Wednesday, March 16, 2011

the cope


I remember watching hours of CNN during hurricane Katrina and its terrible aftermath. Crying babies and their frightened mothers, covered in filth with no end in sight. News people wearing glaringly bright Gortex jackets, hoods pulled tight around their fresh-scrubbed faces as they reported from scenes too horrible to contemplate.

There was the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. CNN again, in loud staccato bursts showing images of mass devastation. Wobbly video recordings portrayed a wall of roiling dark brown water--- matchstick structures riding the waves into swaying palm trees. And the faces streaked with muck, telling stories of heroism and heartbreak, eyes wild, scanning the distant horizon for some sign of relief.

The Haiti earthquake: schools of children sitting in terrified clusters amidst rubble too small to be recognized as the remains of structures. Rocks and sticks, really. Destruction underlined by the horrible panic of widespread violence: fathers digging beneath towering mounds of unmentionable death to seek the bodies of their children, scarecrow-thin arms hoisting rifles over their heads, firing into a bloody sky.

Flooding in Rio de Janeiro, Queensland, the Philippines. Earthquakes in Christchurch and Pakistan.

And of course now, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan.

Each time I find myself drawn inexplicably to the coverage, the 24-7 inundation of terror: from the first shakey camera shots and the news anchors pulled out of bed to report on an unfolding scene of horror they don't understand --- to the rising collection of local news faces as they flock to the epicenter of disaster, jumping on planes streaking the sky only minutes after the initial shaking of the ground.

I don't know if it's something innately human or more specific to American culture or even a sickness designated independently to me, but in the wake of disaster my first impulse is to turn on the TV. I flip channels from local news to the wider lens of CNN and PBS. I let the television drone in the background of life circulations: stopping mid-stride to stand transfixed as I watch the news of families searching for signs of loved ones, elderly women staggering through the wreckage of their village, their eyes too weary for tears. I watch experts weigh in, their voices even and paced, as they talk about statistics and epicenters from their brown leather chairs in a New York studio. This in stark contrast to the scenes they narrate: human beings reduced to their most humble and base circumstance, standing in a world so dramatically foreign to the one they have lived in.

I linger on images of tennis shoes knocked into telephone wires and a vast sea of white cars piled on one another, as far as the eye can see.

It's the same each time. In a few hours or several, after one day or three, my internal disaster meter glows red. With shaking hands and a heavy heart, I turn the television off. I turn the radio dial to black. I shut myself away from the tragedy. One more image will send me into a spiral of hopelessness and inaction.

I turn it off so that I can remember quiet, so that I can reflect on wholeness, so that I can feel normal.

There is a point in human horror when I know that I can't take one more image of sisters and brothers being pulled from unimaginable wreckage. To push myself beyond that limit is to risk stripping away my carefully grown coping mechanisms. To watch any more reports of devastation is to cause irreparable damage to my soul. In order for me to have hope, I have to cultivate it within myself - and in order to have the right environment for hope to grow, I have to feel peace in my heart. And peace, for me, is best found in the table scraps of every day repetition.

It's something I don't understand about myself well enough to explain it to you, other than to say it is so. And I'm not proud of this pattern of retreat, either--- I am trying to decide if it's a survival skill or a nasty wall of Western Obliviousness.

Be that as it may, these days I am watching a repeating cycle of Super Why and Scooby Doo, memorizing Alice's delightful face as she learns to ride her tricycle. I plead fervent prayers of hope and empathy for everyone affected by recent world events. I do things small and quiet to help in my own way, from this corner of the world.

And I give thanks that I have this peaceful corner to retreat to, when so many do not.

What do you do? How do you handle world disasters? And as your children grow, how do you help them to cope?


Alicia said...

I had this response with September 11th. We watched tv for days and decided we needed to be ready to move to Canada. We got Kieran a passport (he was 4 months old at the time).

I've watched some tv with disasters since, but I know it's not good for me, so I generally avoid it. There's something to the way that news is reported, too, that's dishonest. I refuse to believe that I can't be reflective and helpful if I don't watch the news coverage, even though I know it moves me to greater action.

I've been told by mental health PROFESSIONALS that my responses to these kinds of disasters is not NORMAL, that it's a sign of depression in me that I am more broken by these events than most people (and your reaction sounds like mine, if I were to let myself get sucked down that pool). I don't know. I like to think it means a greater connection to humanity somehow.

As far as children go, I think it's good to talk about things. We don't typically keep the feverish coverage on, especially because it would scare the older ones, but they hear things when we listen to NPR (which is even rare these days). And then we talk about things.

They internalize things more than we know, though. Kieran apparently was talking at school recently about the gay college student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge (I think) in the fall. He heard about it on NPR, and then we talked about it. They remember these things and turn them over in their minds much more than I'd like to believe.

I know my response is all over the place. I don't have a good answer.

artemisia said...

Oh, I understand.

I find myself "spiraling" into hopelessness and terror if I don't check myself.

It took me a long time not to feel disproportionate guilt when not being consumed by the disaster. Peoples' entire world has disappeared and I can't take the news? But, my misery does not lighten theirs, and renders me totally useless to everyone in my life. That doesn't work, either.

I usually just stay away from the media and find myself offering contemplative prayers more often. But, stay away from the media. I have to.