What's on my mind at 27

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I’ve never cared much for my own birthday or age or what have you. It’s just another year.

I don’t mean that to sound as blasé as it reads. There’s much to be grateful for, of course. But in all honesty, the future sounds a lot more bleak than bright.

At 27, I worry endlessly about disaster striking in and out of its historically assigned seasons, wiping hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of us out altogether. I worry about oxygen loss and having to wear allergen masks for a quick errand run and what happens to those of us with easily aggravated respiratory illness and the fact that some of the most developed countries are essentially letting those most at risk die. I feel shame for not sharing the outrage much earlier.

I don’t understand this hunger for more money and power especially if our money and power is quantifiably tenfold that of our brothers and sisters in poverty. I question what kinds of economic compromises I’m willing to make and wonder whether I’m part of the Western hypocrisy.

What’s up with this 24-hour news cycle and how do we contain it without losing journalism jobs?

What would Thoreau think?

“According to a recently released Pew Center survey, almost seven in ten Americans feel worn out by the amount of news that’s generated each day,” columnist Danny Heitman wrote for the National Endowment for the Humanities. “Henry David Thoreau complained of much the same thing in Walden, his celebrated account of a two-year experiment in simple living that he began on July 4, 1845.”

“Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner,” Thoreau wrote in Walden, “but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinel. . . . After a night’s sleep the news has become as indispensable as the breakfast.”

Heitman writes that Thoreau was lamenting the way “the sheer scale of news can commodify a tragedy, making its victims seem oddly interchangeable … He would not be surprised by today’s disasters, which can, by their magnitude, leave us numb.”

And that numbness, that’s what I’m afraid of.

In our newsroom, we use a tool called Chartbeat to access realtime and historical stats on our stories. Think pageviews, time readers spent on the page, whether the traffic is coming from social media, the website or search. Tracking such stats is imperative in a world where a sizable percentage of our profit comes directly from advertisers. The more pageviews, more time spent on a page, more autoplaying videos = more eyes on ads.

So, yes, that’s going to impact what’s covered and how often it’s covered. Reporters often feel reduced to cover certain topics, reduced to numbers. Unless you’re working on some potentially policy-changing investigative piece, how quantifiable is your work? What’s the viral potential?

Gross, right? Yes. But until someone drops some alternative, measurable solutions on us…

Let’s go back to a newspaper reporter’s mindset. To be reduced to numbers in an inescapable news cycle largely controlled by big-time TV networks and social media networks. You’re trapped, but carry that heavy purpose on your weakening shoulders. Save. Journalism.

But too much bad news can literally make you sick.

"Every time we experience or hear about a traumatic event, we go into stress mode. We might go numb or have an overactive fear response to the perceived threat. Our physiology is triggered to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline," Susanne Babbel, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma recovery, told CNN in June.

When we’re exposed to trauma, she said, our brains go into “fight, flight, freeze” mode before returning to a restful state.

If and when we return to a restful state.

“When we experience this process again and again, our adrenal glands can become fatigued. Adrenal fatigue can lead to being tired in the morning, lack of restful sleep, anxiety and depression, as well as a multitude of other symptoms," Babbel said.

Hi, that’s me. And I don’t even cover the most traumatic stories at my paper, not by a long shot.

Last year, I spiraled into my own bout and luckily cried out for help. That was the bravest I’ve ever been. Antidepressants have really helped keep me on track and strong since.

I’ve fixed some of my own issues. Kept my empathy, but constructed it into a megaphone instead of internalizing the pain. Turned off all news notifications, took breaks from social media, dedicated myself to reading print, not digital as often as possible. Here’s why:

The way we process words on screens, researchers have said, can impact how much empathy we feel toward characters or sources. Time and experience, too. “We need a certain amount of information about another person, accumulated over time, before we start sensing that crucial similarity between us,” according to a review of scientific research and literature on the topic published in the Columbia Journalism Review. “Once engaged and transported by a story, readers are more likely to change their beliefs about the world to match that narrative.”

Digital reading, however, lends itself to skimming and distraction. Print? Not so much.

Put in more effort, and you will process more information, Gavriel Salomon and Tamar Leigh found in 1984, long before the internet.

So I’m trying. I’ve read more books since January than I have since I was assigned lists in grade school. I renewed my The Atlantic membership and am making an effort to read my daily newspaper.

If I wanted to escape it all, I’d let ignorance take the reins and run away to my own Walden Pond. But that’s not my goal. I want to endure, understand, share. Research shows the brain on digital isn’t exactly doing the trick.

“Maryanne Wolf has shown that the human brain was never meant to read, but evolved alongside our growing use of signs and symbols. Maybe our brains will similarly adapt in some surprising way to digital reading, and our capacity for empathy will remain the same.” Maybe.

Anyway, back to the impending doom of climate change and evils of capitalism…

Until next time,
Fiza

P.S. I realize my thoughts are all over the place. Welcome to my brain.