Monday, July 28, 2014

Why I Turned the TV Off

Last week I flipped on CNN for a few minutes after hearing the horrific news about the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine. Ethan walked into the room just as they were showing images of a smoking field and pieces of debris. His eyes grew wide. "Was that an airplane?" he asked. He then wanted to know if things like that happened here, close to home.

I sat there watching the terror in his eyes and knew I had an opportunity to right a wrong. "We work really hard to stop things like that from happening in this country," I said with confidence, referring to the missile. "We have lots of people who catch the bad guys." There was no need to reference 9/11, of which he is still oblivious. I grabbed the clicker and turned off the TV, and Ethan headed outside to play the carefree games of a child who shouldn't have to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.

When I was Ethan's age, I was a shy little girl with a big imagination. Highly sensitive and prone to fear and worry, I spent a lot of time with one of my favorite people, my grandmother who lived up the street, who was also prone to fear and worry. And then when I was just a shade older than Ethan, I discovered something her in house that would help feed my fears and my imagination for years and years to come: her Guideposts collection.

Don't laugh.

For those of you who don't know, Guideposts is a little magazine (still in existence today) filled with inspirational stories about people overcoming adversity. The magazine is faith-based and the whole theme is supposed to be how people's Christian faith carried them through trials or tragedy. Somehow, however, I missed that message, when I first crept into Nonna's closet off the dining room and discovered the shelves lined with every issue of Guideposts from about 1976 through the mid-80s.

When I look at this --

The issue from 1979 featured a story from Sue Monk Kidd, who went on to write, among others, "The Secret Life of Bees." 

I immediately smell the faint scent of mothballs and the cool of the linoleum floor where I used to sit for hours on end, camped out, reading, eyes wide. There was the story of the two-year-old who fell out of the window and into a coma. The woman whose twin sons had died at birth. The wildfire that devoured a home and the tornado that killed a woman's elderly mother as the two huddled from the storm in a bathtub.

I remember them all, thirty years later: the story by John Walsh (who would go on to star in "America's Most Wanted") about the abduction and murder of his young son. The first-hand account from someone on that plane that crashed into the Potomac River in D.C. The man who hung dangling from a wire for hours high above the ground before he was rescued, and the family stranded in a blizzard. I will never, ever forget the woman who raced to the hospital to tell her dying father she was sorry for everything, only to get there too late. Or the mother who somehow, impossibly, lost three of her four children to a rare genetic disease when they were teenagers.

"Oh, it's so nice that she's enjoying reading so much," people in my family would say. Only they didn't know I wasn't just reading. I was gathering proof for why the world really was a horrible and scary place.

If you've read this magazine, maybe you're chuckling. Those stories are all so uplifting, you might say. The tragedy isn't the point; it's that God helped them through the tragedy.

True, yes. But I've found that so much of life is not about what is but about how we choose to see things.

After years and years of reading Guideposts I had an arsenal of memories stored up; a catalog of worst-case scenarios. Driving in a blinding storm? What if something happened like that family, the one stranded for days? A high fever might be first sign of terrible disease. If you climb on a plane, you could end up in a river, or worse. If someone's late, they must have been in an accident. It doesn't matter that these things are not likely. They are possible.

Years later I would learn from a mental health professional that this type of thinking actually has a name: catastrophizing. When you've learned to catastrophize (as with all worry, really), it's as if your mind has created well-worn paths to tread down. Undoing them is difficult. But not impossible.

On a side note, I never realized it, but I'm guessing catastrophizing runs in my family. Never was this more apparent than a couple of years ago, when my parents called me in a panic. They'd seen thousands of people streaming across the bridges away from Hartford while driving by, and the first thing they wondered is if there'd been some kind of terrorist attack. Turns out, it was just people heading out after the fireworks, a week after the 4th of July.

Stepping away from a "sky is falling" mentality" starts with guarding your mind; guarding your heart. With not feeding the monster. What I've found (and I often fail at) is there are very many things I have to avoid. News stories about freak accidents. Non-stop coverage of plane crashes. Blogs shared online about dying mothers, dying children. Watching the news or old episodes of ER right before bed.

I will never forget, on 9/11. I sat there after work, glued to the TV, to images of the towers falling again and again. Only: then our cable went out, and stayed out for the next four days. No one else was affected, not even the other tenants in our three-family home. I've always wondered if the TV going black was the grace of God, to keep me from emblazoning my mind with nightmarish images.

And so, when Ethan's eyes got big that afternoon, when he became mesmerized by the disaster and wanted to know more, I did what I should have done decades ago.


Reassure him that most likely, something like that is not going to happen.

Send him to play, as every child should, instead of staring at the screen, digesting too much horror.

Pray that the cycle of fear that so wants to get its tentacles into each one of us, stops right here.