Writing About the World Can Be Really Depressing

Rain on Pane

Every week, I sit down and I try to write something about what’s happening in the world. I’m not getting paid to do this, so why do I bother?

Some people might detect a certain note of self-importance: a sense that surely the world needs to be exposed to my analytical insight! Maybe – but writing for me tends to be a little bit more self-directed.

The truth is that writing has always been one the most important ways through which I understand things. The landscape inside my mind is associative and loose, and I’ve come to realize that my thinking benefits from having to put together something more linear. My notes are almost always unreadable – the victims of poor penmanship. But even if someone could read them, they’d also be incomprehensible: they’re usually a bundle of words crossed out, underlined, or circled, with squiggles suggesting the beginnings of an argument. They’re not a bad place to start thinking, but they won’t do as a place to stop.

In other words, the decision to write happens first; the decision to share what I’ve written only sometimes follows.

But publishing has its own benefits. I’ve come to realize that, my best efforts notwithstanding, I have a lower burden of proof for things I think are probably true than I do for things that I’m willing to publicly commit to. Writing (and publishing) forces me to examine the evidence for my beliefs about the world and gets me to think about whether or not someone else might reach the same conclusion from examining the same evidence.

Publishing is a way of trying to not over-privilege my own perspective. Sometimes I’ll hear a politician and I’ll think to myself, “That guy’s lying.” But I can’t usually bring myself to write that. Why not? Because if I have to try to convince someone else, then I have to admit that I don’t know that he’s lying: he might be deceiving himself, he might be misinformed, he might even be right. And if I can’t publicly write that he’s lying, then I can’t really justify the private belief that he’s lying.

There’s a final benefit: writing keeps me engaged with what’s happening in the world. This is most obvious to me when I take a break from my routine, usually because I’ve gone into the woods for a week or so. Camping means never having to worry about whether a bill made it out of committee. And a funny thing happens when you’re not intently following political and geopolitical developments: you realize that in a very real sense, they don’t matter. The world runs on its own cadence, one thing flows into another, and the wheels keep turning. You can just check the computer when you get home and pick up midstream.

Real life, as it happens, is a lot like a procedural crime show. You can turn on Law & Order at the bottom of the hour and know that they’re about to catch the baddie and put him on trial, and you can turn on the State of the Union broadcast after the President’s speech and know that the opposition party will excoriate him. It doesn’t matter who the baddie is and it doesn’t matter who the President is – everyone knows the part they play.

And is it turns out, tuning out the day-to-day news is good for your mental health. Bad for the country, but good for the man or woman on the street. In fact, one of the occupational hazards of writing about the world is that it can be really depressing.

Sometimes more so than others. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the highlights from the past few weeks:

Conservatives across the country have taken aim at the College Board’s AP US History curriculum, claiming that the course guidelines are biased and unbalanced. Bill Maher exposed himself as an anti-vaccine wing nut. I got stuck in traffic behind a car with a bumper sticker that read: “Annoy A Liberal: Work, Succeed, and Be Happy.” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has proposed a budget that goes after the world-class University of Wisconsin and guts funding to state parks. Rachel Maddow has taken every opportunity to point out to viewers that Jeb Bush wants to be the third person from his family to be President, while almost entirely ignoring that Hillary Clinton is married to a former President. And former Mayor Giuliani accused President Obama of not loving America. Meanwhile, Joe Biden seems to be turning into a creepy old man.

If that’s the way our national life confronts us when we turn on the TV, is there much reason for surprise when so many Americans check out?

Every week, I try to give productive shape to what might otherwise end up being an incessant pessimism about our politics. The Bible says to build your house upon the rock, so that it might prevail when the storm comes. And the country is certainly experiencing a deluge of sorts: a flood of small-minded, petty bickering that couldn’t care less if the vitriol it spews has any grounding in reality or any sense of proportion. In the best performing economy of the first world, a country that boasts the tremendous advantage of friendly neighbors and broad oceans on its flanks, a country that fields a military larger and more powerful than any other humanity has ever seen, with broad rule of law and relative economic prosperity, as well as the best universities in the world and the most dynamic free-market system this side of fantasy, our political elites have managed to convince everyone that the house is burning down and each half of the country that the other half is solely to blame.

It’s a pathetic performance from ‘leaders’ who refuse to lead and a public that refuses to demand better.

So, like I said, it can be pretty depressing. But that would be an awful note to end on, wouldn’t it? And if I couldn’t find a way past that note, I wouldn’t come back to this every week.

In the end, the struggle is between the dispiriting reality of our politics and the belief that our national project is indeed built upon a strong foundation that can withstand the storms. And this is hardly the first or worst storm that has been visited upon us. Slavery, the Civil War, the Great Depression, Segregation, the Cold War, Vietnam – those storms were worse. In the end, the American system is designed to bend, but not break.

It’s messy and it too often looks like chaos. But it has always looked like chaos, and it has always been pushed into the future by petty politicians and enlightened statesmen alike. And here’s the final reason about why I bother to write: it’s therapeutic.

It’s okay to be cynical, but that’s not the same thing as being a pessimist – writing is how I try to tell the difference.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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