There are two sides to the human proclivity to view the big world through the little world of our own experience. When I’m depressed, I project my misery outward: the disturbing headlines jump out of the newspaper and pile up at my feet; only the bad news seems true, and the rest recedes. When I’m happy, the papers are full of encouraging news: reasons for hope occupy the foreground and everything else fades into background buzz.
Taking my walk yesterday, a realization tapped me on the shoulder with more than usual force, one of those “what the world needs now” things: Creativity is the medicine that will save our lives, and maybe our planet. Was it the Pride of Madeira bushes thrusting their shimmering periwinkle cones into the spring air? The family of egrets line-dancing under the pedestrian bridge, displaying their snow-white crests with the synchronous timing of Rockettes? Was it just another introject of the world’s tireless beauty, or a genuine insight about the human world’s healing?
I was thinking of a film clip I’d seen on TV: immediately after Barack Obama’s epochal speech on race and justice, a Republican spin-doctor on Fox dismissed the whole thing with these words: “He read it from a teleprompter and not all that well, either.” Ideologues’ certainty is a priori, seldom disturbed by information or experience, so it is entirely unsurprising that those who’ve already determined to oppose Obama’s every move will reach for whatever comes to hand no matter how extraordinary the latest move might be. I wish it were also unsurprising how quickly other, more “mainstream,” media follow suit. But the greatest media sin in our culture is to be insufficiently cynical. There is a tremendous anxiety that reporters and commentators, if they risk responding authentically to the remarkable clarity and candor of Obama’s speech, will be defenseless against the jeers of their peers. If there is a surprise, it is a happy one, that many proceeded to report honestly despite these risks.
(If you are tempted to believe that these media outlets are merely reporting the news with necessary even-handedness, read the largely unreported positions of a viciously bigoted preacher John McCain has embraced while Fox was attacking Obama.)
It isn’t exactly peer pressure we’re talking about. It goes much deeper than that. I understand this phenomenon from the inside out. I was brought up in socially marginal and inept family, whose members were mostly unable to see beyond the little world of family life. For reasons that remain a mystery, I was given enough intelligence and resilience to look farther and trust what I saw. The central developmental challenge of my childhood was holding to the truth I clearly perceived when all around me were insisting black was white. When the contradiction yawned too wide, my child’s mind began to feel overwhelmed.
I still carry this vulnerability. When I engage with someone in the grip of an insistent distortion, my first (and generally my second and third) impulse is to offer rational explanation, to patiently point out what seems so plainly evident. But firmly rooted distortions seldom yield to that sort of intervention. If I persist, the exchange often becomes a contest of realities. If the clash is extreme enough, it pulls me back to the overwhelmed state so familiar from childhood. I begin to doubt what is plain sight, to wonder if black really is white after all, to lose my grip.
That appears to be what’s happening in coverage of the presidential primary campaign. Reporters seldom say straight out what they see. Before they can even form such thoughts, an insistent chorus generates an overwhelming distorted counter-narrative; the bandwagon pulls up and clarity slips away. This is one manifestation of what has been called “information poisoning,” an excess of distorted, useless or distracting information that reduces our ability to focus, reflect and make the best decisions to guide on our path.
As a remedy for those in the media, I recommend a dose of the double-barreled medicine that has worked for me: cultivating certain habits of mind; and pursuing experiences that unite body, mind and spirit, strengthening one’s ability to recognize aspects of truth.
The habits of mind are simple: open-eyed observation, trying not to form preconceptions, but to be present to whatever is manifesting in a particular space and time; self-questioning analysis, looking not so much to support my knee-jerk opinions as to refute them; a purposeful caution about coming to conclusions, since the fraction of relevant data any of us can gather is seldom enough to warrant certainty; and a strong allergy to predictions, to partaking of the delusion that we can see the future. If by such practices I can correct for the most common missteps our species makes in using our big brains, I have a reasonable chance of perceiving aspects of reality, rather than merely my own projections.
But what I realized on my walk is that the second step is the most important thing I can do now, day in and out: putting myself in the way of experiences that ease the information poisoning, quieting the noise, allowing me to regain my center, allowing the overwhelmed feeling to dissipate, and enabling me to remember that what I see is what I see and not what Fox News or anyone else insists it is.
Those experiences differ, depending on our individual characters and proclivities. For some, it’s spiritual practice, slipping into the endless stream of energy that unites all living beings and floating downstream until we feel restored. A friend sent me quite a remarkable talk by a scientist whose own brain afforded her a glimpse of this possibility. Click here to enjoy it.
For others, it’s stepping back from the epidemic urgent insistence on the things of this moment that has been part of our information poisoning and instead taking the long view. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been enjoying the Long Now podcasts, and I expect you may enjoy them too.
From what I have seen, though, the most powerful antidote of all is art. I turn on music and close my eyes, and in a few seconds I remember what a great gift it is to be alive in a body with the capacity to hear or make music. I listen to “When Your Mind’s Made Up” by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, to Cat Power’s “A Woman Left Lonely,” Patti Smith’s version of “Helpless” or Ruthie Foster’s of “Fruits of My Labor” and my mind smooths out like freshly ironed cotton, my body and spirit come into focus with a satisfying click that feels like a kiss.
When I sit down to do my own writing, my tangled nerves align themselves like threads of iron responding to the pull of a magnet. When I watch my friend Lily strip the long leaves from tulip stems, preparing to mass them in a vase, an invisible hand brushes my hair, soothing every cell. When I sit with a group of young people sharing the stories from which they will weave a modest play, an artifact of their own creation, a bubble of joy rises into my heart. These are the practices we have been given as reminders of who we are. They bring us back to ourselves, lubricating the task of separating what is worth knowing from the detritus of information poisoning that surrounds it.
I think there is a very real and pervasive temptation to respond to such words with cynical dismissal. Oh yes, art, very nice, but what does this have to do with anything that really matters? That is why I want to state my realization even more strongly. Today, the sides are not evenly matched. Without consciously, intentionally taking practices like those I’ve described as the true north of our lives, the remarkably distorted version of reality that is being simulcast every day will overwhelm us. If that happens, no matter how strong our convictions, how good our intentions, we are useless. I know it is hard to defend an idea like this against the great weight of anxious cynicism that pervades the media, but I think there is no choice: Creativity is the medicine that will save our lives, and maybe our planet.