The Areas of Our Concern
I expect you to have Very Strong Feelings about this piece.
There was a thing I noticed when I absent-mindedly opened Twitter on my phone the other day. I say absent-mindedly because if I’m not using Twitter for work, I’m almost certainly doing it out of habit, not because I have something to say or am experiencing a sudden hunger for tweets. Anyway, the thing I noticed was how my anxiety level went up almost immediately.
Hold on, Paul, I can hear you thinking. That’s not some novel insight. Everyone knows that Twitter makes us all crazy. Yes, yes, but before you so rudely interrupted me, I was going to say that I noticed why I became so much more anxious (compared to my normal slow-boil-anxiety that is ever-present).
Yes, Paul, you’re butting in with again. We know why: because everything is terrible and there’s nothing to be done. You’ve already written this essay, Paul. Well, that’s what you think, know-it-all imaginary reader! I’m still one step ahead of you.
What I noticed—and no more interrupting, please—was that my surge of stress had less to do with the particulars of each individual example of things-being-terrible, and more to do with the dizzying variety of topics of concern to which I was being exposed, and about which I was implicitly expected to feel something. Strongly.
And I just wouldn’t.
Now, I almost typed “couldn’t,” but in fact the whole point of me even telling you about this (assuming you haven’t already left because I made you mad earlier in this piece) was because I realized that I had a kind of agency here. I realized, or at least remembered, that I could choose my areas of concern. I actually don’t have to have Big Feelings about everything.
Think of this. In another era, before the internet was a thing, there was only so much we were likely to be exposed to in our day-to-day lives. Assuming a moderate degree of cultural literacy and interest in affairs beyond oneself, a person might have Big Feelings about things in their own lives, in things going on in their families and communities, and in the broader sweeps of current events (in other words, what was in the newspapers or on the evening news).
In addition to these more universal areas of concern, a person might have particular interests in one or more subject matters of some social relevance; the environment, business, homelessness, racism, naughty words in popular music, whatever. You’d probably have your ways of keeping up with the developments in those areas and have corresponding Big Feelings about things that happened within them.
If you cared a lot about, say, environmentalism to the exclusion of most other things, you might not have any idea what was going on in the fight for racial justice. Or maybe you would! If you did, it was because you sought that information out, proactively. You chose to add that area of concern to your plate. And good for you!
But here’s what wouldn’t happen. You probably wouldn’t be aware of what was happening in, say, evangelical Christianity, or computer programming, or crime and policing. Maybe you did! But it would be because you chose to. Unless you sought out information about those topics, you probably didn’t know a lot about what was happening within those spheres of concern, and therefore were spared having Big Feelings about things that happened within those spheres.
You were also likely spared the expectation of having Big Feelings about them.
Hell, if you were someone whose primary area of concern was environmentalism, it could be that you were really focused on, say, the preservation of forests in New England, and maybe had little idea what air pollution was doing to people in China. You might have no idea how neglected infrastructure caused water to be undrinkable in American minority communities. It’s all environmentalism, but there existed no firehose of information that would force ideas upon you that came from branches of a larger topic (air pollution in China), or interconnected with others (systemic racism leading to the neglect of a community’s water supply).
Today, because of the internet, there is a much better chance that we can be made aware of all these other areas of concern. Far, far too many important issues have gone unaddressed for ages, in large part because most folks simply never encountered them. They didn’t know what was happening outside their existing areas of concern. The fact that those of us who care a lot about climate change are now acutely aware of how global warming will harm the global poor, for example, is really good. In an earlier age, we might not have known that, or not really understood it.
A single human, however, cannot carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. There is a fine line between being well-informed and overwhelmed. The well-intentioned person who cares about those New England forests should also know what smog does to the lungs of people in Beijing, and how a broken system can allow Black people in Flint to be sickened by lead in their water.
But the lava-flow of information from social media makes the implicit demand that our naïve environmentalist also be aware of, concerned over, and have Big Feelings about, say, every crazy thing a Fox News personality says, every shady dealing by business executives, every hint of hurtful cultural stereotyping or appropriation in popular media, every lie told by a politician, every new statistic about job loss and poverty, every wasteful expenditure by the federal government, every idiotic and backward bill introduced in a state legislature, every abuse of authority by police, every example of neglect of military servicemembers, every instance of unfair preferential treatment, every poorly conceived public musing on unfamiliar topics, every foot inserted into every mouth, every head inserted into every ass.
It’s good that we know what’s going on in spheres to which we once did not have access. It’s good that gross injustices are now being put squarely before the eyes of people who would otherwise have looked away. It is a blessing. We can do more to make more things better because we know more.
An individual, however, can only do so much. They have a finite store of emotion and processing power. Yet the social media universe demands Big Feelings about almost literally everything.
So what I figured out was, hey, I don’t have to do that. I can allocate my anxiety. I can decide how much of my concern will be distributed among a set of issues. I can choose the issues into which I will dive deeply, and which ones I will merely wade into. And I can choose to keep my eyes and mind open to new areas of concern as they cross my awareness, and from those, decide which I will allocate my emotional and intellectual resources, and which ones I will leave to others better suited to do something about them.
This is not about assigning absolute value to one issue or another, to say that environmental issue X is more or less important than racial-justice issue Y or corporate-ethics issue Z. It is about deciding, of my own volition, where my particular talents, experience, interests, and skills are best directed. I can care very much about corporate ethics, but good lord I know nothing about business. I can choose to learn more about it, of course, or I can choose to offer my support to those who know what the hell they’re doing. If I were to writhe and churn over every wrongdoing by a CEO, I would merely make myself ill, and do nothing to further the cause of reform. I can support good efforts without accepting a personal emotional stake.
The idea isn’t that we shouldn’t care, or that we care too much, but that we, as individual human animals, can’t live in that feeling, that concern, that outrage for such heightened frequencies, intensities, and durations. We can genuinely and deeply care about a wide array of issues without taking each new infraction, offense, or horror as an emergency for which we are responsible to witness, demand redress, and emotionally digest. We aren’t built for it.
Whatever your bag is, whatever gets you passionate about making the world less shitty than it is, go and dig deeply into it. Take advantage of the many tendrils of the Information Superhighway and expose yourself to the secondary and tertiary issues that overlap with yours. Follow the intellectual paths that speak to you and make it a point to keep learning more. Let your moral circle widen, and as Vonnegut said, let your soul grow.
But a widened moral circle needn’t contain a porous heart. Be intentional about the frequency, volume, and quality of the information you allow into your sphere of concern; resist the expectation that you voluntarily convert each piece of information into shrapnel to be lodged in your chest. You can care without rending yourself asunder. I know it’s possible.
And of course, there’s plenty we can just stop caring so much about altogether. Moments ago, the twitterverse demanded I have Very Strong Feelings about a rude word emblazoned on a ring worn by a U.S. Senator.
If you find this newsletter or anything else I produce useful or pleasing, perhaps you’d consider tossing some currency my way.