One of the key signals that my self-care has been compromised is insomnia. Sleep and rest has become the thing I value most, because it is easily disrupted. Within the last week, I found myself reacquainted with insomnia as I began to follow the university protests around the United States.
Little did I know that on Friday, this tension would grow exponentially due to global tragedies in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, South Sudan, Syria, Kenya and beyond.
Despite how your actual week had gone, you might be reeling from anxiety, grief, depression, sleep debt, hopelessness, anger or exhaustion. Through talking with writers and artists about self-care, the idea of “cultural depression” has surfaced time and again. It is possible that creatives are more sensitive to it, but I think it is being felt far beyond any one community around the world.
I asked some of the previous interviewees whether they suffer from this now and again, and how they cope with cultural burnout. Below are their beautiful, empathic responses.
I was hit really hard during and after the Sandy Hook shooting. I was out of town when the news broke and immediately called up my Mom, who is an elementary school teacher, in a miniature panic attack even though her school is several states away from the event. I had a relatively short work commute at the time (about 15 minutes) and would listen to NPR news on my way in every morning. Usually it was a pretty wide variety of local, national and international things but it seemed like all that was talked about over and over again for weeks was Sandy Hook and gun control. I’d almost be in tears every morning when I arrived at work. I eventually realized no one was actually forcing me to listen to the news, that it was just a habit and I was in essence punishing myself for no reason.
I used to have this niggling voice in my head of “YOU MUST ALWAYS BE INFORMED OF EVERY LITTLE THING THAT IS HAPPENING IN THE WORLD IT’S YOUR DUTY.” When I realized this I had to do the thing where I asked myself, “Why? Why are you doing these things?” I realized it boiled down to a couple of big reasons.
Growing up in a liberal household in a conservative area made me into a somewhat confrontational person for a time. I tried to educate myself as much as possible as a means to argue with people who didn’t hold my world views and would attack me for them. It was especially prevalent after 9/11 because I didn’t want a war to occur and got a lot of “why do you hate America and the troops” malarkey tossed at me. It was like I was always ready for battle. I realized a couple years ago that I was still armored up, expecting a fight that hadn’t come in quite some time. I get to choose who I’m around now and I don’t hang out only with people who share my world views, but the people who have different views are civil and open in their discourse.
Also, I almost felt duty bound to follow the news. Not just the major headlines, but everything, like it was dismissing of people’s plights if I didn’t read their stories and acknowledge and absorb their losses. I was trying to indirectly shoulder everyone’s plights. It’s a ridiculous thing to do to yourself. I think terrible current events can hit creatives harder than most because we tend to have really high empathy levels. We don’t see just the numbers, we see the individual people. We easily see the ripple effects of tragedy or injustice.
I think it gets especially hard with not only the 24-hour news cycle but with social media. Social media has been a great tool to spread news of injustices the mainstream media might miss or turn a blind eye to, but it can be draining to see the same stuff over and over. It’s especially hard now that a lot of sites like Facebook and Tumblr automatically play videos. The Spring Valley student getting assaulted by the police officer is a brutal video to watch even without the sound, and tons of people shared and reblogged it. It was good to spread the word, which I feel is very important and I think speaks to the caliber of people I choose to friend, but I had already seen it and didn’t need/want to see it over and over. I have a few friends on Facebook who are deeply involved in animal rights and one of them posted a video of an cow getting it’s throat slit. I don’t need to see that at all, much less before I’ve even started my day.
This leads this rambling tirade to how I deal. As much as I deeply care about current events, especially those related to social justice issues, following them too obsessively definitely leads to depressive/anxious states for me. I used to worry people would think I didn’t care or was turning a blind eye to issues if I didn’t do so. However, it can really drain and depress you and leave you with a sense of hopelessness for/about the human race. I’ve learned that for the sake of self-care, sometimes I need to unplug and back away from news and social media. I go hug a loved one, count my blessings and go be in the quiet of my garden. I have to do some small-scale good, the things that I do have the power to help and change. I have to acknowledge that change isn’t always swift and I am not responsible for fixing the world’s problems. I have to find the good in the world again before I dive back into the battling the bad.
