Despite what the headlines tell us, the world is a fine place. We understand this once we drag ourselves off the news cycle.
It’s easier than ever before to plug yourself into the news matrix and get 24/7 push notifications for dreadful headlines about whatever stuff your ideological biases predispose you to obsess over.
This new highly-advanced information delivery system is obviously dangerous and unhealthy. I try to read the news a few times a week, usually relying on three link dumps: one left, one right, one centre. If bias is unavoidable, we might as well try to understand the various lines and where they intersect.
On every side of this multi-dimensional coin, there’s mostly sensational bad news. But it’s funny—maybe 10% of the stories I read are positive and uplifting, with no real bias whatsoever. Whenever I see these I sigh and think, “Why isn’t there more good news?” The weirdest thing is that these “good” stories come across as the most sensational of all, precisely because they’re presented as being so uncommon. “What?!? Good news???” Meanwhile, the bad stuff is presented almost as if it’s the only stuff.
Maybe it’s a Freudian death drive or our natural penchant for comfy misery, but I have a feeling most news will remain relatively sensational and pessimistic on every side of the political compass for the foreseeable future. But all we have to do is look around to remember that, in most places, things are okay. People are wandering around doing their jobs, looking for love and raising families. It’s unglamorous and unsensational, but it’s not tragic. The more sensational something is, the more intrigue it carries. But extreme events are extreme because they are not the norm.
As if the information itself isn’t suspect enough, we project our own insecurities and immaturities onto the events of the world, symbolically experiencing events we never actually experience through a double lens of narcissism and pessimism. This is like trying to drive the autobahn with a sleep mask on.
Here’s the crucial thing to remember if the news of the day drags you down: bad things generate the most press precisely because they are rare. But when you catalogue every extreme outlying event happening in the world in one place, you’d be hard pressed not to feel a sense of impending doom. And, on top of this already chaotic milieu, if you filter every event through a specific ideology, there’s a way to make anything seem like a massive victory or a massive tragedy. Our news is the most modern form of entertainment we have. It’s reality exaggerated and reinterpreted as tragicomic spectacle.
The saddest part is that, when we spend more time consuming this information than actually living, we project the symbolic misery onto the actual world. Strangers who look like people we don’t like become people we don’t like for no reason other than assumption. Little things become dramatic symptoms of some abstract illness in society. The stuff of day-to-day life becomes tinged with a virtual pessimism. And for what? We invent this virtual misery to avoid having to confront the unglamorous everyday challenges of reality.
The solution? Take all of your content less seriously. When the lines between virtuality and reality, ad and content, image and reality, are blurred, it’s not fake news that’s the problem, it’s information in general. The symbolic can never truly reflect the real, especially when the symbolic is engineered to be virtual. When we rely purely on virtual information to inform our experience, we basically become robots. And you see a lot of folks acting this way both online and in real life, merely repeating memes and info-bits they acquired in the preceding minutes. That’s not expression; it’s excretion. It’s okay to consume junk food, just not 24/7. That will singlehandedly ruin your life pretty quickly.
Let’s humble ourselves and not panic. Things aren’t that bad. Statistically, the world is the best it’s ever been.
This is one of the reasons why I think Zen practice is important today. It relies on immediate experience rather than symbolic consumption. You don’t learn about the world exclusively through reading or watching; that’s just part of it. The far more important part is how you experience your actual life. And, though we’re very confused about this nowadays, actual life is not just the life we’re living in front of a screen.
A loser in a basement can pretend he is influencing world events by becoming an extreme right-wing or left-wing political theorist on the Internet, but he’s effectively just playing an informational video game on Twitter or Facebook. There’s not much of a bleeding edge into which that sort of discourse morphs into real experience, other than causing random strangers to fume and poke away at their respective keyboards in an infinite feedback loop of tweets and replies.
When we take the information we consume online at face value, we’re effectively no better than these keyboard commandos. Everyone I know, myself included, is somewhat guilty of this delusional pessimism projection. So let’s humble ourselves and not panic. Things aren’t that bad. Statistically, the world is the best it’s ever been.
I’ve tried being optimistic before, in different times with different versions of myself. It didn’t really ever stick. I find myself remaining somewhat pragmatic, agnostic and “centrist”, a natural Zen position given our allergy to absolutes. But believing in “nothing” isn’t really a belief system, it’s more of a regulatory mechanism that helps us not get carried away. For that, it’s very useful. However, I think we could all benefit from grabbing at the good once in a while.
The truth is that all people suffer. And most people suffer from varying degrees of the same things: love sickness, ostracism, loneliness, attachment, desperation. There are massive cultural gaps between different populations in varying levels of development or types of geographical terrain, but any two people you pick out from the world population are more similar than they are different in their core desires and motivations.
This is something to cherish and remember when things feel overwhelming. Reality is relatively uninteresting compared to the virtual epic of Good vs Evil we subject ourselves to whenever we plug into the 21st-century informational economy. Reality is relatively good! And it’s good precisely because it’s uninteresting. It’s calm and peaceful the vast majority of the time in the vast majority of places.
There’s not a whole lot more to it, other than to remember to focus on the good, not as some delusional attempt at repression but because the reality of life is mostly good. At the very least, it’s neutral. Stuff happens, people deal with it, and we’re all very similar deep down. Our core motivators are unity, love and security. Everyone eats and shits. When you break it down to these fundamentals, humans are kinda sweet and cute, a far cry from the terrifying trigger-happy Ideology Monsters we read and read about on the Internet.
I’ve been through many phases of deep pessimism and I feel like I’ve finally settled at a certain peace, an optimism that things tend to work themselves out if, both collectively and individually, we cultivate mindfulness, patience and compassion. The key realisation for me was that we do these things naturally most of the time, without any magnificent effort or paradigm shift required. Things tend to resolve themselves. And if the occasional asshole doesn’t follow the natural cues, there are plenty of other innocent people living somewhat honest and virtuous lives to balance out the scales.
Don’t ever get lost in thinking the world is doomed, or people are inherently evil. We’re inherently selfish, sure, and we occasionally slip up, but only because we want the best for ourselves. And, frankly, if we all share that desire, we tend to work together to help achieve it. We’ve been doing so for thousands of years. These countless years are merely punctuated by tragedy; tragedy is not their substance. And I believe we will continue to survive and thrive with a certain peace and innocence. The process will be more tolerable if we prioritise the real over the virtual.