By Jacqui BanaszynskiMost of my holiday cards to people as 2023 ended came to a close were signed with this wish: Here’s to a hopeful 2024.
Five days in, that hopefulness was been mightily challenged. A shooting at a public school in a small town in Iowa left a sixth-grader dead and five other people wounded: the shooter was a 17-year-old who also died, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot. Claudine Gay resigned after barely six months as president of Harvard University — she was the first Black person to hold that position; she step stepped down amid allegations of plagiarism and criticism of her handling of anti-Israeli protests on campus, but many see attacks against her as a broader attack on higher education. Then New York Times unspooled the sophisticated machine driving Republican Party loyalty to former President Donald J. Trump; inside sources say he boasted that political candidates “kissed my ass” when they came to seek his favor, and that “They always take a knee.” You may interpret the last item as my disdain for Trump-style politics, but I mean as disgust for his crass disrespect for others and for the democracy he purports to represent.
All this came on the eve of the third anniversary of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol — a catastrophic event that continues to be debated in the lowest divebars to the highest courts in the land. There’s Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push to bend history — and Ukraine — to suit his whims, the rising death toll in Gaza, renewed civil war in South Sudan and the desperate migrants amassing at the U.S.-Mexico border.
I’m a avid news reader. It would not be difficult, on any given day, to find even more to bum you out. The daily news seems more often a dirge than a round-up of human possibility. I understand the instinct to tune out — something even some of my closest friends have done. Psychologist Adam Grant wrote about that recently in an essay for The New York Times, naming that feeling of existential numbness as “empathic distress: hurting for others while feeling unable to help.” From his essay:
Empathic distress explains why many people have checked out in the wake of these tragedies. The small gestures they could make seem like an exercise in futility. Giving to charity feels like a drop in the ocean. Posting on social media is poking a hornet’s nest. Having concluded that nothing they do will make a difference, they start to become indifferent.
My short, non-expert summary of that: People give up hope. Nothing they can do to stop the pain or fix the mess, so why bother to try?
Journalism as a beacon
Oddly, in the midst of this, I turn to journalism as my touchstone of hope — or perhaps more accurately, my defense against hopelessness. Yes, I can grow disheartened by the content of all those stories I cite above. But that is outshone by the fact that I can read those stories — that reporters and editors are at work on behalf of my right and need to know. They also bring me less fraught distractions each day, from puzzles to recipes to daily updates on the miracle of a baby orca born to an endangered pod in the Puget Sound. (Said babe, by the way, is a boy, named J60 by whale researchers. I expect more romantic names to come soon.)
I have preached on this belief before — the imperative of independent journalism that bears witness to reality, to the worst and best of the human journey. Not everyone is suited to that work, any more than everyone is suited to the work of an ER surgeon or a social worker or public middle school teacher. Those can be burn-out jobs. The problems seems endless; progress seems elusive.
This is where I dip back into the essay by Grant, the psychologist. He makes a distinction between empathic distress and productive compassion:
… a growing body of evidence suggests that compassion is healthier for you and kinder to others than empathy: When you see others in pain, instead of causing you to get overloaded and retreat, compassion motivates you to reach out and help.
This counters how I’ve long understood empathy vs compassion. Grant’s essay points out that the accepted understanding of “compassion fatigue” is a misnomer. In short, according to his piece: Empathy takes on and wears the pain of others — and can be worn down by it; compassion acknowledges the pain of others and sits with it — offers help, even if it’s simply through presence:
What drains people is not merely witnessing others’ pain but feeling incapable of alleviating it. In times of sustained anguish, empathy is a recipe for more distress, and in some cases even depression. What we need instead is compassion.
Although they’re often used interchangeably, empathy and compassion aren’t the same. Empathy absorbs others’ emotions as your own: “I’m hurting for you.” Compassion focuses your action on their emotions: “I see that you’re hurting, and I’m here for you.”
This is a reframe for me. Or maybe I’m conflating Grant’s definition of empathy with my understanding of self-absorbed sympathy. Language is malleable, but precision is important. So this will send me back to other explorations: Leslie Jamison’s fine books of essays, “The Empathy Exams;” a revelatory 2017 New Yorker piece by Pulitzer-winning author Siddhartha Mukheriee about Chekhov’s way of witnessing the world without flinching in the face of its pain:
The gaze is unsparing and penetrating, clear-eyed, clinical—a word used often in association with Chekhov. You cannot see if your eyes are clouded with tears, he seems to tell us: a weeping doctor is a useless doctor. He cuts away the artifice. He cauterizes our indulgences in pity or piety: it is impossible, he reminds us, to feel pity for the self-pitying.
That’s my rabbit hole to go down, a return, perhaps, to my college philosophy courses; maybe I’m ready to understand them a bit better. No need for you to go with me.
What I do hope you consider — embrace — is the need to remain hopeful in your jobs as the world’s witnesses and storytellers.
Refusing to surrender
Five days into a new year, I could be disheartened by the run of dark news. I could despair that all we have to offer as journalists are stories, and those too often seem to wisp into the ether without making a knowable difference. I have wrestled with my own crises of confidence over the value of this work.
Then I would have the privilege of sitting with someone who wants their story told. Who needs their story told. I can’t promise what will come of that. But the sitting and the telling are what we do, and I believe that matters.
I started this unintended riff with a mention of my holiday cards. Yesterday I received one from a writer I know — a serendipitous gift I will tuck in the notebook I always carry. It quoted novelist and poet Jason Reynolds:
Stories are the most human things we have to offer.
Just one of the gifts of a life in journalism is that it gives us something to do in the face of pain. We look without flinching at what’s happening. We listen. We verify. We inform. We educate. Sometimes we entertain. We do all this by telling stories — true stories.
And those stories, no matter the content, are acts of compassion.