Blue sunset over the sea


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.

Look for the helpers.


15 thoughts on “Negative”

  1. I always enjoy reading your perspective. On Facebook, I’m a regular political machine, or I have been; my own reactions to my Facebook feed of late have caused me to rethink that. I’m trying to be more positive. Also, I have depression, OCD and other stuff that can be triggered by seeing awful things, so I have to be careful. If someone posts a graphic photo against animal cruelty, I have to go take a break for a while, even if I agree that animal cruelty is a bad thing. At the same time, I, like you, want to stay connected to my friends and family, so I keep going back. I probably need to use “hide” and “unfollow” more than I do; I’m cranking it up but not there yet.

    This is an awful time right now, and so many people are hurting. I like Fred Rogers’ approach, and I’m glad you included that link. And thanks to all the helpers out there; they each deserve a hug.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Here is an example of what I mean by “Emotional Correctness.” It was on my Facebook Feed just now:
    “Please do not lament that you cannot imagine what it is to be Black. Nobody needs you to be Black. Instead, fully feel what it is to be bankrupted by whiteness.”
    I support the Black Lives Matter movement, and I don’t think that saying “Black Lives Matter” means that white lives, police lives, Asian lives, or European lives don’t matter. It’s just focusing attention on a community that needs help right now–the Black community–because the Black community is hurting and suffering.

    But still. I don’t need some blogger telling me what or how I should feel. I don’t want to “fully feel what it is to be bankrupted by whiteness.” I’m not bankrupted, and I don’t feel that way. I’m not going to put that on in an attempt to make this blogger (or my well-meaning white FB friend who posted the link) feel better. I don’t think we are going to solve the problems of racial discrimination and toxic racism by trying to manipulate and control people’s feelings,. I believe we’re all better off taking responsibility for our own feelings.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. At the risk of being emotionally incorrect and without minimizing the real issues involved, what saves me, I suspect, is an understanding that the conventional media, the social media and our own psychology conspire to make these incidents seem more prevalent than they are. Most black men do get hassled by the police, and that’s a terrible problem, but very few lose their lives. The police feel as though they are under siege, and that’s another real problem, but most cops treat people fairly. The media have a vested interest in making every incident seem important and a trend. And our minds overreact to acts of violence. We hear about an explosion in Paris and we call our cousin in Brittany to make sure he’s OK.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “The media have a vested interest in making every incident seem important and a trend.” Mel, I don’t think you’re being emotionally incorrect, or, if you are, I hope this is a safe space to be so. Your comment illustrates to me why a strong emotional response may not always be the best response. People like to think that strong emotion leads to constructive action, but not always. Emotions can be manipulated for purposes and interests that are not one’s own.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Great post, Karen. I’m glad you dealt with this. It still has me kind of tied up in knots. We were out having dinner last night and there was a family with three black children sitting by us. I kept wondering if they were scared for their kids. (The parents were white.) It made me so sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a couple of white friends who have adopted black children. One of them has said her daughter has talked about wanting to move to Canada if Trump is elected. Usually when I hear privileged white people saying that it seems a little self-indulgent. I think those of us with resources and social capital to change things for the better should stay and try to do so. But her situation is different. Sometimes they do fear for their kids. But not all the time–and a supportive community such as a church really helps.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I think you’re right. When are we going to stop and realize that by cultivating a culture where the black children are frightened all the time we’re just perpetuating the problem and setting them up for even worse emotional difficulties… I guess I can kind of relate to that because though she’s not black, our daughter is from India. She was approached in the park with her two boys wanting to know if she was the nanny. It scared the hell out of me.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think it’s a problem for all races. We don’t want black children growing up frightened, and we don’t want children of any race growing up to be officers of the law who freak out or panic in charged situations. Acute fear of a specif threat is a good alarm clock, but chronic unlocalized fear isn’t good for anyone. I hope we can use this moment as a country to move forward and stop repeating the mistakes of 1968.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Just watched Meet the Press, which discussed this week’s dreadful events. I find it hard to believe that the two white cops who shot the two black men were unaware of the “cop violence” issue so much in the news for the past year. So the question is, were they cynically ignoring the issue [because of their own innate racism], or did they “freak out” while confronting black men and assume the worst–perhaps fearing that these guys might be armed and a danger to the cop personally? The Dallas shooting of cops was by a deranged army vet who got pushed over the line by his awareness of all the injustice, and used that as the impetus for his violent response. It’s likely that if the whole injustice thing were not happening, this guy might have used something else to trigger the violent act he was moving towards because of something going wrong with his brain–PTSD or whatever it was that changed him and revved up his desire to commit a violent act. One line from someone’s column that was mentioned kind of summed up the problem: “It feels different to be black” than it does to be white. This is a call for empathy. By coincidence, yesterday I attended an AI Meetup at Stanford. One of the uses of Virtual Reality is called The Empathy Project, in which you put on the VR gear and see a “mirror image” of an avatar that looks like you. You move it around, wave to ytour “reflection” etc for a while until you identify strongly with that avatar. Then they show you a different reflection–a person of the opposite gender and or a different race. You are encouraged to move that avatar around until you identify with your new “reflection.” Tests after the experiment showed increased empathy for that gender/race. It’s the technological equivalent of “walking in someone else’s shoes.” Don’t know how long the effect lasts, but it might be worthwhile doing this in grade school classrooms all over America, and on a regular, ongoing basis.

    Liked by 2 people

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