Near the end of the composition class I taught this summer, one of my students asked, How do you pay attention to the news without feeling totally hopeless? In the moment I gave a quick and sort of shallow answer because while I was so excited that a student asked this question — because holy shit what a great question — I realized that I hadn’t really thought through my answer. In a sense, it’s just something that you have to do, because the alternative is to just let it all slide into destruction.
But I couldn’t just leave my unsatisfactory answer alone. So, naturally, I’m blogging about it because I’m feeling some l’esprit d’escalier and want to say more.
There are two parts to this: the feeling of being hopeless, and the act of getting past it. While these two things are intertwined, I’d like to start with the first part: feeling hopeless by the news.
My student first raised this question about not feeling hopeless during an in-class discussion. Every week during the five-week session, my students submitted news stories they wanted to discuss, and then I chose from the topics that multiple people posted about to narrow the discussion and make it more manageable. That week, a few students posted about the Oak Fire, and I pointed out that the USA Today story we discussed included a video from 2019 about how wildfires would get worse due to climate change. Because that short video still held water nearly three years later, it inspired these feelings of hopelessness. Like, well, there it is — there’s the worsened fire season due to climate change.
To which I say: it is correct to feel this way in response to everything that’s going on. It is correct to feel frustrated and hopeless in the face of such catastrophe. So much disheartening shit happens, and so it is correct to feel disheartened by it. Feeling hopeless is a sign of close attention to and care about the calamitous present moment and the future that would logically follow it. In a sense, then, the question isn’t, How do I not feel hopeless? but instead is, How do I make sure this feeling doesn’t keep me from living my life, from taking action?
A facetious answer would be, “Just…don’t let these feelings get in your way.” But lots of times there is no “letting” your feelings do anything.
The shallow answer I gave in class was that the solution to despair was to think critically and keep paying attention. I gave this answer for a few reasons. (1) The sites where we most often get our stories are designed to make you feel this way; overwhelmed and fatigued minds are easier to influence. And so (2) the act of thinking constantly and critically directly opposes these feelings of overwhelming despair and hopelessness. Plus, (3) the more you do this, the easier it will be to keep doing it, almost like building muscle, except you’re exercising your brain to keep it in shape.
I write all this knowing that this is not an easy solution. During class, I also half-mentioned that it’s not enough to just pay attention and “think critically,” since half the time I’m not sure people really understand what that entails. Plus, on some days, critical thinking is the last thing you want to do. On some days, it feels impossible to rise to the challenge. And if you don’t have the structure of something like a class to keep you accountable, it can be hard to continue these habits on your own.
On those days, create something.
This is trickier for people whose careers are in creative fields, and so creating something can often just feel like more work. But the thing you create doesn’t have to be for anyone but yourself, or maybe for the close circle of friends and family you feel comfortable with. You don’t have to monetize your hobby of making Art Nouveau protest posters. You don’t have to post the silly limerick you wrote about the governor of your state. You don’t have to do anything with the thing you create other than create it. Creation is the opposite of consumption, and creating something isn’t a zero-sum game. You can create in abundance and create in scarcity. If consuming the news is getting you down, then don’t just consume. Create. Create recklessly. Create thoughtfully. Create when you don’t believe you have anything left in you to make new things.
At some point in the class, maybe the same day the student asked this question, I said that the class — that I — was making an argument for how you should think about the world, just as any class makes an argument for how to think. A Chemistry class could argue that the world comprises atomic interactions following a set of known laws of the universe. A Political Science class could argue that the world follows some Game Theory rules on a national or international scale. A Philosophy class could argue that you should reason from first principles. The class I taught was making an argument that writing is a means of creating understanding for yourself and others. It’s not enough to just look at the world and see it for what it is, but to say something about it, too. To do something about it.