Locality and Tragedy

Author Barbara Kingsolver says that seeing death on the television in the news – a plane down here, a bomb there, a war over there – bombards our senses, alternatively numbing us or overwhelming us, but almost always with the sense that we can’t do anything about it. Because news is primarily visual outside of print and radio media, the images the news feeds us has to be driven visually. Presented as a random sampling of ‘what’s going on in the world today’, these images add to the sense of powerlessness in the face of enormous amounts of death. But they are not a random sampling of what is happening in the world. They are the worst of the worst – they are the images that get people to watch the news. It becomes, she asserts, a peculiarly unbalanced diet for the human psyche – one that does not reflect the day to day real world that most people live in, if they will actually live in it, rather than stare at the screen.

And so here’s what she does. In the summer, they move into a farm house whose ancient wiring is incapable of sustaining a TV. And the only media she partakes is the local newspaper, County News, comprised largely of farm forecasts and obituaries. And she bakes casseroles. Instead of being pommeled by visual accounts of catastrophic death she can do little about, or a politician’s or celebrity’s tragedies far away from her, she responds to each death in that local community. “On the matter of individual tragic deaths, I believe that those in my own neighborhood are the ones I need to attend to first, by means of casseroles or whatever else I can offer. I believe… it’s possible to be so overtaken and stupefied by the tragedies of the world,” she writes, “that we don’t have any time or energy left for those closer to home, the hurts we should take as our own.” Paying attention to the local deaths, she says, “is a healthy exercise. It helps me remember what death really is, and helps me feel less useless in the face of it.”

Kingsolver is not saying to hide in small communities and ignore the large-scale tragedies or injustices going on in the world. In fact, she writes quite a lot about those things. What she is saying is that a broadcast-news-only diet warps our view of the world, giving bad news and death a larger slice of the pie than they are in the actual realities of the world around us. In reality, when we step away from that screen, there are birds singing, sun shining, wind moving the leaves, birds migrating, gardens growing, birthdays being celebrated for first graders. There are mountains, quilts being sewn, marriages, cats purring, friends at the post office, suppers being cooked and enjoyed, “and a trillion other things outside the notice of CNN.” If we take our view of the world overmuch from the news feed, we get a narrower slice than reality, and it can have negative, dysfunctional, depressive results in our view of things. Saint Paul, no stranger to the darker side of pain and evil in our world, advised, in regards to seeking to live a life of joy, “fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and noble, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”

Again, not a call to hide away and ignore the pain and suffering in our world, but a call to get a realistic slice of it within the larger picture of the creation all around us, rather than the narrowly disasterous, and psychologically destructive, view that comes from too much time on the newsfeed. Without a larger view of the good in creation and life all around us, we may be so worn down by the newsfeed that we find ourselves drained of energy to help in local situations where we actually can.

(Kingsolver, Small Wonder: Essays; Perenniel, 2002)

3 thoughts on “Locality and Tragedy

  1. Excellent post and I concur on yours and Barbara Kingsolver thoughts. It seems to be a battle that will be upward as folk set themselves in front of their TVs after a long day at work and listen to not only news but mostly news commentary and mistaking it for the news. In this sense opinions are made on opinions and not forming one’s own opinion taken from facts.

    I guess my thoughts are can humanity withdraw themselves from visual news and invest in not just their own families but the families that live in their community? Do people want community or do they want the soccer, football and other short term actives with a short time of community and they relax back to their visual aid of TV? I wonder how far we have gone in such a short time, I wonder.

  2. Hey bro,
    I think you are on the mark. Henry Beston is a naturalist who lived on a farm in Maine, and he thought a lot about those changes that were taking place in America… the move away from community in the suburbs and cities, though he felt like small communities in rural places had kept their sense of community… maybe the Ship area is morphing ? I was reading his book ‘Northern Farm’ last night. The first few chapters talk about this subject off an on. A good read.

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