12.22.2009

Hitting My (Twitter) Limit

‘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.


***

24 comments:

  1. I know, lady. I know. Ditto, squared.

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  2. the world is full of good intentioned, caring people who will fret and worry about the things they see and read. if someone writes something on twitter that is morbid, people will worry. although- it's just a flash of information and a sliver of the real story, a piece of the puzzle and then we have to put together the rest... It really concerns me when people use forums like twitter as a way to solicit worrisome attention from strangers.
    I've seen some people "tweet" some very bizarre and scary personal things, to hundreds and hundreds of STRANGERS. I think that it's super irresponsible. it has become way too easy to engage in twisted attention seeking behavior.
    most people are good and have good intentions, but some people aren't. it's too bad that those are the ones who take up so much virtual space and that those people will use the kindness of others to fill some creepy need.

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  3. I know. I didn't expect that becoming a mother would make me so sensitive. But it has. The news is bad enough and Twitter is worse. Thanks for the call to get a grip.

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  4. so very dead on, thanks for sharing. been musing a lot lately about my own reactions to things like militarymom's tragedy (who i knew not at all, just saw retweeted) and wondering at it's pull on my heart. i feel it completely, but there are things right around me that i'm pushing aside to share that emotion. it truly does become information overload, often at the expense of being present in real life.

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  5. You just confirmed the fact that I am definitely not a good candidate for a twitterer.
    I love you my little lady.

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  6. i was thinking about this very thing lately. i have a locked account and deliberately have only about 30 friends on twitter, which helps quite a bit. i also never look at the trending topics (well, almost never).

    this weekend someone retweeted a tweet about some fire killing an entire family. it broke me APART. it was too much. i don't want to be shielded from all the bad things in life, but we have to know our personal limits.

    that particular tweet was just. too. much.

    sometimes, like you told your mom, we just need to stand in the sun.

    excellent post.

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  7. I understand. I get it. I often step away from twitter as it overwhelms and depresses me.

    But unlike stepping away from twitter, I can't step away from tragedy. It follows me daily when I look at my kids and see who is missing.

    In some weird way, at least on twitter I am reminded I am not the only one who is suffering, will suffer. Because all too often in real life, friends and family have stepped out of our reality to bask in their sunlight when the skies are still cloudy over our heads.

    I think it's all about balance, really, and perspective.

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  8. We are so separated at birth...
    When we lived in Saudi Arabia my mother used to get weekly phonecalls from her mother advising us to pack up because there was a war in IRAN.
    7k is pretty close though. I don't know if you, or I, could really manage to have our kids that close to missiles.

    Like Christine I follow very few people on twitter. Part of why I had to cut back on blog reading was this need to stand in the sun.

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  9. I find that the more living I do, the less time I have to blog, Twitter etc. When I'm on the computer a lot, nothing much is happening. It should be reversed, no? I can't seem to find time to write when my life is very full.

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  10. This is another fabulous post.

    I find the same thing sometimes and when I do I revert to my "favourites" column that I have set up on twitter. Of the more than 2000 people that I follow, that column has the people who I know well, whose tweets are generally more informative or entertaining than sensational and full of catastrophe. I have moved people out of that column temporarily or permanently when they were tweeting about things I just couldn't handle any more. For example, the tweeting a while back about Baby Stellen. A tweet or two a day was okay. But a tweet from the same person every 15 minutes (plus the tweets from everyone else) was enough to push me over the edge. I need to work. I need to live. I cannot spend my day wallowed in other peoples grief.

    On the other hand, I find the personal tragedies of some people I have become close to on twitter have helped me in an odd way. I've been lucky enough to not be struck frequently by personal tragedy in my own life and among my IRL loved ones. Very lucky. But when it does strike, I often find myself feeling very deeply for that person, but acting like a deer caught in the headlights and not knowing what to say or how to act. Dealing with other peoples personal tragedies more frequently on twitter has allowed me to both (a) learn to manage my own emotions better and (b) given me the time and practice at finding the right thing to say (easier to do on twitter since you can think before you reply because the person is not standing right in front of you).

    All that to say: yes, I agree with you. It is too much sometimes and I have tactics to manage that a bit. But it has also helped me and taught me things.

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  11. This is a fabulous post. Really hits home. This is my first time reading your blog. I dont kniw how ive managed to miss it. Ironically, I came via Twitter. I will be back.

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  12. God, yes! I recently trimmed down the amount of people I was following, and this is a major reason why. I just had the realization one day that I didn't even know who these people were, and I was allowing them and their "noise" into my life every single day. Then I thought long and hard about who, of the gajillion people I interact with online, who would genuinely be there for me if I had a tragedy. Not who would jump on the bandwagon and add a colored ribbon to their avatar....but who I could truly count on. Very, very few, I can tell you. Twitter...all Social Media really...is a strange, strange microcosm. It's easy to lose perspective if you don't come up for air from time to time.

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  13. Another good one, sis. Have I mentioned lately how happy I am to live on a far away mountain where I couldn't twitter even if I wanted too? Hurray for real, not just virtual, life.

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  14. Hear, hear, Karen.

