In 2014 tens of thousands of minority Yazidis fled to the top of Iraq’s Mount Sinjar to escape violent religious persecution at the hands of ISIS. In the weeks and months that followed the refugees’ hasty climb, aid workers and the Iraqi military dropped supplies by airplane and, in some cases, rescued children from the area.
In one photo, an Iraqi mother, her brow furrowed in panic, holds her small child up to the sky, hoping an aid worker will take him away. She might never see him again, but at least he would be safe.
The first time I saw that photograph, I was sitting in an air-conditioned office in Phoenix. I was wearing a pencil skirt, listening to the dull hum of hushed workplace conversation. I was alert, fed, caffeinated, and a little bored. I saw the photo. Then I had a panic attack.
Grappling with the News
It wasn’t the first time it’s happened, and it wasn’t the last. Hearing stories of tragedy is difficult for everyone. For me it sometimes means I can’t breathe, or stand up, or speak without choking on tears. This has been a great source of shame for me for a long time. How can I be incapacitated by just seeing a horror that someone else is actually living?
For a while, I believed the only way to atone for this terrible sin of privilege was to force myself to look. Don’t scroll past the photo of the Syrian child with xylophone ribs. Don’t change the channel at the news of another mass shooting. Watch all the viral body-cam footage. While it may have kept me somewhat informed (at least about whatever the outlet was willing to report), this approach proved counterproductive. Though seeing the horror made me want to be part of the solution, I can’t help anyone if I’m rocking back and forth in my closet.
I’m not alone. Sussex University psychology professor Graham Davey told Time last year that, for many people, watching shocking or especially tragic news stories can lead to symptoms of “acute stress” or even PTSD.
As a follower of Jesus, I have an obligation to care for my neighbors, and I can’t do that if I don’t know who they are or what they need. I also have an obligation not to become apathetic to the seemingly bottomless ocean of needs. At the same time, I can’t be a part of any solution if I’m continuously stricken with panic attacks out of some attempt to “stay aware.” In our media age, this creates a tension the whole church has to wrestle with: How much news should we consume? And how do we consume responsibly so that it doesn’t cripple us—or worse, desensitize us?
1. Know Your Limits
For people like me, ingesting too much tragic news can interfere with our ability to function as healthy people. My body sends me flight-or-fight messages when I see disturbing photographs or videos. It’s foolish to ignore those messages; not only does it hurt me, but it also impedes my ability to help anyone.
Now, this doesn’t mean that if a news story makes me cry, I should simply look away. There is holiness in mourning with others, and true lament can soften our hearts. Everyone must discern his or her own limits.
But it’s worth noting that our brains and hearts react differently to photos and videos than to words. There may be wisdom in avoiding graphic images while still reading or listening to the information.
At the same time, if we know we have a talent for denial or compartmentalization, we might need to push ourselves. If avoiding the stories or photos allows us to comfortably imagine that everyone else is living the same relatively conflict-free life as we are, our calibration is off. We need to re-orient our habits around knowing what’s happening in worlds not our own and allowing ourselves to be uncomfortably affected.
2. Do What You Can
Jesus’s instruction to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” has an interesting implication for those of us living in a representative democracy: our “Caesar” demands our participation (Matt. 22:21). We should consume enough news so that we can be responsible voters. This is becoming more difficult as advertiser-pushed clickbait pretends to pass for real news. But we can’t give up. Burying our heads in the sand isn’t an option.
While I couldn’t rescue the Yazidi woman from Mount Sinjar, perhaps I could vote in favor of leaders with foreign policies that endeavor to prevent another such tragedy from happening. It takes time and discernment to find news outlets you can trust, but we must try. (WORLD Magazine is a great place to start for global information.) Voting isn’t the total answer and won’t solve everything, but it’s a meaningful right for American Christians.
3. Prioritize Community
When I listen to my body, it’s difficult to scroll indiscriminately through Twitter or watch every viral video shared in the news. But in the interest of staying informed, I’ve leaned heavily on my community. My husband is an avid news-reader and talks with me every night about the day’s must-knows. Friends and colleagues do the same.
What we do in community sticks much more than what we try to do alone.
If we’re suffering from apathy, our communities can be a help too. Stay informed together. Discuss the news together. Problem-solve on behalf of your local community together. What we do in community sticks much more than what we try to do alone.
In Jesus’s hard-hitting story about the Samaritan, the priests were guilty in part because they were physically near the man who needed help and yet walked on. The victim had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead. The first priest came and “happened to be going down the same road” (Luke 10:30). Then a Levite “came to the place” but passed by (v. 31).
It’s hubris to imagine we can solve every problem. Other than offering prayer for her safety, comfort, and rescue, there was little I could do for the Yazidi woman. There was certainly nothing I could do in the short-term.
But her needs reminded me to look toward my local community. Who is suffering down the street? God placed us in our particular families, churches, and neighborhoods for a purpose. Paul’s letter to the Galatians gives us further instruction: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10).
We can’t help everyone, but we should definitely be helping someone. And our communities of faith are where we must start.
This morning, I woke to weather headlines. Today’s big story in my part of the country was about incoming thunderstorms, bringing lots of rain and wind. By God’s grace I felt grateful, not afraid, for the warning. I was even able to move my car into the garage in the nick of time!
I hope for a time when I’ll be able to view the day’s harder, human news stories with the same objective level-headedness. But, for today, I’ll give thanks for God’s grace—grace to those who suffer, to those who bear witness, and to those who sometimes have to look away.