Your call-to-action is another person's breakdown
On mayhem and trying to exist without making *everything* worse
I am writing this letter as I work remotely from sunnier latitudes, laptop in one hand, sunscreen on the other. The sky is perfectly blue on most days, and I typically close the work journey with a dive in the pool from my apartment complex or the sea, further down the road. I post the skies and the sea dips on my Instagram, along with the sweetest treats that the land offers us: ripe oranges and tomatoes from regional farms, traditional pastries and cakes made artisanally by local people. I cannot say I am unhappy as I experience these things, but the sense of fun and ease of social media is gone. On every media outlet, the contrast to my current life is stark. Out there, I know the reality is even worse.
Existing in parallel realities
I grew up seeing bombardments on tv. My father watched the news religiously at lunch and dinner times, which meant that all of us - my mom, my brother and I - had to watch along. I was six when the Gulf war broke, eight when the wars against the Bosnian people started, eleven when they got massacred. My father didn't speak much so the television did most of the talking while my mom put the food on the table. If someone talked he'd briskly shush us, in irritation. I didn't dare to ask questions. They would've only caused more trouble. I kept quiet and let men do the war, while other men eagerly consumed and commented on it.
By the time I was in middle school, it had become commonplace to watch shootings on tv, buildings imploding, soldiers in action with tanks and grenades. People running for their lives covered in soot or bloodied bodies among street rubble triggered squeaks from my mom but kept rolling on-screen nevertheless. We watched all of that while we ate. It became as banal as washing the dishes after a meal or watching the evening telenovela with my mom. My father sometimes watched late-night war movies, so I got used to falling asleep to guns, explosions, and overexcited people. Those sounds almost became soothing. At least, dad was distracted and there was no in-house drama.
And sometimes, a glimpse of redemption
When I turned 15 protests broke in my homeland Portugal against the war led by Indonesian forces in East Timor. After the Indonesian military massacred civilians gathered at a cemetery, a Timorese woman in bloody clothes spontaneously started praying out loud in Portuguese, followed by those around her who were still alive. The images of the Santa Cruz massacre - one of many - aired on national news. Timor was a former Portuguese colony, then the stage for the genocide carried out by occupying Indonesian forces. At the turn of the year 2000, horror finally fueled action. The war wasn't close but the shared language moved Portuguese hearts, especially the youth at the time. There were calls for a boycott on Indonesian products, there were protests, and many fundraising initiatives to support Timor. We - the kids - had a taste of meaningful action against atrocity. It all culminated with negotiations that ultimately led to Timor Lorosae's independence. A feeling of redemption washed over former colonial power, Portugal, which would have been the perfect resolution to this story. But then 09 11 happened.
´Preventing' wars by commencing new ones
In 2001, I was going through a "political awakening" and was spreading my wings towards the left. War was inconceivable to me. Responding to war with more war seemed an utterly archaic concept. Destruction is still destruction regardless of if self-initiated or not. The first lesson I learned from the fall of those towers was that people from the West thought the USA was incorruptible and righteous in everything it decided to do. The second lesson that I learned - the hardest - was that people were selective with their anti-war stances, so much so it felt cliquey. The Timorese spoke the same language as we did: they deserved solidarity. The people from Afghanistan, on the other hand, not so much.
2001 Bush talks for-every-action-there-is-a-reaction found an echo in certain men of my family, and certain men in my hometown. 16-year-old me felt like such rhetoric had brought us back to the caves. Lacking vocabulary and confidence - I found myself arguing with grown men about war, - men who, just like other men in power, believed that wars are inevitable, justifiable, sometimes necessary. History is my area of expertise, my brother used to boast. His implied knowledge of History was supposed to dissuade me from defending any political ideas I had that were contrary to his. I should trust that he knew better. Just like my father had told my mom, on several occasions, that she shouldn't bother with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as it was "too complex" for her to understand.
Honorable family men make wars too
I kept hearing fine men talking about 'teaching *them* a lesson' (whoever 'they' are;) family men who did not shiver at the words revenge or enemy; men who identified as pacifists but believed in preventative wars (!) As long as the combats felt remote and happened to people who didn't look too similar to them, more or less everything was acceptable. We, Westerners, had to assert our dominance immediately to prevent them from taking over. Hearing the men around me justifying despicable acts of violence against other populations was as traumatizing as the images of the wars themselves. My hometown was the world I knew, and family members were supposed to model love, justice and compassion. I don't think I ever fully reconciled the paradox of having a loving brother who also defended a war, Guantanamo Bay, and the likes. Funnily enough, he can't recall anymore ever to have supported it.
