The other evening I found myself cruising down one of the main drags through town, passing a swath of car dealerships on my drive through south Denver. The massive American flags that adorn their lots were all hung at half mast, whipping in a late summer thunderstorm, and as I passed them all in a row I flipped through a mental catalogue of disasters and tragedies, wondering which they referred to.
Was it Paris? Istanbul? Dallas? Baton Rouge? Munich? What horrifying thing has recently happened that I’m forgetting?
The thing is, the flags are always at half mast lately, and it’s hard to keep up with why. Not because any of these tragedies aren’t enough on their own to stand out as moments to grieve and self-reflect as a nation, but because they’re coming so fast and furious that it’s becoming less and less possible to keep track of what exactly we’re in a national state of mourning over.
I’m done trying to follow along.
Not because I don’t care, but because we seem to have crossed a threshold into a state of continual mourning, and the news of late – and the need to mourn for real, precious human lives snuffed out – is so horrifically large that it is, in my opinion, beyond what any one human heart can handle.
There is a real and present danger of social media making us less social, not more so. A strange thing to write on the internet, but an observation I’m becoming more confidant in by the day. As a finite human creature with a limited capacity for understanding, I don’t posses the necessary bandwidth to handle all the bad news from all the places. Not if I want to be effective in any real capacity in my actual, daily responsibilities.
There are moments I can clearly remember as rooted in terrible, show-stopping horror that left an entire nation paralyzed in grief and fascination and rage: Columbine, April 20th, 1999; September 11th, 2001. I remember every detail of those days: the color of the sky, the plaid comforter in my boyfriend’s dorm room where we’d all stopped on our way to class to gather around a tiny tv screen and make sense of the images coming across the airwaves, the low hum of a mini fridge stocked with frozen pizzas and gatorade the only noise in a cramped room crowded with nearly a dozen 18 year-olds.
But we are not meant to stay there, in that place of stuck, shocked, sorrowing, and scared. You cannot live in that place. There’s no life there. We can – and we must – pause, bow our heads, say a prayer … but then we must move on.
Because the only real way that I can combat evil in this world is by living out my particular vocation to my greatest possible ability. If I am actively seeking and responding to God’s particular will for my life, I can change the world.
But flipping channels won’t achieve that.
Whipping my internal dialogue into a frenzy of anxiety and despair after consuming “just one more” video stream about such and such situation unfolding live, watching endless content covering bodycounts, hostage negotiations, memorial vigils, and the like is not going to make me a better wife, a kinder mother, a more attentive neighbor.
When I spend my grief out into the diffused ether of Someone Else’s Tragedy, consuming facts and figures and details I don’t really have the right to know, in the first place, I am made impotent in my own little world, drained of the energy and peace that are essential to my primary vocation.
(And this is not to say that mourning for – and always, always, praying for – strangers is ineffective and unnecessary. It is neither of those. But there must be moderation, for our own sakes, and for the sake of those who depend directly on us for security and care.)
Someone told me once that one of the primary responsibilities of a parent is to secure the peace and sanctity of the home for our children’s sakes.
Am I doing that when I mindlessly glut on the Breaking News Situation du jour? Can I really shift my mind from scenes of massacre and chaos to nursery rhymes and reading sessions and diaper changes?
I am not God.
I cannot take in an infinite amount of information and an endless stream of chaotic grief and remain unchanged.
I can try to be like God. I can attempt to fill my finite mind with enough streamed content to overwhelm an external hard drive.
But I won’t remain unscathed.
I am a human being. I have a limited capacity for horror, and a propensity to paralysis and hopeless anxiety when that threshold is violated. Which it is. Routinely, if I allow myself to consume as much content as is available.
I have noticed a direct correlation between my own ability to unplug and my capacity for intimate, personal engagement with real life neighbors, friends, my children, and my spouse.
Even worse, overwhelmed and numbed by chaos and horror, I may withdraw into an apathetic “I can’t look at that so I’ll pretend it isn’t happening” posture, tucking my head down and staring into the infinity of a smartphone and an endless list of open browser tabs, searching for something, anything, to distract me from the pain of too much reality.
I am not advocating for withdrawing from the world, or even from refusing to watch or read the news. But I am advocating for judicious moderation, especially in these increasingly dark and frantic times.
We needn’t be consumed by the evils rampant in the world, not 24 hours a day.
Aware? Yes. Vigilant? Certainly? But over and above all else, at peace.
Unshakable, Gospel-centered peace that Jesus is Lord, that we are not in charge of our own salvation, even in a temporal sense, and that allowing an endless stream of horror and hatred to filter into our living rooms and emanate from our pockets is no way to be salt and light to a hurting world.
The world needs us to be Christ. And we are not infinite. We are not divine. We must take the gifts He’s given us, accept the grace He pours out, and then boldly go out into our neighborhoods and streets, proclaiming the Good News. And it is still good. He’s still there.
Though the world be burning down all around us, at least from what the cable news channels would have us think, Jesus is still Lord. And if we keep our eyes fixed on Him alone – no small “if” in a world so filled with distraction and pain – He will lead us to a peace that surpasses all understanding.
It is a peace the world does not know. But it’s one I’m desperate to know. So I must fix my eyes on the One who can, and will, deliver it.