On New Year’s Eve, I asked a table of friends what their resolutions were this year. A few crowed, “To lose weight!” Another said, “To go to the gym!” But my resolution was much darker than those of my pals: “I want to stop seeking out and researching sad and tragic stories.” No one clinked a glass with me to that. Avoiding tragic news is a weird resolution, I know.
I am a closet tragedy seeker. You wouldn’t know it by my upbeat disposition, but from the moment I hear about something terrible that may have happened to someone, I immediately start Googling it to learn more. In the absence of awful news, I actively look for it online. Tragedy is too easy to find in the modern digital landscape, where I can type “SIDS” or “stillborn” into a hashtag search on Instagram and come up with more hits than anyone would wish to imagine. I think it is largely fueled by the anxiety of being a parent to young children – always worrying about the worst that could happen to them or to me.
There are many reasons I seek tragedy, some selfish, some seemingly altruistic, but ultimately they all lack true value. Sometimes reading about other people’s suffering helps me acknowledge how lucky I am, the way that a person might be having a “bad morning” because he ran out of coffee, and then open the news and see that hundreds of people lost their lives to an earthquake that same morning. Other people’s tragedies lend perspective in this way – though it is not of any use to those on the suffering side of the equation. The more generous side of me thinks that feeling all of these sad feelings acts as a kind of tribute to the people who had to actually endure awful things happening to them. It’s kind of like, if these people suffered so much, while I sit here happy and healthy, then the least I can do is read about their tragedy. There’s the practical reason I do this -- that if I can imagine, really imagine what these things feel like to experience, then maybe I would be better equipped to handle them if they ever actually happened to me. And finally, there’s the magical thinking aspect to why I do this; that by simply imagining awful events, I could ward them off like evil spirits. Like naming my fears out loud would be like shooting daggers into them, and that the daggers would scatter the fears into tiny particles in the wind and nothing bad would ever touch us.
But there is little room for this kind of twisted fantasy life when you become a mother. To walk around with the weight of these feelings makes it difficult to engage in the day-to-day joys of being with one’s children. Even if I tell myself that these feelings are something I can compartmentalize, to nurse in the quiet of my nighttime thoughts after everyone has gone to sleep, I know that is not true. When my children laugh, I am thinking about the children that will never laugh again or worse – what if there were a day when I would never hear my children’s laughter again? When my husband puts his arms around me I think about people who will never feel the warmth of strong arms encircling their shoulders. But really, who suffers when I am feeling this kind of darkness? My children and my husband do, and the irony of that doesn’t escape me.
Nothing prepares a person for tragedy. It isn’t something you can read up on or take notes on like an exam. You can’t train for it like a marathon. Tragedy often hits hard and unexpected, and if it ever were to befall me or someone close to me there is simply no amount of “preparation” that would suffice. In the meantime, by seeking out tragedy by proxy, I’m filling my head and my heart with things that are pretty toxic. How can I fully live in the moment of being with my children if I’m also worrying about war or illness? Imagining other people’s suffering does nothing to help those who have suffered and it certainly doesn’t help me. It is one of those empty things like saying, “You are in our thoughts” because while it is a pleasant notion, it doesn’t alleviate that person’s pain.
All of this is to say, that I have been working really hard to not go down the dark rabbit hole since the new year. This means that if my eyes graze an article about a family that died from being inside their snowed-in car during the blizzard, I do not read the rest of the article. It means that if my brother tells me about an amazing NPR Radiolab episode about a child with a terminal illness, I don’t queue it up on my podcast list. Sometimes I get taken by surprise – like last night when I got sucked into an article about our country’s history with legislation about child abuse and neglect and haven’t been able to shake certain parts of the article all day. But I haven’t Googled any of the specific cases noted in the article, and I did not study the picture of the tragic little girl that accompanied the article (at least not for too long). And that is what I would call an improvement on my past behaviors.
So I’m working on it. And I have to say, I feel a little lighter this year, without carrying all the sorrows of strangers. I know that I cannot completely escape the bad in this world, or put my fingers in my ears and say, “Lalalala!” when people talk about sad things in the news. This isn’t about avoidance or shutting my eyes to reality, it is about acknowledging these things but restraining myself from zealously researching them more. I am learning, slowly, to accept that there is a very easily accessible rabbit hole of information about all the darkest aspects of life and death, but that just because it is there doesn’t mean I actually have to dive into it.
ALEXIS BARAD-CUTLER is a writer, editor, and published author. She writes about “the kind of stuff no one talks about in Mom Group” on her blog. Her writing is also regularly featured on WellRoundedNY, MommyNearest.com and RZBeyondMom.com. You can follow this Brooklyn mama on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Read all of Alexis’ posts.
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