What are we to do with the massive amounts of information that we receive daily from social media, much of it having to do with horrible shootings and terrorist attacks? How are we to metabolize the peaceful protests laced with chaos and violence? How do we deal with the innocent victims and their families on all sides?
My own take on history is that the present is neither more nor less violent than the past. Our access to social media means, however, that we have instant information about every tragic happening in ways that have not been available to us before. We not only have the written information but we have the pictures and the visual accounts that bring that reality into our living rooms with deadly speed and accuracy.
Do we watch? Do we let our children watch? Do we turn it all off and remain uninformed? My opinion is that as adults and citizens of our country and of the world we must be aware of what is happening around us. We can, of course, protect our children to some extent. But we must bear in mind that children have a way of finding things out and always know more than we think they know. With the access to information that they have, that is truer now than ever.
So how do we handle the glut of material that assaults us on a daily basis? First we have to sort it out. We needn’t take in all of it. We must do this both literally in shutting off the screen and more importantly, internally, disciplining our minds to process only what we must. We are not personally responsible for all the tragedy in the world and our resources as individuals are limited. It’s kind of like when my mother told me as a child that I had to clean my plate because the children in China were hungry. It took me a while to figure out that cleaning my plate made little difference to starving children anywhere. I learned that feeling guilty about calamities in the world did not help anybody. But it could make me miserable if I allowed it.
At this point the Serenity Prayer comes to mind:
–God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
So if we can’t do much about the terrible circumstances that are going on why pay attention at all? We must pay attention because we must care—not to feel guilty but to notice, to be aware. There is an important difference. Feeling guilty is all about us: Will someone be mad at us? Will we get in trouble? It is about protecting ourselves so that no one (real or imagined) yells at us. Caring is about someone else. Can we help another person carry his or her pain? Can we acknowledge that we are part of a very flawed humanity while knowing that we/they are all we have? Can we at the very least extend our caring to those around us? Can we try to rid ourselves and our families of hatred and bigotry? Can we take our place in this dysfunctional human family and try our best to make it work? I believe it is the answers to these questions that can make a difference for all of us.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.