World on Fire? Grab a Bucket

In “White Privilege and Humanist Leadership,” published in the July/August Humanist, Charles Murn writes on the importance of people with white privilege stepping back so that others may lead while stepping up in other areas. Those of us he addresses should heed his advice. However, since the presidential election, I’ve seen too many people fatigued by the news to the point of not stepping up at all.

For example, a few weeks ago I was casually discussing Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the Supreme Court with a friend when she waved off the conversation, saying something along the lines of, “Trump set the world on fire, and I’ve stopped paying attention because it’s too depressing.”

You could say she’s stepped back too far, along with others who find the news stressful and have disengaged (or who never really engaged at all).

Believing the world has been set on fire in the last few years betrays a particular privilege. We (my friend and I, as white, straight, cis-gender, and financially secure millennials) are for the first time feeling what threats to our rights as women may feel like. There is a new fear that wasn’t there before. And that is precisely where my frustration lies. She thinks this is a new phenomenon. And. She. Isn’t. Alone. The idea that Donald Trump lit the match is absurd. If anything, he’s turning the de facto into the de jure, stoking the fire that made his election possible in the first place. If you’re seeing the flames for the first time now, you previously had your back turned and enjoyed their warming effects.

Humanism challenges us to regularly re-center our perspectives through empathy and compassion for other individuals. Our country and the rights afforded to its people are and always have been exclusive. If you don’t see how that extends beyond your personal experience, I urge you to re-center your perspective.

The second clause of my friend’s statement highlights a privilege of security and comfort. A lot of people have been fatigued for generations. But only some get to ignore the news. Those of us who are financially secure enough to have options can bend to our fatigue and disengage. Instead, we should use the capital (financial and otherwise) accrued through our privilege as leverage. We must combat the fatigue, educate ourselves, and step up.

As a volunteer at a local hospital, I recently learned about alarm fatigue—medical staff’s desensitization to alerts in the hospital due to sensory overload from hearing too many alarms, which can lead to life-threatening emergencies. As soon as I learned about alarm fatigue, I had a phrase for my friend’s “condition” (to put it kindly), but more importantly I had tools for combatting it. The American Nurses Association offers recommendations to counteract alarm fatigue (in bold below), most of which are remarkably suited to the world-on-fire-disengagement problem:

1. Put an alarm management process in place.
Take a look at where you’re getting your news, how often you get it, and how valuable it is to you.  Do an audit and know your limit. Do I really need those BBC app alerts about Wimbledon that cause me to scroll through BBC’s newest stories for thirty minutes? Do I need the news on the TV in the background while I’m cooking? Do I need to be on so many email lists? To learn your limit, take a few days to reflect on how you consume news and what each experience leaves you with or takes from you. Are you more engaged in the morning? What news sources deplete your energy? Experiment by going a day without one news source or another and look for a balance. Continue to experiment until you find a limit that works and keeps you engaged.

2. Review and adjust default parameter settings and ensure appropriate settings for different areas, and determine where and when alarms aren’t significant and may not be needed.
While the ANA is referring to actual devices that emit an alarm signal or sound, you can hone a news and engagement alert system to only include news that is pertinent to you today (goodbye, say, BBC sports) and include sources that often include actionable recommendations (hello SURJ alerts).

3. Create procedures that allow you to customize alarms based on the individual patient’s condition.
In the world-on-fire scenario, the patient’s condition is the opportunity for you to step up. Reflect on what you have the time and energy to commit to. It is better to be committed and active on one cause than inactive on five. Take a deep breath and—guilt free—unsubscribe from the mailing lists that you haven’t looked at in months. Then make a point to keep up with the ones that remain. Take the time to attend an event, to talk to a friend about the news, or to call your senator representative, or state and even local officials. Engaging in the issues that you are passionate about may energize you rather than exhaust you.

4. Make sure all equipment is maintained properly.
The equipment here is you. Self-care is important, and it can be a political act. But self-care is not tuning out the world in the name of preservation. The goal of self-care is to make sure that when an alarm goes off, you’re equipped to deal with it.

Getting reconnected to the news is only a first small step.  The world will stop burning only if you grab a bucket.