Why we must "confront the unwatchable"

Look me in the eye ... (Paul Godard/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

After the 2016 election, my already scattershot absorption of current events plummeted. I developed the habit of only occasionally scrolling headlines and infrequently scanning my weekly Time magazines. I stopped reading the Washington Post Express during my train commute. I had never watched cable news anyway, but now I avoided online clips too. Even NPR, my primary news source as a car commuter, got the cold shoulder; only recently have I been able to stomach regular news segments again.

My visceral response to our present world lies in that word: "stomach." My gut twists and tightens when I hear our politicians speak. The writer in me is aghast at how events that would be considered major climaxes in novels become mere footnotes in our emerging historical record. I feel nauseous and dizzy when I allow the full reality of our climate crises (political, moral, ecological) to wash over me. The news exhausts me physically and emotionally, to the point where it's easier to hide. And though I know so much around me is just plain wrong, so blindingly un-Christlike, I hesitate to debate it because I don't know enough "facts" (even though the core of most issues is not about statistics, but souls), and I hesitate to act because I feel like the only person against a dystopian world.

That's why this Los Angeles Review of Books article, "Confronting the Unwatchable," struck a deep chord in me. Authors Maggie Hennefeld and Nicholas Baer discuss the "sprawling maelstrom of visual atrocities that we now consume as part of a habitual media diet" and how sustained exposure to those atrocities has dulled our appropriate responses of outrage followed by action. Either we avoid the unwatchable entirely (like I do), or we "hate-watch" to a degree where we're either desensitized or demotivated. Of note:

"While social media users lock into their airtight echo chambers, and white supremacist trolls and conspiracy theorists alike routinely disavow the documentation of homicidal violence, it appears that evidentiary truth has fallen victim to cynical reason. Call it an effect of “fake news,” or simply patent denialism, it is clearly a symptom of the broader decline of belief in traditionally refereed sources of journalistic news and expert knowledge. This is precisely what makes our current moment unwatchable — not just the excess of indigestible images, but the pervasive lack of faith or hope that an encounter with these images will be of any consequence whatsoever. The unwatchable represents the aesthetic condition of a political moment in which the future looks bleak, unavoidably catastrophic, and increasingly uninhabitable."

But as the article's authors explain, our world is better served when we keep our eyes open and train them on that which disturbs us:

"As a political gesture, confronting the unwatchable asks for more from the future than chronic precarity or inescapable cruelty. Instead, it demands that we face Medusa head-on. Only by refusing to misrecognize the unwatchable — as anything other than a dire symptom of our catastrophic times — can we debunk the medusan fallacy and imagine a different way forward. The unwatchable, as both a critical concept and a portent of our future, provokes us to build a transformative new politics in the ruins of liberal optimism." [...]
"Confronting the unwatchable opens up a third way, allowing us to envision new forms of seeing, modes of thinking, and spaces for public collectivity to stake out that vanishing middle ground between personal responsibility and powerful political action."

The idea of a "third way" appeals to me. It captures what has disappeared from our discourse and our actions -- creativity and commitment -- as we move to the poles. But we can only be creative when we know exactly what we're facing, and we can only be committed if we know we are working toward good. At the moment, I am neither because I am hiding from the call.

Ostriches are the popular example of the frightened creature that sticks its head in the same when danger arises. It turns out, however, that this image is a myth. If ostriches actually did that, they wouldn't be able to breathe, plus they'd be vulnerable to whatever was bearing down on them. Rather, ostriches dig holes to lay their eggs, and the mother birds periodically insert their heads to turn the eggs.

Here truth offers a better lesson than myth. I'd rather be alert, aware, eyes on the horizon, ready to respond while needed, while also nurturing in a safe, sacred space a pulsing hope for the future. It is time for me to face Medusa's deadly snakes, or else settle for a world of stone.

Prayer #337: Turn the Eggs

Dirt everywhere. Grating my eyes, filling my ears, plugging my nostrils as I plow my head deeper into the shifting hole. The sensation frightens me; how can I be mere inches from sunlight and fresh air, yet leagues away from comfort and freedom? But I remind myself: I am burrowing with purpose. I am burrowing through the grit and dark to find what I planted at the outset and to remember why I did.

My nose reaches the thin but sturdy shell. I know the egg by its scent -- chalk among earth. And it seems to recognize me, too, though neither of us can see the other. Tap tap. Its greeting comes from within, accompanied by a faint vibration.

Here -- faceless, wordless -- we sense our kindred desire to connect and pass our vulnerability like a basket of fresh bread. But while I remain anxious, the egg waits unperturbed. It is confident it will crack at the exact right moment to gift the prepared with revelation.

Oh, that I had such confidence in my quest to emerge. If only I could swallow the dirt as I burrow and consider it the cost of doing business in a broken world.

I nudge the egg. As it turns, it sighs and hums: Not yet for me. Perhaps, though, for you. And it's right, of course, so I pull my head back, rushing the dirt again over my eyes and ears and nostrils, and squint instead at the garish sun.

God who helps us turn the eggs, remind us that fragility is deceptive; we are all stronger than we think.