The holy duty to remain informed
As informed people, news about the war was to be consumed, said the men of my family. And 'informed people' speculated about war strategies and outcomes in domestic bliss and compared current conflicts with other clashes back in History (except if you were a woman, in that case, you would, ideally, stand back and watch.) People always have opinions but they are especially eager to share them when international conflicts escalate. That was true in the pre-internet era, and it is true now. We already had the 24-hour news cycle. Social media gave us the 24-hour opinion cycle. Trigger on top of trigger, impulse on top of impulse, reaction on top of reaction.
I never owned a television myself. This was intentional. I stopped watching the news at 18 when I moved out of the familial home, preferring newspapers and magazines instead. Last week, when I visited my 91-year-old grandpa, I was alarmed to see that he watches news channels from the moment he wakes up to the moment he falls asleep. That old-school one hour of prime time has transformed into a permanent stream of horror. But it is the citizen's duty to be informed, and try to help in whatever capacity, grandpa said. My mom looked at me and whispered a whistful I wonder how he holds up. Then I thought of my own Instagram feed.
My perfectly curated Instagram chaos
I started following media outlets on Instagram perhaps four years ago. The New York Times, The Guardian, or the Dutch Volkskrant kept me informed about the world without much noise or overwhelm. It was also a way for me to - in the heyday of misinformation - have access to reliable sources of headlines. When Putin's war against Ukraine broke, I found social media feeds to be very helpful in triggering action, whether in the form of attending demonstrations, donating goods and/or money to organizations on the ground. I followed personal stories as well, that contrary to all the previous wars, humanized the experience of those oppressed. My feed helped me empathize too with the people who, despite belonging to the country of the oppressor, oppose this war and risk their lives taking a stance against it. They are victims, too. Just like the televised Indonesian bloodbath triggered an immense response in the youth back in the day, a spectacular wave of solidarity erupted from internet kids all around me. And it was moving.
It’s chaos and paradise combined
From 2020 on alone, there was a pandemic to keep up to date with, George Floyd's murder and developments on anti-racism movements all around the world, Israel's massacre of the Palestinians, the mere fact that Bolsonaro walks on this earth (just naming the mayhem that I followed more closely here.) It's been now more than two weeks, and just like after 9 11, it feels like the world has undergone an inexorable shift. As I am writing this from a platitudinous mall on the Portuguese Algarvian coast - coffee and pastries on the side, - I look up and find a screen streaming CNN, the same screen my granddad is staring at, at home. The box, raised high above the tables is silent, but the headline announces "Psychiatric hospital bombed in Kharkiv." My body shivers at the images, and I quickly retreat my gaze to this page. I feel horrible shame. How can I avert my eyes from tragedy, how can I sit quietly, writing, delighting my senses in the sweetest treats while other people - prisoners of arbitrary hell in their own homes - watch their world fall apart? How can such disparate realities coexist?
One person's call-to-action is another's breakdown point
I don't know how to cope with any of the news outlets I follow on socials anymore. The coverage of the massacres ordered by the Kremlin - with detailed descriptions and graphic images every minute - feels impossible to manage. I'm torn by this urge to unfollow all of these media accounts and create a bubble of peace to myself, but I fear I might become yet another oblivious new-age'r, preaching yoga, self-care and mindfulness, increasingly detached from other people's realities, growing unaware of her own privilege. I feel like there is a necessary dose of horror that leads people to action. So much necessary transformation is sparked by unbearable suffering. But exposure to unbearable suffering leads people to break down too, while they could instead be active members in their communities. I wonder where the line is that differentiates self-preservation from irresponsible eremitism. Each person’s emotional endurance is variable, and it varies across different life phases too. One thing I know for sure: no one can be the judge of another person’s breakdown point.
Unfollow, breathe in, take action, breathe out
It's two days after the mall, and the morning rose clear. In front of me, the beatific waters of a pool in the low season are animated by sounds of birds chirping and tree leaves rustling. My body is soothed, warm, content. I get up from my balcony chair, grab my phone and unfollow The Guardian, The New York Times, and the others. I set up a dedicated time to read the news every day and decide to sign up for a print newspaper subscription, so I have the time to slowly digest the accounts of each day. A splash of relief washes over my shoulders. Then I hope that I'll stick to my resolution to read the news every day, knowing all too well that odds are that I probably won't. I hope that reading the news every couple of days suffices. I decide I will host a morning pages session whose proceedings shall be donated 100% to an organization serving Ukrainian refugees. Feeling hopeful, I refresh the explore page of my Instagram feed. The first publication reads: "Is washing your hair every day bad for you?" Wtf. The very next moment, I see two cats sitting on opposite sides from a giant cactus, in the garden. I text Jan "Look down! POESSSS" while I squeak. I hear him giggle from the rooftop above while he squeaks POESSS back at me.
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