Is the Tough Stuff for the Young?

A massive march for the environment. Lausanne, Switzerland, April 6, 2019.

A massive march for the environment. Lausanne, Switzerland, April 6, 2019.

I can’t remember exactly when the switch flipped, yet I know I haven’t enjoyed a horror movie since “Scream.”

Once upon a time, I loved them—especially the “Friday the 13th” franchise, with Jason slashing through college counselors just trying to have a good time in their evening hours. The “Nightmare on Elm Street” series didn’t have enough camp for me, I guess, though I watched a few of those films as well. Friends and I sat on the floor of my bedroom in front of my tiny little television and squealed.

I do remember getting dragged to an event in London that played all three parts of “Ringu,” the Japanese predecessor to the much-less-scary American “The Ring” movies, after the switch flipped. Therefore, I know it flipped before age twenty-five. (I agreed to attend the “Ringu” event because I didn’t believe a movie for which I had to read subtitles would scare me all that much. Lesson learned.)

Today, I avoid horror movies and don’t particularly enjoy suspense thrillers, either.

As I’ve gone through a few more years on this planet, life—and death—have grown less abstract and a lot more real. I know people to whom truly awful things have happened. I have seen people die, and not in all cases peacefully. I have witnessed sorrow, and fear, and heartbreak, and tragedy.

I don’t experience the big calamities daily, and I give thanks for this fact. Smaller stresses, yes: Business pressures, family dramas, the struggles of my friends, managing budgets, self-doubt, weird and lingering ailments (my own and of people I love) that lead to nerve-wracking doctors’ appointments, and all the other minor crises and daily burdens.

Perhaps the switch flipped on horror movies when I reached the age at which I needed my entertainment to give me a break from stress, rather than to exacerbate it.

I don’t even enjoy roller coasters anymore.

If I pass on the next horror movie, the world can bear it. I don’t eat oysters or like to go skiing, either, and that just leaves more of both for the people who do enjoy slurping down slimy things and flinging their fragile bodies down mountains at high speeds on greased rails. (Good luck to you all.)

Yet my inclination to avoid the rough stuff, because life is rough enough, worries me a bit.

I find that my avoidance of unnecessary stresses extends into difficult news about the world we live in and the people with whom we share it. And I need to pay attention to these stories, because we all need to pay attention to these stories. The world needs us to pay attention to these stories.

For example, I see stories about Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Guatemala—all the atrocities—and I look away. I glance at reporting about the shocking wrongs of governments and corporations and societies of supposedly more stable countries and look away.

I think, “Oh no. This story needs my attention and deserves my attention. Let me put it aside until I have the time and mental energy to digest it and form opinions and determinations and all the rest. This story requires outrage, which requires emotional bandwidth.”

And I think, “I don’t have any of that right now.”

With the best intentions, I put the article in abeyance for a magical moment in which I have the needed time, energy, and emotional bandwidth.

A time that never comes.

The number of issues of The New Yorker that I’ve sacrificed to The God of Future Emotional Bandwidth could fill my kitchen table. At times, in fact, it has. I’ve had to impose a rule that if, after three months, I haven’t read the earmarked “difficult article,” I need to let the magazine go. I tell myself that I can read the story on-line later. “Later” means the time at which The God of Future Emotional Bandwidth provides.

Am I alone in this weariness from the daily grind and in having limited bandwidth for challenging topics? If not, perhaps the exhaustions of accumulated life experience tell us why mainly the youth have the energy to protest, to get rightfully outraged, to organize and to coordinate and to push movements ahead.

Unfortunately, the world can’t thrive with most of its inhabitants too worn down by the daily grind to focus on the hard news—until the hard news directly affects them. (At which point, as we all know, the time to act has passed.)

Youth have only so much power. In most places, people younger than eighteen cannot vote in elections. Even at age eighteen, youth rarely have the financial resources and the power networks to effect change in the most influential channels. They have the time and the energy without the full quiver of arrows to save us all.

By the time they have the resources and the power networks, the world has worn them down. They lose momentum.

Welcome to full-on adulthood. Hang in there.

What then?

I don’t have an answer to this problem.

I have only the musing that perhaps one of the reasons the world doesn’t act or change or seem to care—even when it must, even when not doing so means horror and suffering and sadness and we know the injustices of our inaction—comes from a large group’s collective feelings of exhaustion and stress and overwhelm and the difficulty, in light of such, for it to do more than get through the day.

Can we change any of this? If not, if these facts stem from the immutable trajectory of human life, how do we work around them?

We can tell adults past age, say, thirty-five, that they must face the hard news. We can share the importance and the value of their attention, and we will have plenty of examples to prove our points. Yet telling anyone to do something does not mean that they will, even if you have evidence and even if they agree with you. In this case, consider my example of one: I know I need to read the awful stories past their headlines and blurbs. Sometimes I succeed in pushing through to do so. Many times, I don’t.

However, even if we do manage to coerce more people into facing the hard news, doing so doesn’t give the world-weary among us the energy to march.

Then do we promise the world-weary that, if they just pay enough attention to the issues to form stances, fund the people who have the time and energy to march, and use their networks and connections to effect change and force conversations, they won’t have to march?

In this scenario, the older adults do their parts with their available resources—attention, funding, networks—and the more sprightly and less time-constrained among us use their resources to do the marching and protesting. We effect change through collaboration. Neither group does it—or can do it—alone.

All these make for nice ideas, yet they feel like tall orders, unlikely to succeed on any grand scale.

Can we really be such lost causes?