The World is Too Much With Us

“I could no longer discern what was real and what was fake. Everything, including the present, seemed to be both too much and nothing at all.” ― Clemantine Wamariya

I have been feeling overwhelmed the past weeks. Maybe it’s been a month now.  Most of us are having the same kinds of experiences all at once and all together. I think if I made a list it would look very similar to yours. So many of our feelings right now are driven by a lack of control, the feeling that so much of life in general is off balance.

“Don’t despair: despair suggests you are in total control and know what is coming. You don’t – surrender to events with hope.” ― Alain de Botton

One of the ways for me to get a better handle on things is to try and figure out what’s really going on. I’m a sociologist. That means that what I’ve been trained to do is to dissect the world of people, like I did with that frog back in middle school science class, and see how it all works (or doesn’t).

Right now, a global pandemic has left us all feeling like life is veering in and out of control. It’s an even more powerless experience because we can’t hit back at a virus. There’s no visible enemy, like a terrible boss or a marriage falling apart. So, what we end up wrestling with is the state of information being transmitted to us from leaders and healthcare experts. How well do we believe what we are being told? The issue becomes not the actual state of our health but what we believe.

“The amount of violations of human rights in a country is always an inverse function of the amount of complaints about human rights violations heard from there. The greater the number of complaints being aired, the better protected are human rights in that country.” ― Daniel Patrick Moynihan

As I’ve written before, the tremendous social movements now taking place are actually the result of months living under quarantine. The video of police kneeling on the neck of George Floyd and his subsequent death was a match that lit a population already kindled for catastrophe.

Social movements fall into two broad categories:

(1) Top Down (Resource Mobilization) or

(2) Bottom Up (Collective Behavior)

I was reading an article the other day about the making of the We Are The World song and video. It was a 1985 project to raise global awareness about suffering and starvation in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. It would fall under the category of a Top Down Movement. These tend to be organized around ideas and actions that need to be communicated to the population or groups so that action can be organized and problems solved.

What we are now experiencing with protests, marches, riots, vandalism and public displays by political and pop leaders would fall into the Bottom Up category. In response to the video of the police arrest and later death of George Floyd, people who felt tremendous anger and bottled up grievances exploded in protest. Political and pop leaders tried to catch up – but mostly looked silly and out of step.

In a Mass Society like ours, the media plays a powerful role in shaping public opinion about the “how’s” and “why’s” of social movements. Our media landscape is unique:

  • We have hundreds of media sources of information and opinion pouring into our lives each minute.
  • The distinction between information and opinion is typically blurred to the receiver.
  • We have media monopolies controlling a wide variety of content, from news, entertainment, social media, sports and publishing. All interwoven to produce a profit for shareholders. Go back and watch the film Network.

The goal of the media is no longer to provide information to the public. That is a secondary objective. The primary objective is to gain viewers – profit. This has happened because there is too much media, too many channels and apps. It’s not some evil plot, just basic market dynamics.

What’s happened in history right now? Viewers were tired of the endless Corona-virus narrative that seemed to never have a happy ending. A mass protest for social change regarding race relations was exactly what the doctor ordered. Each media source jumped on the events and shaped the telling to fit into their narratives.

History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.  – Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NLT)

Now, as you click around on your television or phone you will see that the information from the media is not the same. Remember, they are not reporting just facts but telling stories to gain and maintain audiences. So, you will hear one source emphasize the “A” part of the narrative and downplay the “B” part. Another source will do the opposite. This is normal marketing activity. We are not citizens in need of truth, we are consumers shopping for a narrative that fits.

“If you believe that your thoughts originate inside your brain, do you also believe that television shows are made inside your television set?” ― Warren Ellis

Remember, this social movement aimed at addressing injustices regarding race relations is happening now because the atmosphere was stoked by the quarantine. People were laid off, lost insurance, had no childcare, were trapped at home with family, experienced the hospitalization/death of family/friends. Who were we to express our frustration and anger at in the midst of all this? A mysterious virus floating around in the air?

Marching in protest about racial injustice and examples of police violence makes perfect sense in light of our collective circumstances. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be happening, just an explanation of why now. Of course there are a lot of actions taking place that don’t make sense – there always are. Welcome to the drama of living in a free society with a camera always on.

So, despite an explanation, I’m still as overwhelmed. I’m doing a few things different so that I can at least tread water and not feel too waterboarded by history. To counter this feeling, here’s what the doctor recommends:

  1. Talk less, listen more
  2. Stop watching TV news
  3. Read fiction (with happy endings)
  4. Read magazine articles that stoke your curiosity
  5. Take a drive in the country
  6. Watch an interesting documentary
  7. Write a note of encouragement to someone who needs it
  8. Tell your kids what life was like back in the Dark Ages, when you were their age

If you do get into a current event discussion or debate why not talk about something specific that you can do to help make it better? Talk about hope not anger or frustration or fear – there’s already plenty of that to last a lifetime.

And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it.  – 1 Peter 3:15 (NLT)

The World Is Too Much With Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

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