2020 has been a brutal year. It’s as if violence is airborne, along with the coronavirus, traveling into all parts of our lives. Work. School. Grocery shopping. Dinner. Bedtime. And of course, the news.
I won’t abandon the news because I really believe I need to know what’s happening around me. The news has always had an air of brutality about it, but it has escalated steeply over the last few years. The violence of racism, of shootings, of wars, of hurricanes and fires, continues, and now there’s a sort of sinister film on top of it all. The Trumpian disregard for decency, truth, and human compassion has created a new kind of daily violence. It’s an assault on the soul as well as the mind. News stories quote “authorities”, and their words are jarringly out of step with my lived experiences. The resulting dissonance is physically uncomfortable. Authorities, who are veering towards authoritarianism, are lying so baldly it isn’t even clear if they still know they are lying (but I suspect they do). It’s in the New York Times. It’s on my twitter feed. It’s on NPR and cable TV. Even in places where this layer of untruth is peeled back, as it is in a few independent publications and in conversations with friends, it’s likely to be the subject of the commentary. The assault on decency feels Inescapable. It’s suffusing everything.
When I manage to silence the chatter, shut down the laptop, put the iPhone aside, and put the kibosh on political talk with my partner, I sit in a pool of anxiety. I worry that this isn’t a blip, but a trajectory. It’s not a detour, it’s the new normal. Protest is ongoing in my city, because it’s necessary. The government is fucking people over in so many ways. I can sometimes hear a police activity as I lie in bed— they have helicopters circle, they use a sound cannon to issue warnings to demonstrators at the park or the police union building a mile or so from my house. It’s 1 AM, sometimes, and I hear flashbangs. Helicopters. Warnings. The news isn’t just an abstract report, it’s outside my window. It’s at my job. I need to cultivate peace. I don’t mean that unrest or violence in the world should stop. There are very good reasons for conflict, for outrage, for yelling and maybe even violence. But I need a source of personal peace or I cannot sustain my engagement in the world. Where can I find respite from the spreading virus, from the spreading violence, from the psychic assault?
I know some people find escape from TV, or movies, or videogames. Some find it from drinking, or smoking weed. Some probably find it by just pretending it isn’t happening and going about their lives. The best thing I’ve been able to find is going outside. I find a few minutes of peace on my morning run, if I opt for silence or music and not a current-events podcast. I find it when I bike commute, when that 45 minutes alone with my legs burning is like the eye of the storm. I found it when my partner and I drove an hour from the city and put up a tent, camping for a night with no agenda other than making s’mores and playing with the dog. There’s a sameness about the outdoors that lets me feel normal. There’s a reliable reaction, as if chemical, that produces a sense of well-being. It doesn’t last that long, but it can fill an empty cup enough to relieve the drought of hope.
When I return, I still go to work and fight the virus. I still protest in the street and in my writing and with my money. I still fume with fury and sadness when I read the news. It’s brutal. But I can do it another day.