“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy
As the United States transitions to new leadership midst the rising challenge of the pandemic, ongoing racial and political unrest, financial uncertainty, ecological challenges, and a myriad of other issues, it is clear that our nation, and our world, is facing serious trials. Death looms for some. Financial ruin looms for others. Anxiety remains for many. We have entered a period of unrequested cleansing, and the real question remains about just what will emerge from the purification we never desired.
Yet as serious challenges persist, a just as serious threat has become a growing, menacing eyesore on the landscape. Simply put, we have become a nation obsessed with drama, more concerned with spurring, viewing, and perpetuating it than understanding and changing what is actually causing it. Day after day, night after night, we spend our dear time consuming and contributing to a growing, collective emotionality that takes a legitimate concern, and turns it into a soap opera. When faced with an option, we as a people repeatedly make the choice to support a culture and climate that is more concerned with the dramatization of a position or the justification of a behavior than really recognizing and acknowledging the true issues at play. Simply put, we claim that we are tired of feeling divided, worn, and anxious, and yet the next moment we find ourselves clicking, viewing, and typing our way into one more theatrical production.
In the process, we have become tools of our tools. We have taken the promise of social media, not that long ago devised as a means of making and keeping connections with others, and we have allowed it control our behaviors in ways that would shock us if it had not become so omnipresent. From the highest office in the land to the darkest room in the house, we spout our tweets and our posts under the false guise that our opinions rendered through the “detached retina” of the internet somehow do not bear the same responsibility as if we were shouting at a person in front of us. The paradox is that while shouting carries the possibility of harm, it also carries the possibility of healing. But social media drama transmitted for masses to see carries no such option. Once spewed and re-spewed, it carries with it a putrid stench that does not go away. It only festers and grows until the supposed object of our message becomes so rank we can’t hardly even tolerate it anymore. And this doesn’t even approach the rest of the ways in which television and the internet as a whole are being used as agents of spectacle.
As we stand now, this dramatization of our country renders us in the most precarious place. It has created a contentious, fragile world in which every word, increasingly detached from the person who utters it, is rendered more and more meaningless by the incessant, almost indecipherable noise that it is creating. As Thomas Merton once said, “If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything, never become anything, and in the end, because we have said everything before we had anything to say, we shall be left speechless at the moment of our greatest decision.”
We have reached the moment of our greatest decision, and ironically it does not involve race relations, a pandemic, or an economy. It involves the truth and how we choose to represent it, or rather our emotion, and how we decide to broadcast it. And the truth is, as Tolstoy uttered long ago, if we are more concerned about changing others and our world, than changing ourselves, we will continue to fail all the challenges put forth. We will continue to talk as if we know, and speak as if we are powerful, and argue as if we are right, and yet we will return to a home that is in shambles, devoid of health, virtue, truth, and love. The question is, do we really care, or have we so deeply entrenched ourselves into our own emotional reality that we see little reason to venture into a place that might not reassure us that we are all right and all good?
In hearing this, you may ask. If we were to be part of the solution in reducing unnecessary drama in our country and our world, what would this mean? In order to be clear, I will first respond to what this does not mean. It does not mean abandoning noble and needed causes, such as making sure that the color of a person’s skin does not afford them lesser rights under a law that promises otherwise. But it does mean seriously discerning just how we go about taking on these causes, and determining what is right and just and best, not what is not necessarily the loudest, boldest, and most outrageous. Being part of reducing the drama also does not mean shying away from circumstances of untruth. It just means being better and more dignified in counteracting those and their messages who espouse it.
And yet, while there is so much more about what de-dramatizing America is not about, it is what it IS about that every single person, if we are truly concerned about the state of our Union, should consider today. The beauty is that we all can be part of this solution, and those that embrace this ideal will shine like a beacon of light on a rocky shore. To begin, anyone who values the truth more than drama must also value their growth more than that of others. To be clear, I am not talking about divesting in the formation of our youth and our world. What I am talking about is the undeniable reality that the greatest agent of change we have to give our world is that of ourselves. In considering this further, a simple rule should apply. We should spend as much time discerning and improving ourselves as we do engrossed the lives of others, and judging them and others for what they do or say. I am not talking about the time spent doing each of our “day jobs.” I am talking about the time spent, often online, absorbed in public (and not so public) forums of division, distraction, and pathological curiosity all the while spending much less time engaged in improving our own physical, psychological, social, and spiritual well-being, and that of our families.
The truth is that disagreement does not necessitate drama any more than food necessitates obesity. We as humans often blame the content of our lives (e.g., differing beliefs, situations of unfairness) as the culprits of drama, but the reality is that the processes by which we live by actually have more to do with drama than the differences we may have. Science has uncovered that the way we sleep, what we eat, how we communicate, how much we move (or don’t), exposure to silence and natural solitude, and time we spend with our screens and our soundbites can serve to create a chronic inflammation in our minds and bodies. With this chronic state, we feel increasingly distracted, edgy, irritable, anxious, and even close-minded, and thus we become more reactive in an abrasive, abrupt way. Whether it is a husband yelling at his wife or politicians, pundits, or other people sounding off about a particular issue, the underlying processes of our lives are as guilty (or more) for the manufactured drama than the issues by which people agree. Sadly, though, all of us at times (some more than others) are blind to this, and we forget that the messages we send are intricately tied to the health and well-being of the messenger. As a psychologist, I am fully aware that the causes and solutions to these ills can be complex (although I offer many ideas on my website at www.james-schroeder.com). I am also aware that drama is entertaining, and thus it is so tempting to become involved in it even if we know it ends up being eroding, dividing, and altogether unhealthy. And yet in spite of all of this, I just come back to you with a simple (pleading) question. What do we want for ourselves and our world—progress or pain, truth or entertainment, unity or division, health or squalor, love or drama?
In the end, this is only the very beginning of a discussion; truly an iceberg lies beneath the tip that I have presented. But in returning to the original point, I ask all of you reading now. Does anyone really think that all of this induced drama is good for us, and helping us towards solutions and greater harmony? I feel safe to say that if I asked a hundred sane people this question, a hundred “no’s” would return. The reality is that the world has long dealt with division, pestilence, financial collapse, inequities, and all the other problems we might today think are so unusual and unbearable. But never—-and I mean never—-has the world dealt with so much manufactured, systemic drama. And I am truly afraid that it is this, more than anything else, which will destroy us and divide us if we do not heed this warning. If you think that I am, well, over dramatizing the drama, I would love to hear more about your opposing perspective. In the meantime, I will ask you for one final favor. Click into your favorite news source or social media site(s) tonight and spend an hour going through, reading and posting whatever your heart may fancy. Then, the following night, take a quiet walk alone outside for an hour, leaving all of your devices at home. When you are done with both, ask yourself one simple question:
Which activity benefitted me, others, and the world the most?
I’ll let you decide.