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Escaping The Tentacles of Despair
The news is awful. So now what?
Editor’s Note: Have a question about how you can mend a broken heart? Don’t ask Matt. Ask the Rev. Al Green. (And while you’re at it, ask him where he got that suit. Matt has to have one.) Do ask Matt all other questions at email@example.com. He can’t guarantee he’ll answer them. That depends on whether The Muse is in on any given day. But even when he doesn’t, he reads them all, then tacks them to his mood board for inspiration/edification.
Jim Jordan is a straight up jackal.
Is "Big" Mike Johnson a jackal in a Brooks Brothers’ suit?
The folks in the Middle East are throwing matches in an oil refinery.
The average age of death in America is dropping.
Is this it?
Whoa, Mary Sunshine. I don’t know how you expect to Make America Great Again with that kind of defeatist attitude. I mean, I too frequently find myself dog-paddling through the muck in the Slough of Despond, as John Bunyan had it in Pilgrim’s Progress. Why, just the other week, when Mike Johnson finally took over as Herder of the Hissing Cats, aka Speaker of the House, I wrote this on Substack Notes (a place where I occasionally give writing away for free, so I can’t say I recommend it).
But my knee-jerk negativity aside - which I’m required to exhibit as a professional journalist - where’s your can-do spirit? Where’s your silver-lining detector? Yes, the world feels bleak these days. But you’re not looking on the bright side: with life expectancy plummeting, you won’t have to endure it as long as you once thought you would.
And the hard truth of the matter is that the world has always been a bleak place for those who choose to see only its bleakness. Which is ever easier to do with the tentacles of despair reaching into every nook and cranny of our lives. Something we’re practically encouraged to do with our bad-news earbuds forever on full blast. As the criminally undervalued wise man, Garrison Keillor, recently put it: “With cable news, print, news networks, websites, millions of podcasts, we are the most communicative people on earth; it’s no wonder we’re so sick of each other.”
The world, at any given moment, is a house of horrors. Forget those currently at the top of the fight card: Israel vs. Hamas, or Ukraine vs. The Great Alt-Right Hope, Vladimir Putin. According to the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, there are 114 ongoing armed conflicts in the world at this very moment. Some of which date back to as early as 1918 - grudges nearly as old as Joe Biden. Considering there are only 195 independent sovereign nations in the world right now, that means well over half the world is hell-bent on killing someone else.
But your life doesn’t have to be under threat for you to feel like you’re getting drenched by a shit-rain. And small wonder, when you consider our information intake habits. A few years ago, an online writer named Maria Pengue - I refuse to call writers “content creators” - went through the trouble of assembling all the bad-news statistics she could find. Here were some of her highlights:
Approximately one in ten American adults check the news every hour.
Roughly 90 percent of all news stories are negative.
People are 49 percent more likely to read something negative than positive.
63 percent of kids age 12-18 say watching the news makes them feel bad.
Nearly 27 percent of people exposed to negative news go on to develop anxiety.
Headlines with a negative slant generated 63 percent higher click-thru rates than positive ones.
When a Russian news site, The City Reporter, published only positive news stories for one day as an experiment, they lost 66 percent of their readership.
What does it all mean? Well, if you believe that statistical snapshot, and odds are you don’t (according to a Gallup poll earlier this year, a full half of Americans believe the media deliberately tries to mislead them), it means that we binge on news, prefer it to be bad, then like to whine about it a lot while growing despondent. The human animal is a funny one. Not ha-ha funny. More like bundle-of-contradictions-and-neuroses funny.
Though maybe it’s all fairly understandable. Maybe our evolutionary coder so genetically hardwired us to constantly assess potential threats in the interest of survival, that we have little choice but to binge on bad news like a fat kid in a cake shop. (No offense to my fat-kid readers.)
Still, it does take a toll. As my mom used to admonish: “You are the company you keep.” To which I’d say, “Did you come up with that? Do you have any other originals like ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ or ‘don’t take any wooden nickels’?” (I was a smart-mouthed kid. Also, a tad defensive about the company I was keeping since, at the time, I was interning with Al-Qaeda in their comms department.)
But because we spend so much time ingesting bad news, it’s no great mystery why so many people come to resemble it: negative, jittery, quarrelsome, eager to wallow in the worst humanity has to offer, and therefore, to regard our fellow humans as suspicious characters. Potential agents of pain, instead of fellow burden-schleppers just trying to get by.
In my own life, I too am a bundle of contradictions. I like to laugh a lot, and do so plenty. But I am also naturally predisposed to…… if not a full-on dark disposition, a dusky one. I push back on it by maintaining faith in a God that I talk to, but who doesn’t really talk back. At least not in words, though I’m surrounded by things that speak to me, presumably the fruits of his creation. (Save your fire, atheist friends. I know you think I believe in celestial Santa Claus. But on the upside, at least I don’t have to pretend to enjoy reading Richard Dawkins.)
