Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What Happens in the Newspaper Stays in the Newspaper

When Owl was very young she was terrified of the news. Every day in third grade she and her classmates would take turns bringing in articles. Most students were content to bring in stories about lost puppies or the weather—except for Robert. Robert had a penchant for serial killers. Robert would hunt up stories about serial killers who lurked in parks or murdered women in their apartments. The gorier the better. After one particularly grisly description he ended by saying, “And the killer left Texas! He got on a plane. Guess where the plane’s headed? Here!”

Owl went home that day and refused to play in the park. Or leave the house.

After that she hid in the bathroom whenever it was Robert’s turn to present. Still, Owl could not stay in the bathroom forever, the teacher would fish her out, and once she left it was impossible to escape. In magazines there were stories about AIDS epidemics in Africa and orphaned children. Owl didn’t really know what AIDS was except that it killed parents and she could not understand what separated her from the children in Africa. If their parents could suddenly die why not hers?

Even the weather report was fraught with disaster. Sudden floods. Tornados that sucked up houses and cars and spat out the fragments. Hurricanes that swept you out to sea.

Facing the news
Owl did not know how people managed to get up, get out of bed, and carry on, when every five seconds someone was dying from hunger.

During current events one morning, Owl’s third grade teacher mentioned that students with any concerns should speak to the counselor. She’d once taught a girl who’d stopped eating, and the counselor had discovered it was because America had recently invaded Iraq and the girl was afraid of war.

“Oh, that’s stupid,” Robert scoffed. “Like Iraq could do anything to us.”

“Yes, well,” the teacher said and Owl saw that the teacher was not worried that she or anyone else she knew would die. The idea that across the ocean people were going to die did not upset her either. Maybe intellectually, but not emotionally, not in the way that your stomach sours and you can’t eat anymore because you can picture dead bodies and crying children.

That’s how you manage to live, Owl realized. You distinguish between yourself and the world. Slowly, Owl learned that there was a separation between real life and what happens in the newspaper.

The news is about other people. Who exist somewhere else. In a place like Owl’s world but completely unrelated to it. Owl stopped worrying about disasters, Owl started worrying about reality instead. Failing tests. Not getting into a top college. Friend drama.

Possibly Owl began to believe that her suburban life, with school and homework and clubs was what normal life does and should look like. Theoretically the average person in Nigeria lives on 2.5 gallons of water a day, but not really. In Owl’s reality, everyone has showers and running water.

Owl started getting cynical about human rights activists. Yeah, people are suffering and dying blah blah blah, but Owl’s got places to be and to be honest the rhetoric is kind of saccharine.

In college Owl took a class on International Relations and learned that war is a tool like a hammer or a saw that governments use to accomplish their purposes. The professor drew models on the board: war between two small countries, war between two large countries. Here, war was three or four points on a test, and an essay question. It has nothing to do with human suffering.

Anyway, Owl had to wonder, what was so bad about death? The world is overpopulated and straining for resources. Pruning the population might end up saving us. Owl used this as an argument during a debate tournament. The judge couldn’t stop smiling. “Fascinating argument,” he told her later. “Wonderful logic.”

Owl won that round. That’s how you win apparently. You say it doesn’t matter if people die, you say they ought to die.

Owl reads her news religiously these days so she can claim she is well-informed, a global citizen. It is slightly dry, but not difficult to do. She reads about murder, turmoil and hunger, death and war and then she puts away the news and plans out the rest of her day. Reading. Visiting friends. Buying groceries. Yoga. That's about it.

Sometimes she wonders about her ability to do this without batting an eyelash, if there’s any point to her attempts at becoming a well-informed global citizen. 


  1. I read the newspaper only to learn of events. Everything else just depresses me - like young OWL.:D But, yeah...in spite of that I'm still insensitized to the world and its sufferings simply because it does not, or rather I think it does not, affect me. :-/

    I like Owl's satire.:)

  2. @Risa
    I think part of the desensitization came because I have no desire to be an activist or a politician. I'd rather read and write...which seems like a very indirect way of affecting change. It's easier to self-desensitize than to deal with the alternative conclusions that can be drawn.
    On the other hand, at some level, isn't the desensitization necessary for living life? Don't nurses and doctors have to distance themselves from their patients or they'd be incapacitated by grief?

  3. I've read a definition of sanity that calls it "the conscientious denial of reality."

  4. So my deeply cherished belief that one day I will be a beloved and well-read author is actually proof of my sanity rather than my capacity for self delusion?


  5. I don't think that was *quite* what Dr. Green meant, but it works for me!

  6. @Owl: Oh yes! I see how you have a point. Desensitizing ourselves does help survive in a world such as ours. I've seen people who are way too sensitive over these things that they make themselves positively sick. But then, there are others who are galvanized into action; into doing something instead of desensitizing themselves. I guess there's always a negative and positive to something like this.... :-/