At the Closing of the Year…

I think most of us can agree that 2016 has been a pretty shitty experience, no?

The US has been through a bruising, yearlong Presidential election cycle, the outcome of which was always going to involve half the country feeling bitterly disenfranchised. This was literally a no-win situation for the country in every way, and it’s not going to get better. We’re not going to pull together under one leader, because neither side can even comprehend why the other side is so griped.

The UK went through a similarly unsurvivable referendum, which was always going to leave half the country pissed off. The one thing the people of the UK can perhaps come together on is an utter disbelief that their government will now figure out what the hell to do about it all.

The US is also grappling with inequality, racial tension, police violence, and a hundred other social problems that have been simmering away under the surface, and which we’re all finally starting to see and recognize. These further divide us – and countries all over the world are dealing with their own unique, equally divisive social problems.

Throughout much of Western Europe, pending elections are showing a trend toward nationalist isolationism, which is wonderful if you’re a nationalist and terrible if you’re a globalist, and horrible all-around because everyone’s so closely divided. There’s no clear majority on any side, making these fractious times indeed.

We’ve been through an unprecedented number of horrific terror attacks – which do much to drive that nationalist, isolationist trend – that have made us all feel vulnerable and at-risk. We’ve lost thousands of friends and loved ones to no purpose whatsoever. Governments are faced with migrant surges, and the inevitable chaos and backlash that always accompanies those. Everyone’s going to look back, years from now, and be sorely embarrassed about the entire state of the world.

And so it would be stupid for me, in a stupid blog, to try and minimize all this. I cannot bring you comfort.

But these are the stories and the realities you’ve already seen on CNN, Fox News, the BBC, or your favorite other purveyor of news. None of the above is, at this point, “news.” It’s all “olds.” And even when it was news, it missed something crucial.

We humans are absolutely terrible about forming opinions in a vacuum of evidence. We believe what is put before us, and in what supports our own world views and prejudices. That doesn’t make us bad people, it simply makes us people. We’re wired that way. We see a thousand angry people rioting in a city, and we make strong conclusions about that city and those people – and we ignore the tens of thousands of non-rioters that we simply didn’t see. And so all the news that we get from CNN et. al. is great – but it isn’t the complete picture.

We also have a survival instinct that drives us to bad news. This isn’t the media’s fault; cavemen didn’t survive by wandering around and marveling at all of the living flowers. They survived by looking for threats. Our brains want to be on alert on the time, even if we’re not actually good at maintaining an alert level. We seek safety, and to find it, we must identify the threats. And so we instinctively consume bad news, and then when we’re exhausted by it, complain that all we ever see is bad news.

There were a record number of cats adopted on Black Friday in 2016. A kid spent his Bar Mitzvah money buying shoes for the homeless. Someone rescued a bald eagle. A lady gave birth. Tens of thousands of Americans bought guns and didn’t shoot anybody. Hundreds of local elections put new city councillors in office, who are doing a great job keeping their cities running. These aren’t the big stories that the networks want, and they’re not the kind of news that’ll show up in your feed. These aren’t threats, and so we don’t look for them. But they’re the little stories that happen all around you, all the time. You’re just unaware of them, so they don’t contribute to your overall worldview.

But it shows us that the big problems… well, they’re problems. But in many cases, they do sort themselves out, because in many cases, they weren’t as intractable as everyone thought they were. And maybe we should be focusing on the little stories. Focus on making little stories of good news.

Like saying “hi” to the person you pass on the street, or waving and smiling at someone you pass while driving. Stop seeing the news stories, and start seeing the people. When you find yourself in a near-confrontation with someone, ask yourself what you can do to resolve it peacefully and happily. Do something in your community, not to “do good,” but just to be in that community. Talk to your neighbor. Talk to people at work that you don’t know. Say hi to people at the gym, or in line at the coffee shop. Tell her she has a nice dress, or that you like his tie.

If there’s a group in your community that you just don’t like – ignore them. Let them do their thing. You don’t need to bring them in line, and you don’t need to feel threatened because they want something different from life than you. We, as humans, have a dangerous, hardwired trait of wanting to live in a bubble of people and news that agrees with what we feel is safe and right, and we get damned upset when we’re aware of people who are outside that bubble. Recognize this trait in us, and actively ignore it. The people in the other bubble probably aren’t going to hurt your life the way your hindbrain – or the news – wants you to believe.

The big problems aren’t going to go away. We’ll always have new ones. But the little bright spots aren’t going to go away either, and they have the potential to have a lot more impact on your daily life and happiness than anything else. You don’t need to ignore the big problems – you just need to remember that a thousand little happinesses are all around you, if you engage. Take a more balanced worldview. Remember, you’re not going to be on this world for very long, and your long-term impact is likely to be negligible. So you might as well spend the time you do have smiling and relaxing a bit more. Before you get worked up about something, or spread that bit of bad news, ask yourself if it’ll matter in 50 years.

Our news media gets paid to get you riled up. Politicians succeed when you’re riled up. You know this. You know that, much of the time, the threat level is grossly exaggerated – and yet you probably let it get to you more than you know you should. Calm down. The news might be real, but the degree is not. Ask yourself what really impacts your daily life, and really laser in on that stuff, instead. Just because you feel strongly about something does not necessarily make it a daily priority. Instead, look around and focus on what’s real, and what’s now. Your kids. Your spouse. Your home. Your career. Your neighborhood. We’ve got plenty of things to worry about that we can positively impact – don’t sweat the rest. Set a good example for your kids and your community.

And because so much of 2016 has been about divisiveness, I want to point something out. It’s easy, especially if you were on the losing side of a vote, to point to the other side and start making broad statements about “them.” Don’t do that. Remember, I lived in an RV and traveled the US for a few years (I wrote a book about it). I found that most of us have more in common than we not, despite what our politicians – for their own benefit – would have us believe. We all want to be safe. We want our families to be happy. We want food on the table, and we like to catch a good movie now and again. We are, for the most part, pretty simple people, never mind the complexity of our world. Hold on to that. Look at “the other side” and see them for who they are – and you’ll often find that it’s like looking in a mirror.

Yeah, 2016 sucked. On the big level, 2017 might not be a ton better. Whatever. Go to a bar and have a drink with a complete stranger – that’s what bars are for. Go watch some kids play baseball at the park. Go to the mall and say “hi” to people. Turn off the news. We’ll be okay. 

So to borrow a lyric, if I cannot bring you comfort, than at least I bring you hope. Nothing is more precious than the time we have. Count the blessings that are real.

Happy holidays.

One thought on “At the Closing of the Year…

  1. Alex

    I agree with everything in your article except this statement is not always as easy as it seems: “Let them do their thing. You don’t need to bring them in line, and you don’t need to feel threatened because they want something different from life than you.”

    What if what I want is peace and what they want to to destroy me? This is life in some areas like middle east.

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