‘I think you should come home. It looks bad.’
‘Mum, it’s not so bad. Nobody here is worried. Nobody is worried except the mothers of the foreigners.’
‘And the UN.’
‘The UN is only slightly concerned. Don’t worry about it; I’m fine.’
‘I think you should come home.’
‘I’m not coming home. Turn off the TV and go stand in the sunshine for a while.’
And so several conversations went, during the 8 months in 1998 that I lived in Israel. Historically-speaking, it was a peaceful year. The UN was overseeing a pullout of Israeli troops from Lebanon, a mere 7 kilometres from my kibbutz, and all other land disputes were bathed in a tenuous peace. I worked and lived and laughed and loved alongside Jewish, Muslim, Bedouin, Druze and Christian people. It was modern Israel’s 50th anniversary, and it was a good year to be there.
Unless you watched CNN.
If you watched CNN, then you heard of Katusha rockets being fired at Israel; of the threat of gas bombs being dropped on the settlers; of war, imminent and looming.
If you watched CNN, you panicked every time the phone rang, sure that it was an overseas call informing you that your wayward, wandering daughter had just been killed by a suicide bomber.
If you watched CNN, your daughter’s peaceful, safe, rewarding life experience turned into a dangerous game of chance, with sudden doom looming like an executioner’s axe.
I tried not to verbally roll my eyes at my mother during these long-distance exchanges, although I did admonish her for believing a third-person, sensationalized account of events over my first-hand, immediate reality. I could understand her concern – what she saw on the news led her to believe that tragedy truly was imminent, and that something she had been safely removed from may now land on her doorstep, in the form of harm coming to her child. She believed the worst, because she was deluged with images and stories that made the worst seem plausible – almost unavoidable. She was my mother, and as such, she was entitled to her fear. I tried my best to alleviate it, but ultimately, I could only counsel her to turn the damn TV off.
It’s over a decade later, but recently I have been thinking quite a bit about these exchanges. I am now a mother, but that is not the specific aspect of parallel that I have been considering.
It’s that Twitter has become my CNN, marinating my thoughts in catastrophic possibilities and skewing my perspective on the sanctity and safety of my family’s daily life.
Thanks to Twitter, I am now privy to a worldwide, instantaneous helping of doom.
Before I even read one tweet, I can glance to the right of the screen and know what celebrity is dead or in trouble, what country is mired in the threat or the onslaught of war, what atrocity has been heaped on a group of well-meaning citizens and what destruction we have impaled on our earth.
Yes, I can also find out what three words some of the world’s most classless people like to utter after sex, or what sports superstar has embarrassed himself this week, but the trending topics on Twitter serve foremost as a library of knee-jerk, sensationalized, sometimes accurate news headlines that can depress, shock or frighten before I’ve even glanced at my personal feeds.
I used to think that bad news traveled via my mother, but now I see that catastrophe is a mere click away – tweets and retweets and forwards and replies that reduce my world to fear and loathing in 140 characters or less. The grapevine has become a ridiculously prolific weed, stretching from one woman’s tragedy an entire country away to 300 of her closest friends – and 300 of their closest friends, and so on – in mere moments. A stranger’s intimate, horrible business becomes common knowledge in less time than it takes for my kettle to boil.
Last February, my friend lost her 7-day old baby to a rare genetic disorder. Devastating does not even begin to cover the fabric of the shroud that fell over us during that time. Being at an infant’s funeral was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of my life. The death of this beautiful, innocent baby and his mother’s ongoing struggle to live through it is something I hope I never experience again. And the probability is, I won’t. The probability is that dealing with the death of a friend’s baby will be a rare, hopefully never duplicated, experience in my life.
Except now I hear about dead babies all the time. I hear about sick and dying and dead babies of women whose names I now know, and when you are a mother, that is as close as you need to be to mourn with them.
And it’s not just parents losing children. It’s children losing parents, to cancer, to accidents, to illness, to divorce. There is grief, there is so much grief, and even though I invited this into my life, even though I choose on a daily basis to be part of this community, it weighs. Heavily.
I don’t need to be shielded from bad news; I simply need to understand when I have hit my mental limit for tragedy. I don’t want to be callous, I just – like anybody, I’m guessing – have my own good friends, my own close family and my own personal griefs to deal with.
Yes, of course I can offer a thought of support to a stranger, a moment of kindness to anybody that needs it, but I have a propensity for becoming overwhelmed by the fear that, if it happened to her, it can happen to me. Nobody should have that many supporting reminders of an improbable and unhealthy game of chance being played with their life and loved ones.
All of a sudden, I know so much about so many people, and I shouldn’t. But, like the reporters on CNN, people seem to strangely enjoy being the bearers of any glimmer of bad news. Recently, I came across the term, ‘stormy-weather friends,’ and unfortunately, it’s apt. For some reason, some people want to be close to tragedy. They want to be a hand-holder, yes, offering comfort and support and soliciting it – voraciously – from others, but I kinda think they also want to be personally involved.
Twitter, the blogosphere, and all of our online access points allow us to connect with people and communities in a way that is precious and priceless. It can make the world seem friendlier, smaller, easier to navigate. But it can also shrink to a scary, sensationalized microcosm where the laws of probability are inflated and where human instinct to reach out can be perverted into an implied permission to simply spread gossip.
I do believe that, like my mother and her parental concern over her daughter’s safety a decade ago, most people are acting on good intentions based on the information they have been fed. But I’m at the point where I think that I need to follow the advice I myself offered on those trans-continental phone calls so many years ago – it’s time to get a grip, to stop playing six-degrees of separation with catastrophe and when it all gets to be too much, to do what I told my mother to do – to trust when I say that the world is generally a good place, a safe place, and if I’m still not convinced, to turn around and look at the joyful faces of my happy, healthy children – to appreciate the beauty that surrounds me and the sun shining in my window. And as far as the computer goes, well, sometimes the only thing to do is to just turn it off.