I still remember April 19, 1995. It was the day of the Oklahoma City bombing and I was watching the news in our green-and-yellow living room, the stale light from the TV glossing over my 7-year-old eyes as I ate my chicken nuggets. That was one of the first times I remember staying awake by something that resonated in the news.
I also remember had a science test the next morning and needed to sleep, so I sat down that night and wrote. And wrote. And didn’t stop writing until I finally just wrote myself to sleep. What did I write about? Who knows? My journals made for lackluster literature. Perhaps the bombing. More likely it was something more along the lines my 7-year-old mind could grasp, like the peanut butter waffle I had for breakfast or my crush on Zack from “Saved by the Bell.”
I’ve no clue, but what I do know is I still find myself creating all these years later when I get troubled about things that are out of my reach, and yet it’s so, so easy for me (and perhaps other humans) to become overwhelmed, to be swallowed up in this emotional state evoked by our curious voyeurism, a state that’s simultaneously calm yet violent, angry yet passive, removed yet, by the act of watching, we are provided with an illusion that what we’re witnessing is so close that, if we had a sparkly magic hand that could reach through the screen, we’d be smack in the middle of that which we’re watching. It’s chaotic and confusing and makes the 7,452 miles from Los Angeles to Syria seem so very far away. There is sorrow in that disconnection. It’s painfully isolating and terrifying to witness humankind’s capacity for violence and poorly channeled fear, a feeling that only heightens itself if one has ties to those involved in that which we’re watching (war, protest, etc.). We are witnesses, and yet we can do nothing with our witnessing…except make a story.
That’s where art is boss. For me, I’ve found that, instead of using all those emotions to burden myself with shame (which, in and of itself, is an act much easier said than done), I’ve got to channel them into creating something. Writing is usually my go-to medium, but it varies depending on where I am and what I’m in the mood for. I approach this specific creation with the intention to never it to show anyone. This creation is just for me. It’s with this that I’m given the freedom to toss away any sense of structure, scale, “right” or “wrong,” and just get totally messy.
It’s then that I say to myself, “Got some paint? Paint it out. Got some chocolate chips? Make a cookie. Got a tuba? Play that sucker out the window at two in the morning in your pajamas, noise ordinances be damned.” It’s a process of wrestling with my angels. It can be in a gesture as simple as a letter, as big as a cathedral, as defined as a Zen garden, or as messy as a Sloppy Joe. Many times, I end up just making a big ol’ mess and calling it a fun experiment. But other times, in the small, quiet moments, I discover something about myself, about the world, and it changes who I am and what I can do about the situation that troubles me.
And I feel it’s important to say that one doesn’t have to be a self-proclaimed artist to create. You can create a new running trail, a teacher’s syllabus, or a grocery list. It can be anything. In fact, we’re creating a conversation right now! And I have this belief that creating this dialogue, be it in art, conversation or other ways, allows those emotions to go somewhere, which is awesome because all those emotions are good, honest, rock-solid emotions that let you know you’ve got a brain with a sense of empathy and love. So, I work super hard to cling tight to those emotions and go honestly through and forward into the big, dark unknown in hopes to make a discovery.
I don’t think I personally suffer from cultural depression, though I absolutely get emotional when I hear about some of the awful things that happen in the world.
The Sewol Ferry tragedy was something that struck me particularly hard. For me, I get an overwhelming sense of helplessness sometimes when I hear news reports about tragedies or injustices like that. However, I wouldn’t say it lingers as a depressed feeling for me…maybe an anxious feeling.
Sometimes when bad things happen in the world, it makes me want to go out and help, and occasionally I feel guilt for not doing something significant. I would say my faith helps me digest some of these “bad things” easier. Knowing God has a plan for the world, my life, and the lives of others, helps easy whatever anxiety I feel. And I pray. That always helps too, even when what you’re praying for seems impossible.