how to feel

One of the biggest most reoccurring questions I have had in my head for the past year or so is this: 

“How am I supposed to feel?”

As I’m sure you’re well aware, the news of the world can leave us numb.

Why, when I first started composing this post, I had just read about the Cambodian genocide, DNA hacking and designer babies, the sexual exploitation crisis in the Philippines, massive air pollution in India and China. And that was all on the front page of one website.

I've let this post sit for a while. What could I say? What is there to say in light of all the constant tragedy all over the globe, all the unsettling trends?

But I think if there is any answer to my question, keeping silent and shutting up is not it. So now you’re reading this.

I often consider: does knowing all the bad going on in the world actually help? Does it improve the many global problems? Does it stem the tides of injustice?

For the most part, I don’t believe so. But, on the other hand, can we wisely ignore it all and just keep our heads buried in our own little worlds? Doesn't seem right either.

There is a great quandary when it comes to the news. You can hardly live with it yet you shouldn’t remain ignorant to it.

So where is the line? What am I, as an adult and citizen of a country with significant global power, responsible to know and care about?

I recently watched this video of Trevor Noah from The Daily Show responding to the Philando Castile verdict.

Trevor said it broke him. I wanted to be, felt I should be broken too. In honesty, I think I’m just numb. I was saddened, for sure, and I can’t stop thinking about it, but I was not broken.

It seems every day there is a new tragedy to behold. How can a person take it all in? What is the appropriate response?

As Sufjan Stevens sings in The Only Thing

"Should I tear my eyes out now, before I see too much?"

I read this article a while back titled The Problem of Caring. The author describes how she has gone between seasons of being intensely focused on the news and then shutting it off completely along with the consequences of each.

From the article: 

Saul Bellow in 1973: “Our media make crisis chatter out of news and fill our minds with anxious phantoms of the real thing,” setting off “endless circuits of anxious calculation.” He was writing this in 1973.
This gap between information and insight, between awareness and empathic action, it turns out, is critical.
For anyone with a serviceable internet connection— the phantoms have multiplied a million fold, the circuit expanded to new dimensions. When I read stories of suffering, I still feel something. It seems inhuman not to. At the same time, I’m more aware than ever of how little my feeling is worth, of how, if we are to truly keep alive the conditions that make ethical life possible— it is not empathy that’s needed, but insight, organization, and action.

The author concludes, “I wondered if the sharing of stories and honest dialogue and saying the difficult thing, not just on Facebook but to actual other human beings, is a small but real antidote to fear.”

So where am I in all this? Still figuring it out.

I think the author makes a good point, that we need to have more open conversations with face-to-face people who care. 

But I do believe we need empathy, just as much as insight, organization, and action. True empathy is what leads to those other three.

That is the difference between sympathy and empathy. The former causes you to feel something but the latter moves you to identify with the other, to share in part with the person who is hurting.

More than hearing about hurting people and tragedy, we should aim to be around them, to identify with them. Not exactly a fun goal; no one wants to be hurt. Whether intentional or not, we can lock ourselves in to our safe and comfortable lives, away from the hurt and brokenness of the world. We can run as far and as fast away from it as possible.

It takes serious effort to spend time with hurting people. It's not our natural inclination and it's not easy. But unless we're willing to do it, I don't think we can be whole, I don't think we can feel the way we should.

Only when we are around people who are broken, can our own hearts, numbed from the tidal waves of bad news, actually be broken in the way a heart should be.

As my pastor Rudy once said,

“When you’re never around people, your heart will never break.”

I originally wanted to title this post, When you feel too much. But I remembered that’s very close to the name of a book by Jamie Tworkowski, founder of To Write Love on Her Arms. His  organization assists people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide.

I appreciate people like Jamie Tworkowski or Jeremy Courtney from Preemptive Love Coalition, who work on ground zero of the refugee crisis. They are making a difference, shining light on the dark.

Sure, we may not all be called to start a big nonprofit in order to help the hurting, but we all can reach one hurting person. Anyone can give a hug, buy a lunch, or invite them over just to talk.

I still often don’t know how I’m supposed to feel, but I know who I am supposed to love, and that is every person I meet.

Yeah, it’s a very tall order, but I’m working on it. How about you?

A.P. Lambert

A.P. Lambert is a creative professional who helps others live with creativity and purpose.