Coping with Non-stop Catastrophe

I can’t help feeling a bizarre sense of surreality as I enjoy a lovely, peaceful, golden September afternoon here in New England while at the same time being deeply plunged into virtual reality, watching the slow but inexorable progress of Hurricane Irma across the Caribbean and up the Florida peninsula.

It’s like living life in a constant state of split-screen.

On the left, there’s my ordinary life, which (thankfully) is at the moment moving forward without much drama.

On the right, there are the dark clouds, howling winds and rising seas of the storms—literal and metaphorical—that are sweeping over other parts of the USA and the world.

The hurricane is an apt weather-metaphor for the tumultuous weeks since the American solar eclipse on August 21. We’ve had more intense news packed into these few weeks than seems possible.

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How are we to maintain our balance, focus and peace of mind when we’re being whipsawed from a Nazi/KKK riot in Charlottesville to an insane dictator in North Korea playing with nuclear missiles to an epic flood in Texas to the racist anti-immigrant president pardoning a known criminal (Sheriff Arpaio) and preparing to deport nearly a million hard-working Dreamers to record-breaking wildfires on the West Coast to the biggest, meanest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic to a once-in-a-century earthquake in Mexico…and it just goes on and on and on.

Compared with figuring out how to survive a hurricane, or how to clean up a city devastated by one, my split-screen dilemma is trivial. But it is a strange polarity that I must navigate every day: staying aware of all the dire circumstances people are living through, while not getting so caught up in that virtual reality—other people’s lives—that I neglect my own, or become immobilized by anxiety and depression.

41DVsVYbnRL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_I wonder if this will be a new diagnosis for the psychiatrists to label and record in their DSM? They could call it virtual reality anxiety syndrome, with complications of depression and insomnia.

Part of the anxiety comes from the awareness that it’s only a matter of time before the camera comes swinging around to me and my part of the world. Right now all is peaceful…but the big one will be heading my way soon too, whether it’s an unprecedented snowstorm or a New York City bombing or car attack or water poisoned by chemicals or a crazy man going amuck with a semi-automatic rifle. All of this has happened already, and will continue to happen…there is no escaping the rapid and deadly beat of life in the 21st century.

So the question becomes how to live with this knowledge while remaining open, empathetic, curious, upbeat—how to live each day as a marvelous gift to be unpacked with delight, while sending love and concern to the other half of the screen—the people who have the misfortune to be dealing with the storm systems now.

How do we keep enjoying life without being overcome with guilt, sorrow and rage at the way others are, at the same exact minute, being forced to suffer?

I am doing the best I can. How about you? I’d be very grateful for any suggestions you may have about how to manage “virtual reality anxiety syndrome” better.

And now, back to you, Irma.

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4 Comments

  1. This is such a delicate dance. It mirrors (or maybe parallels) an existential dance I’ve always done: trying to care about the here and now while knowing the fate that awaits me and all of us–death–no matter what actions we take in the here and now. Trying to believe that what I am doing now matters when contemplating the enormity of time before and after my own existence is a mind-boggling challenge. I don’t know that I’ve come up with any stellar solutions, except perhaps to fall back on love and art. And the Samuel Beckett quote: “You must go on./I can’t go on./I’ll go on.”

    Reply
  2. Gerry

     /  September 11, 2017

    “How do we keep enjoying life without being overcome with guilt, sorrow and rage at the way others are, at the same exact minute, being forced to suffer?”

    I don’t have a definite answer. I suffer from sorrow and anger much of the time. I don’t know about guilt. I am probably in denial about my feelings.

    I guess that one good solution would be to find or create a support group of people who share your suffering. So far I have not found such a group here in Silicon Valley, but maybe I
    have not tried hard enough. But maybe there are very few who are troubled the way I am troubled.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  September 11, 2017

      Yes, this is what I call “doing hope together”; it’s where my environmental memoir, “What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered” ends, and it’s what I want to spend the rest of my life doing with others–aligning the personal, political and planetary for the good of ourselves, our society, and our world. May it be so!

      Reply

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