I’ve been getting over jet lag since getting back to California from my European trip, and finding that 9 hours is pretty difficult to overcome. It’s harder than the 6 hour time difference that used to characterize my trips to Europe when I lived in the Boston area. There is also much less difference between going East and going West when I’ve got 9 or 10 hours to change. Now it is approaching the point where everything is just flipped, turned inside-out; day is night and night is day, and the most I can do to cope is to get some sun and exercise during the day, and wait it out.
My return was also not the gentle welcome home I envisioned. Instead, the country was roiling with hate and tragedy: unarmed black men shot by police, police officers murdered. And the horror was amplified by Facebook. Not long after getting back to free wi-fi, I was sitting motionless on the couch, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, like a bird in a psychology experiment, pecking for a dopamine reward that never comes.
The first advice that comes to mind in this situation is, “just get off the Internet.” It might work. That strategy has worked for me with other media: I’ve successfully stopped watching TV news. I read a handful of newspapers and magazines, but not obsessively, or even that regularly. I watch TV and movies, but again, not obsessively, usually with my family. But, “work” how? Work to keep me calm and placid in my white American upper-middle-class bubble? Or work to preserve what is left of my mental health? Are those related? Should they be?
And there’s the other side: it’s also important to me to feel connected to other people. More importantly, I want to know about these vital issues of our time: institutional racism, poverty, climate change. I need to know the details to formulate an opinion, to decide who to vote for, and what to think and write about on a daily basis. It’s fundamental: how can I, or anyone, address them without knowing about them? So I’m not getting off the internet. The question then becomes, how to really surf, how to ride the waves constructively without flipping over and going under?
One particularly tricky aspect of navigating this is what I’ll call here, “Emotional Correctness.” My definition of Emotional Correctness is a social expectation that there is a correct way to react emotionally to a situation. Furthermore, one’s degree of adherence to this correct way of reacting is viewed as a measure of one’s character. In some ways, I suppose norms of emotional correctness can be viewed as a blessing and a way to help humans get along with each other. They are perceived as a way of preventing people from hurting each other further by the way they react to an emotionally charged situation.
But I think that, especially in these troubled times, they deserve another look. On the internet, both the expression of feelings, and the policing of the expression of feelings, has taken on a frightening urgency. One blogging friend of mine, asked, in anguish, “what’s wrong with me?” that she didn’t react immediately to stumbling upon a graphic video. A Facebook meme chides, “we’ve all got to dig down and find some empathy!” People everywhere ask, “what kind of person would . . . ?” Another FB friend posts a disclaimer to her page that she wants to keep her profile a place of refuge, so she doesn’t post about religion or politics or “negative” stuff, but “don’t think I don’t care about the issues.”
“Don’t think I don’t care.” “Don’t think my heart isn’t breaking.” At this point, everybody seems to care how their feelings might be judged by strangers on the internet.
Yet one thing I’ve learned from counseling over the years is that feelings are tricky, changeable and unreliable. Feelings are important, and not to be dismissed, but they don’t always mean what we think they mean. In particular, one’s feelings in the moment are not to be taken as the complete, unvarnished truth about a situation, let alone about a person’s character. Both brain science and cognitive psychology back this idea up.
“What’s wrong with you” when you take a person’s cheerfulness out of context and are irritated by their seeming callousness? “What’s wrong with you” when you freeze and panic at answering a perfectly reasonable question? “What’s wrong with you” when you remain dry-eyed through a funeral, but bawl your eyes out later, watching a cat food commercial? Likely, nothing, but you wouldn’t know that from the internet.
On Facebook, I’ve been making liberal use of the “hide” and “unfollow” functions. At first I thought this would feel fake and weird, but it doesn’t. Instead it’s a halfway measure, between unfettered access to the onslaught and complete disconnection. I am just exercising the right to curate what my brain sees, and has to process, right now.
But more than that, what I am keeping in mind is the radical notion–radical, at least, to the emotional correctness crowd on the internet–that what you do can be more important than what you feel, and that good action can spring from many sources. I thought about posting some links that I like and find helpful, here at the end, but instead what I’d rather do is encourage you to find your own links, your own organizations, your own authentic ways to act. They may not be what I would recommend, but there is wisdom in crowds.