    Excellent post.

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  15. I'm torn. But you've got me thinking, which is good. Great post.
    So I agree with Annie - that being on twitter, part of the blogosphere and being exposed to loss (GREAT loss, overwhelming loss) has taught me A LOT more about grief and how to support those who are grieving, etc. I have been lucky enough not to experience such loss in my life. I think I feel more confident now about supporting someone who is grieving. In real life.
    I also feel like you - overwhelmed at times by this snippets, these 140 characters or less, of great sadness. It does seem like too much sometimes.
    I also feel like if I don't say anything, even to someone I don't know (e.g. tweeting that I am thinking of military_mama when she lost her son in the midst of that firestorm about her use of twitter) that I could be seen as heartless. Or uncaring. I mean, I do care. When I hear these stories. Is it okay not to acknowledge their loss? Can I just turn it off? I'm asking myself these questions.
    And I am very conscious of not being seen as a 'stormy weather friend'. I'm not collecting stories of grief. But sometimes it seems like I accidentally am.
    (That sound you just heard down there in the city was a big sigh. This is a tough one!!)

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  16. I'm one of those tweeting the grief and horror. And, I see both sides of the story. Even though I mourn right now, sometimes the stories of kids with cancer, moms losing babies, and tweets about abuse are too much for me, too.

    But, sometimes in these stories I learn a lesson and grow as a person.

    I decided to tweet my grief to help, to spread light and compassion. Yes, my story is awful, depressing, and plain old sad on one level. But, it's also a story of beauty, compassion, joy, and will save lives.

    I understand if my story is too much and people need to tune out.

    But, I continue to let in some of these stories because often through the pain I learn something I otherwise couldn't have. I might be a little biased.

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  17. I've been trying to respond to everybody individually via email, but Kristine and Tanis, I'm going to respond here.

    I don't want to underestimate how much this community - our community - can support and raise up those going through unthinkable tragedy. There is no way I mean to minimize the importance of reaching out, of finding others to relate to, of finding something - anything - to help make it through the day. I definitely don't begrudge anybody their right and need to express grief in whatever way they need to.

    Kristine, I did recently hear about the loss of your daughter, and I am so very, very sorry.

    In the end, I try to remember that there are actual, feeling, dealing people attached to the stories we hear, and sometimes, in the midst of the shock and morbid celebrity it can bring, this fact can get diluted.

    Thanks for the reminder.

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  18. My mom worries for all of us ... drives us nuts. But now that I have kids... I kind of get it.

    sigh


    Hope you and yours had a lovely Christmas, full of good news and cheer.

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  19. Yes, yes, yes. I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Reading about somebody's tragedy on Twitter--even if I've never met or emailed or even personally Tweeted with that person--feels so much more real and personal and up-close than reading about a stranger in the news. It's like my friends' friends' friends have now become my friends. Problem is, I'm not sure humans are meant to have a social circle so huge that they can personally and deeply feel the losses of so many at once. In the pre-internet world, your sphere of friends and acquaintances would be naturally limited--statistically speaking the number of tragedies were limited by that number. Now, there's no limit. I'm not suggesting we should stop caring, or harden our hearts to it...but there just has to be some element of self-protection in there, you know?

    Thanks for getting me thinking about this again. I think I'll post about it myself soon.

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  20. So true. I often find myself "weighted down" by all of the sadness that people experience throughout the blogosphere...and yet...I am also cheered by the joy and hope and strength that I see in others' lives as well.

    stephanie@metropolitanmama.net

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  21. It's true, it's true, and I only keep telling myself that I CANNOT be that mom, must allow my child the space, but I know also that I won't be able to, because, well, you know - MY BABY! It's the same as the stat that stranger abductions are really very rare - yet what parent doesn't fear that? We can't always stop those voices in our heads, can we?

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  22. Found this post through Momshare.net. It really struck a chord. I learned about Anissa (and, today, someone else who just experienced a wrenching loss) through Twitter, and the connectivity that we all have through it is amazing.

    But like Annie said, sometimes taking a break is also important. We're all so empathic, and relate to people's losses and fears so much, that pulling back sometimes is important for our own emotional states.

    This is a really important post, and I'm glad I found it.

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  23. EarnestGirlJanuary 08, 2010

    I came because I don't visit often enough, here in your own place, instead of over there where we sometimes hang out and have Red Rose tea. Where you are *so* good about commenting & I do not hold up my end. Anyway, my point is hello, and: yes.

    I don't know what to call this syndrome, but I suffer from it as well. Flit about, don't settle for long enough anywhere to be truly meaningful in terms of support. It is more than information overload - it is stimulation saturation. Endurance empathy. Our boundaries have become so wide, bigger than the true meaning of community is meant to be. I carry my twitter exchanges around in my head, the babies around in my heart and fret and worry over families I don't really know. I think the world made more sense when I could help for real - take a night shift with a newborn, arrange play date for a stressed family, offer banana bread, a meal.
    The intangible nature of this wide new community sometimes threatens to fill my heart too full. Good luck with standing in the sunshine. I'll miss hearing from you, but wish you a joyful, less full, patch of happy.

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