“Doom Scrolling:” My Phrase for the Year 2020
This is my choice for new word or phrase of the year, “doom scrolling,” the pernicious and addictive habit of scrolling through one bad news story after another on the internet or television.
Someone coming up for air after watching two or three hours of their favorite cable news channel recently said to me that it seems like life has become just one thing after another. Actually, as I remember it, that was my college professor’s definition of history, “Just one damned thing after another.” Someone else remarked to me that this year has been the worst year in recorded history, which shows only that they don’t know much history. But, granted, this year has been tough, and a lot tougher for some people than for others.
Doom scrolling, I’m told, is the result of people having too much time on their hands during pandemic isolation to think.
Well, there’s a sense in which that is true. And there’s a sense in which it isn’t.
In the sense that “thoughts” are generally random notions that come drifting unbeckoned through our heads, “tape recorded” messages of conversations, bits of information and disinformation, old “videos” of past regrets, failings and shames, visions of possible disasters, disembodied worries and anxieties – in other words, the jetsam and detritus of our experiences and fears that occupy what we call our minds most of the time, then, yes, there’s been a lot of time for that, and doom scrolling supplies its favorite late night snacks.
But, if we mean “thinking” as a disciplined process by which we test reality and sort facts from fiction, genuine threats from pure fantasy, the good, the bad and the ugly – in other words the process whereby knowledge is converted into wisdom, in fact, there’s never enough time for that kind of thinking, and doom scrolling is just a vicious distraction from it.
Recently I was listening to a podcast by one of my favorite teachers, Jack Kornfield (You’ll remember him from previous blogs). He quoted Glennon Doyle as saying: “You will never change the fact that being human is hard, so you must change your idea that it was ever supposed to be easy.”
If anyone in the world should understand this bit of practical common-sense wisdom, it ought to be those of us who are heirs to the cultural and spiritual wealth of the Judeo-Christian heritage. From the first stories in the Bible, Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, through the most compelling stories of family disfunction and historical tragedy we find in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, right through to the New Testament in which Jesus of Nazareth lived the life God intended for us all from the beginning, a life of healing, humanity and love, and was rewarded for it by being rejected by his fellow religionists, and tortured and executed by Imperial Rome, the lesson is clear: being human is hard.
We can, as saints and sages like Saint Paul and Maimonides urge us, use the rough and tumble of life to become more like the kind of human beings God intends us to become. We can embrace the idea that life is a kind of purgation, a refining fire of trials and difficulties, losses and more losses, that work upon us to create within us hearts that understand and care for and touch others with a divine sympathy. The pain will come, our use of it depends on us.
Of course, if we want, we can be miserable. We can wish life weren’t littered with losses and pain. We can deny reality at every turn, and curse the fates for not being kinder to us.
Loss and pain are for real. Grief is the price tag life puts on love. And, however high the cost of love, the love is worth it. Pain is a reality and is unavoidable in this world. As I said to someone recently, “pain is bad enough, but we don’t have to make it worse than it is.” Suffering, dwelling on and replaying our pains and disappointments and failures and fears: that is up to us. It’s what we call “Making ourselves miserable.”
Instead of denying reality, we have the opportunity to consider every difficulty thrown at us in this world as something like an opportunity or even a gift to help us in our journey into wholeness and maturity and full humanity. There have been days this year when I’ve frankly felt we’ve gotten more than a fair share of these gifts. But, that’s life.
And so, I’ve spent a lot of time watching my thoughts as they trundle through my consciousness. As they pass through, I’ve tried to make sure that I did not invite the feelings and fears of doom to set up housekeeping in my head, but repeatedly have shown them the door with all the gracious hospitality I could muster. And I have tried to turn instead to sorting out my thinking so it can deal more realistically and faithfully with reality.
What I’ve noticed is that the more I practice it, the more I am able to feel myself slipping into mindless thoughts of doom. Sometimes it’s our thinking that delivers us from our thoughts, if you get my drift.
One thing that has helped me to think more clearly this year, and something I’ve turned to often when tempted to doom scroll, has been the wisdom of good poetry. William Carlos Williams once said, that you can’t get the news from poetry, but thousands of people die every day for lack of what you can find there.
So, I’ll leave you with some thinking by our newest Nobel Laureate, Louise Gluck, from the collection of poems for which she won The National Book Award for poetry a few years ago:
“One day continuously follows another.
Winter passed. The Christmas lights came down
together with the shabby stars
strung across the various shopping streets.
Flower carts appeared on the wet pavements,
the metal pails filled with quince and anemones.
The end came and went.”