And when I’m feeling despair about the world at large, I savor enough small moments in my own small world to cancel it out. Why, just this week, that involved kayaking down my home creek with my wife, past all the technicolor autumn finery, which as my namesake, Matthew, reported of natural beauty: “even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” And then there were my bluebirds, which I’ve written plenty about in these pages. And which have gone missing for the year, as you expect them to when nesting season is in our rear-view. The last brood of the summer was a bust. Some cretinous sparrow must’ve slid in under my sparrow spooker, and vandalized some of the eggs. While a couple nestlings ended up fledging, flying off to the wild blue yonder, Mom and Dad bluebird seemed almost despondent themselves, leaving one egg behind that was never brought to full fruition. It always makes me nervous when nature quits on itself. A bad-juju harbinger.
And yet, the other day, as I looked out my bedroom window, I saw four brilliantly-colored bluebirds sitting on my rain gutter, taking a sip of roof runoff. I grabbed my dried mealworms bag, rushed outside, and filled up the tray I keep on the back of their bluebird box, which I haven’t bothered with since they bailed by mid-summer. Then I went back inside and watched them hit it like they were at the Golden Corral buffet. A joyous if fleeting reunion. Enough to tide me over until next spring when they’ll yet again bring the miracle of bluebird life into my yard, so long as we can ward off those pesky sparrows.
Then, of course, there’s always fishing. As I mentioned last week, in my Q&A with Jay Nordlinger, though for 14 years, I caught at least 1,000 fish on a fly rod every year, my numbers have cratered the last couple. Partly, this is due to demands on time. But also, several fisheries are ailing around me that once produced bountifully. One year, about a decade ago, I caught over 800 stripers off a single Chesapeake Bay jetty in a three-month period. Last year, I caught none. This year, I’ve caught one. Just the other day, I went out to my once faithful spot during a postcard sunset on a falling tide, cast double darts off a sink-tip line in a brisk wind (a chuck’n’duck operation, as they say in the trade), stripped vigorously, did an arm-sweep, then a lift, and boom – a white flash appeared underwater. I figured it was a perch at first. But nope. He fought a lot harder. Mr. Striper was back. He wasn’t huge. He had a small lesion on his side. Mycobacteriosis, in all likelihood – not a good environmental sign.
And yet, I was never happier while fishing this year than to see that lonely straggler, which I kissed, and then set loose. (Please don’t report me to the bestiality hotline – it was platonic.) I was less happy when I went home, wondering why so few stripers are turning up in the shallows this year and last, and came upon a report that said that a fish survey of the Chesapeake has the striper population at a 30-year-low. But then I remembered how they bounced back after that low three decades ago, eventually materializing in my 800-striper fall. Hope springs eternal, as my mom says. (I don’t think that’s one of her originals, either.)
My point, if I have to make one, being that if you’re waiting for the world to go right to be happy, you’re going to be waiting a long, long time. Because something in it is always malfunctioning, or at least not-quite-right. But go ahead and stitch moments of beauty and pleasure and contentment together, and see what that adds up to. And if you’re feeling fearless, go ahead and join those moments with the others of unbearable sadness. Like I did when I came home from fishing the other day after taking a breather amidst the autumn beauty, opened my laptop, and was confronted by a photo slideshow of a month of war in Israel. Both Israelis and Palestinians holding and burying their dead children. There is no uglier sight in this world. And instead of feeling revulsion for what those parents are going through, and looking away, take it on the chin right there with them. Let their pain become yours. Which helps us remember that we’re human, and that people we hate (or think we do), are too. Pain visits us all. Sometimes in dramatic fashion (bombs dropping on your house, terrorists invading your sanctuary, slaughtering your family), sometimes in undramatic fashion (wasting away from a slow-boil disease in an old folks’ home). But either way, no one here gets out alive. Which isn’t a good enough reason to hate life. But for us to love it all the more while we have it.
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Bonus Tracks: Here’s an old favorite of the life-affirming variety, Kenny White’s “In My Recurring Dream.” Glorious piano work on the back third, and exceptional lyrics about everything from his daughter’s boyfriend visiting, who has a taste for younger women (like his daughter) and who’s had a finger eaten by a table saw, to a homeless man who walks into his grocery store and is thrilled by hearing Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks Of My Tears.” Then there’s this bit of beautiful weirdness:
In my recurring dream, I was eleven when it started
I am standing in my backyard, shooting arrows at a target
While inside the house, my mother, now remarried
Since last night's untimely death of my dad
She leans over the couch where he's still lying – to kiss him
It's not that we are ghoulish, it's just that we would miss him
So we leave him there a little while longer
And a good thing too, I guess, cause dying's made him stronger
And three days later he gets up to watch the news
And the news is often bad, and the news is often sad
And I know a lot of us are happier when we're sad
Somewhere out there is an XM live version that smokes the studio version, but since I can no longer find it, here’s the latter:
And here’s Luther Allison’s 1972 song “Bad News Is Coming.” Allison was the first blues act ever signed by Motown, a man the Chicago Sun-Times once called “the Bruce Springsteen of the blues.” But I mostly admire him for the below album cover, which could get him sent to Gitmo now: