When life allows, I sit. Still. And listen for what is important today. To me. Maybe not to anyone else. But maybe.
‘Today’ might be misleading, though. These are not ‘thoughts for the day’. They are just what I wanted to write. Today.
Here are some. Just in case you might also be sitting. Still.
In Defence of Reality
I was thinking about what to write today for ‘Today’. I am working on eight pieces for other ‘destinations’ and am enjoying that. But the purpose of my website’s ‘Today’ is to spawn a piece that comes to me on that day, spontaneously. That has worked and it’s fun.
But today all I could think of was what I don’t want to write about. Which was a lot: Covid, Jan 6, Putin (and other madmen in charge of the world), inflation, terrorism, sex trafficking, climate change, abortion, ….
Then I realised that was it. I want to write about how much I don’t want to write about certain things. And why.
This goes back. I have a private, one-person, campaignless campaign against the stance that no good news is news. Not front page news. Only bad news is front page news. Sure good news counts when someone gets a Nobel Prize, but how often is that? And yes, good news is headlines when a war ends after 20 years (but quickly it becomes about how badly it ended), or when a national revered team wins against a national enemy team (but only after nearly a century of trying).
There are a few more, but precious few. Go ahead. Dig into media archives and see if you can find eight days in a row when any news source presented good news first. FIRST. ‘Above the fold’. Eight. In a row.
The reason for this is simple and everybody knows it. Good news doesn’t sell. In fact, most of us won’t subscribe even to the best ‘good news’ sites such as: https://www.positive.news. Not enough groan and grrr and OMG and told-you-so.
Good news doesn’t sell because (and this is the alarming point) humans crave bad news. Apparently we want to be furious and afraid, and we will pay to get that way. First thing. Everyday. (That whole phenomenon deserves about eight pieces in itself just to cover the basics.)
So, fundamentally good news is boring. And we won’t pay to be bored.
What makes me furious and afraid is the pervasive assumption that reality consists of only the bad. The good part of reality doesn’t count as reality. And that is stupid. It is ignorant. As in it ignores the truth that reality consists of both the good and the bad. In fact, there is more good in reality than bad. I did a calculation once and found that out.
So I think news needs to face reality and present it truly. Otherwise, it should stop calling itself ‘the news’ and just call itself ‘the world’s outstanding soul-battering, emotionally manipulative obfuscator of reality and seller of distortion’.
if it were up to me, the good news would come first for quite a few articles, and only then the bad. In addition to being more real that way, it would allow the reader to think better about the bad news following. Humans think best in a ratio of approximately 5:1 positive points to negative. Someone else did a calculation and found that out.
But it isn’t up to me (sadly, so much isn’t), but I can link you to a twenty-minute New Yorker version of it. It is an attempt to present the good reality first. They struggle a bit, but it is encouraging:
One more thing: the philosopher Nassim Taleb is one of two philosophers who warn people against watching or reading the news. Taleb says that the news makes us stupid. Specifically he said to Christopher Lydon, 2017, ’Supplying [people] with news reduces [their] understanding of the world.’
The other is Rutger Bregman in his masterpiece, HumanKind, starting on page 391: ‘One of the biggest sources of distance these days is the news. Watching the evening news may leave you feeling more attuned to reality, but the truth is that it skews your view of the world.’
That’s what I wanted to say. Today.
Would It Help?
‘Do you never worry?’ he asked the spy whom he was beginning to love and who could be sentenced to death.
‘Would it help?’, the spy answered.
That is my all time favourite movie moment. And maybe my all time favourite insight.
Rudolph Abel (or rather brilliant author Giles Whittell) knew a thing or two about life. Worry doesn’t help.
You know that, too, right? So do I. We all know that. All of us. Everyone. But. We all do it. This puzzles me. Actually, it disturbs me. In fact, I worry about it.
I grew up in a worry-is-a-noble-act family. My father said often and with great affection, even admiration, not to mention abdication, ‘My wife worries enough for both of us.’ But there was jest in that, and everyone knew it. He worried plenty. It drove him. And he did good things with it, as did she. But if you ask me, they both died of it one way and another.
For my part I’d like truly once and for all to achieve a worry-free life, or even a half-day. Not just because in the end worry is a killer, but because it is 100% stupid. We do it to achieve something that cannot, cannot, be achieved. But each time we do it, a hulking part of us assumes it can.
The most popular version of this insanity is that worry will help, that it will prevent disaster. In fact, it goes further. It even says that confidence or trust or ease or being in the present moment or (what is the opposite of worry???) will actively make the dreaded thing happen. In other words, not worrying causes disasters. Worrying prevents them. Because? Because if we don’t worry, we will take our eyes off the ball, and the ball will ricochet while were not looking and knock us out. Cold. Forever. (Worry is a studied hyperbolist.)
So we do it. And I have not quite, well at all actually, found my way around that. Equally I don’t want to follow parental suit and die of it. So here’s what I’ve figured out that I am holding onto: 1) worry is a single untrue assumption about the future, 2) that assumption, lying comatose at the bottom of all the ‘me, me, choose me’ possibly-true assumptions like: ‘it will be terrible, they will hate me, I will fail, we’ll all die, nothing will ever be the same again, he/she/they will abandon me, et cetera ad nauseam’, is this: ‘I cannot cope well with whatever happens.’
And that one is not true. We can all find a way to cope well with what happens, even people’s deaths, including our own. Victor Frankel said it better than I ever could.
So, here’s my only way out of this involuntary prostrated obeisance to worry: ask myself the following question the very second worry starts up (or before that if I can detect its stealthy little twinkle toes coming up the drive): ‘If I knew that whatever happens I can cope well with it, how would I feel?’ Rinse, repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Can you even imagine not worrying again? And not because you are a metallic narcissist whose feelers go out only as far as their nose, but because you care about being as smart about this as you are about everything else. Or even more so. Try. It helps to imagine it. Because it seems such a big unimaginable thing.
Imagine it and then try that question: 'If I knew that I can cope well with whatever happens, how would I feel?’
And if that elegant (if I do say so myself) incisive question eludes us in the moment of threat, we can always summon Abel’s work of art.
Would it help?
 Film: Bridge of Spies, 2015, Giles Whittell
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Why?'
‘You look worried.’
‘Well, you’re frowning.’
I had no idea.
A few years later I was looking out at a small audience. I could see every face. Half of them were frowning. I had to process those frowns every time I looked up and manage somehow to keep going. I tried to imagine their interest and the occasional warm smile, or to keep my eyes only on the non-frowning people. Later the frowners were the most complimentary. Navigating their frowns had worked. But it was hard.
Ever since, I have determined to be conscious of my face when I’m in an audience.
And everywhere, actually. Especially one to one, because there is no alternate listener for the speaker to escape to. All the signals are coming from me.
I remember a conversation with my mother when I was sixteen. I thought it was going wonderfully. Suddenly she said, ‘Can you stop frowning?’ I instantly pulled the centre of my forehead out of a crease, relaxed my whole face and warmed it right up. We both giggled. But I never forgot that painful discovery of my out-of-control face.
Then I began to notice how often, almost all of the time in fact, people’s faces are frowning, and how distracting, unsettling, undermining that is. And when I ask them if anything is wrong, they snap out of it and say absolutely not. They even claim to be interested and delighted.
There are also the non-conversations that populate our lives – passing each other in the hall, entering a room, saying hello. Frowns everywhere. And the frowners shockingly unaware.
So I’m wondering what might happen if we all right now woke up to our faces’ unsolicited frowns, and replaced them with interest and the occasional appropriate smile. Smiles (genuine ones, warm ones, not ridiculing ones) can speed up not only the rate of a person’s thinking, but the increase in the quality and elegance of it as well. Smiles also can produce safety so we become more adventurous, more real, more interesting, actually, as we speak. Try it.
Smile. Notice the impact. It won’t be nothing.