, was more filtered. We didn’t see tragedy the way we do now.

There were downsides to that, but there were benefits for some of us as well. If you’re one of the people who suffers from the change, you don’t have to. There is no moral obligation. You can look away. And if you must somehow justify your action to yourself, find someone else who suffers the same way. Help them walk away too.

Tell them I said it was okay.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    smhll

    Yeah, I was looking at the news online when my parents drove up from out of town. After greeting them, I asked if they had been listening to the news in the car. The answer was no, they had been listening to audio books. So I just shut up and went out and had a pleasant lunch with them. I only see them once every few months. They’ll see the news on TV tonight and it will be terrible, but the timing of knowing about the event will affect nothing. (Whole family lives on the left side of the country.)

  2. 2
    Feminace, formerly Qurikythrope

    THIS. All of THIS.

    My plans for the evening are checking to make sure my friends from Boston are okay (and nearly all of them had checked in before I got home from work), eat, and then boot up a game and play a hero for a couple of hours.

    Because it’s okay.

  3. 3
    Nepenthe

    Ultimately you look away from death and destruction everyday. Just this past weekend, you looked away from 20+ people in the USA, including 4 minors, who were murdered with guns. This past week: 12 members of the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan gunned down and ~900 killed or injured in an earthquake in Iran.

    What makes this any different, unless someone you know was hurt?

  4. 4
    Stephanie Zvan

    Nepenthe, what makes this different is the volume of people telling you you should look.

  5. 5
    daviddurant

    I think this is one of the most important blog posts I’ve read in a good long while. It immediately brings to mind something said by a character in last nights Game of Thrones (of all things) : “Even in war’s darkest days, in most places in the world, absolutely nothing is happening.”

    The decade of social and political convulsion in the US follow 9/11 confused us Brits who’d been used to bombs going off and then going back to work for 30 years of Northern Ireland troubles. One should never get inured to this kind of thing but, when it doesn’t effect you personally, you shouldn’t obsess about it either.

  6. 6
    edithkeeler

    I used to work as a media monitor where my job was quite literally listening to the radio and sometimes watching TV all day. I remember one event years ago where five or six children died in a house fire and I just had to listen to this nonstop for 8 hours. Being out of that job is great for many reasons, but being able to choose my level of exposure to things is definitely one of them.

  7. 7
    Kimbeaux

    In this day of rush-to-report, valuing speed over accuracy, you will not get a reliable account of any disaster from the first reporters. Once a tragedy has been reported to have happened at all, the best way to filter out the inaccurate stories is to turn off all coverage for several days. Give the investigators time to determine what happened before tuning back in. At most, check on the story at widening intervals (e.g., 1 week, 1 month, then 1 year) for new information. If you get absolutely no coverage of the tragedy for a week, then check the current story, you will be just as well informed as the person who spent all their waking hours following the story, and you will have missed all the incorrect reports and non-news in the meantime.

    Now, I’m not saying you have any sort of obligation to follow the reporting of a tragedy at all. But if you look away for most of the reporting, you will not be significantly less informed.

  8. 8
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    Thank you. This is a balm, and so straightforwardly right, though we have to be reminded explicitly.

  9. 9
    Jacquelyn Gill

    Thank you for this. I struggle with this because I feel very deeply, and I’m also a do-er– a fixer. And when I can’t fix things, I feel overwhelmed and ineffectual because I don’t have my coping mechanism. It’s good to remember that there are other kinds of coping, too.

  10. 10
    Dlbroox

    Great post. I watched for fifteen minutes and then shut the TV off. I couldn’t handle it. And I couldn’t do anything about it either.

  11. 11
    Teri Tapia

    Wow fab post! I read it three times yesterday :)
    I heard about it in the hair salon, went home watched a clip to find out if I heard wrong and then kept going about my day.
    I am affected as I hurt when others are, but I’m not infected by the media blitz.

    Thanks so much for this post!

  12. 12
    freemage

    Yup. Exactly this. I contacted the one relative I have in the area, sent a message of support, checked a couple of forums that called for Bostonite regulars to check in, and declared myself done for the evening.

    One additional benefit–you miss all the harried, gotta-be-first-so-screw-accuracy misreporting that goes on for the first day or so of this sort of thing. The New York Post, I understand, has managed to outdo themselves in the category of Getting Shit Wrong.

  13. 13
    Jafafa Hots

    I was asleep during the 9/11 attacks.
    A friend called me and told me while I was groggy. He was the kind of friend that might make something like that up, so I rolled over and went back to sleep, figuring I’d find out soon enough anyway.

    When I woke up I watched two or three hours of the news, thought to myself “this country is going to go apeshit, it’s not going to be pretty, and it’s going to last a while. I don’t need to see this.” I was already struggling with my own issues at the time.

    I turned off the TV and completely avoided any news sources for several months. When I finally checked back in, I learned that we had “won” a war in Afghanistan, were eying Iraq etc. Yep, the country had gone apeshit, was still going apeshit. Maybe the fact that I didn’t gorge myself on a trauma diet helped me see at the time that the upcoming Iraq war was a complete scam.

    This event? I don’t need to hear days or weeks or months of speculation and prejudice and racist diatribes and politically opportune criticisms and BS theories. I’ll check back in periodically when they arrest someone or learn some other thing of value.

  14. 14
    Kevin Boyce

    Yep. I long ago decided that there is no point whatsoever to listening to the first 24 hours of coverage of something like this. If I didn’t have a normal job, I would kind of enjoy summarizing a bunch of reports over the first day after such a big news item. Just to look back at them even a week later to see how wrong they were. The body count, in particular, always seems to overshoot by about a factor of three.

    Also, what Nepenthe said in #3. It’s huge news because big kablooie and oh boy lots of reporters on scene already! Go live! Roll tape! Pre-empt! Step right uppp…

    I’ll check out the news in about a week.

  15. 15
    janiceintoronto

    Thank you for writing this. It sums up my feelings and gave me an elegant way to let my daughter know her feelings were shared by others.

    See you in Washington…

  16. 16
    akaleberg

    It’s sad that so many people don’t realize this. The news media are full of blather. They have to produce words and images, but the information comes in small pieces. First the tragedy takes place in an instant. How long does it take the shock wave from an explosion to traverse a few hundred feet? Then comes the emergency response and the slow accumulation of leads, analyses of evidence, red herrings, and then, usually in another instant, it is all over. Meanwhile the channels we share are full of morbid silliness and speculation. I looked away back in the 90s. Watching the news was like reading a 1,000 word essay saying “we don’t know”, because we don’t know the future. Sometimes we don’t really know the present. I take a peek now and then, and I read the follow up articles, often by bloggers who actually know something, so I wind up better informed than most cable news watchers. I care a great deal, but what would I accomplish by gawking? I leave gawking to the professionals.

  1. 17
    Social Media, Silence and Tragedy | This View of Life

    [...] I was writing this, I clicked over to Facebook to see Stephanie Zvan’s excellent post It’s Okay to Look Away and almost stopped writing this, because she said most of what I wanted to say. Then I realized [...]

  2. 18
    Looking Away | PEI Curmudgeon's Blog

    [...] In the midst of this, a post by Stephanie Zvan who writes at Almost Diamonds struck home for me primarily because she articulated one of the ways I try to deal with this myself. In her words: It’s Okay to Look Away. [...]

  3. 19
    Monday Miscellany » Ashley Miller

    [...] It’s okay to look away–it’s been a long hard week, but this applies at any time. [...]

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