Yesterday morning I sat in the waiting room of the clinic where I have my annual medical exams. Something had changed since my last visit: a huge black television monitor occupied one wall, with the channel tuned to CNN.
It was impossible to ignore; the small waiting room had been turned into a screening room, where even patients who didn't want to watch were forced to listen. In the space of just a few minutes, I heard commentators speculate that this might be the day that North Korea decided to launch a missle. I heard reports of a new, deadly strain of bird flu in China, and an outbreak of meningitis among gay men in Los Angeles. There was discouraging discussion about the gun control bill, and a story that parents in Japan are starting to refuse to allow their children to come to the U.S. for university study, because of a perception that the country is becoming too dangerous.
A white-coated tecnician came into the room to get a cup of coffee just as the meningitis story was playing; the screen showed large electron-micrographs as the journalist's voice intoned the latest statistics. Oh dear, said the man, turning to me with a dismayed look on his face. He stood for a few minutes, riveted to the screen, and then walked out the door to begin his day.
My doctor came to the door and called my name; I was glad to escape. But during the morning I had to come back to the waiting room several times, between visits to the nurse for blood work, an EKG, and various other appointments. Each time, I watched the behavior of the other people in the room, all of whom would turn to face the TV, shaking their heads at each grim, frightening story. Last year, most of them were absorbed in their cell phones. I looked for a magazine or newspaper; unlike former visits, this time there was only one, an old issue of Vanity Fair; instead I pulled a book out of my pack, but it was very difficult to concentrate on the words.
Finally I turned to one of the other women and said, "I'm American, and really, this is part of what I came to Canada to escape."
As it turned out, she was originally American too, from North Carolina, but we had a pretty different take on things. She was conservative, I more liberal. While I objected to being force-fed anxiety by inflammatory stories in the media, she insisted it was "important to be informed." "I'm really worried when I go to the U.S. now," she said. "If I go to a shopping center across the border I really look around me at the people; it seems like anything could happen. Everyone has guns." Well, yes, I agreed, many people do, and I think that's a big problem. But you have to look at the statistics as well; your chance of being killed in a Wal-Mart in Burlington, Vermont, is not extremely high.
We both finished our appointments and went home, where in the afternoon we learned what had happened in Boston, and the cycle of horror, speculation, analysis, and fear began spinning all over again.
I don't want to add yet another voice to that sad and mostly-well-meant cacophony. I've spent many days of my life in Boston, and my heart goes out to the people of that city. If there is something concrete I can do to help, I will do it.
What I've been thinking about is the television in the waiting room, a Canadian waiting room, that once was a quiet place where people read, or talked to a companion, or even simply sat and looked out the window. Its presence seems to me an ominous symbol of something that has gone very wrong in most western societies: our inability to be with ourselves, to cope with the essential human condition of solitude, especially in situations that cause our anxiety to rise. It concerns me that, in our secular, post-liberal-arts, technological, perpetually-connected society, so little effort goes into teaching children how to be alone, showing them the richness and solace of time spent with nature, with the arts and handcrafts, with books and music, with oneself walking in a city or sitting on a bench: eyes open, ears open, mind and heart awake to the dance of life flowing around us.
When I return to the United States, as I did just last week, I'm always struck by the palpable level of general anxiety, so much greater than it is here in Quebec. But is that anxiety, and the corresponding reactiveness -- even in the wake of tragedies such as have been experienced in the past decade -- justified? In today's New York Times, University of Maryland criminologist Gary LaFree states, “I think people are actually surprised when they learn that there’s been a steady decline in terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 1970.” Speaking of both domestic and foreign plots, he noted that there were approximately 40 percent fewer attacks in America during the ten years after 9/11 than there had been in the previous decade. (LaFree is director of the highly-regarded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, which studies terrorism and keep a Global Terrorism Database. He adds a note that nearly half the worldwide attacks, and 1/3 of those in the U.S., have never been solved.)
However, I think the media bears a large responsibility for fanning the flames of American anxiety. Supposed neutral channels like CNN feed viewers an endless diet of anxiety-producing stories, while the left and right square off in loud, combative talk shows and news hours, each side trying to out-shout the other. Television is a very powerful medium. Is it any wonder that so many people feel under attack, vulnerable, and constantly anxious, worrying about what is going to happen to them or to their loved ones? It it any wonder that they feel like the entire world is taking sides, at war, that it's us-against-them, myself against the potential unknown assalilant, intruder, terrorist, crazy person lurking in every community? Furthermore, we know that violence begets violence, that copycat crimes proliferate, and that what a lot of perpetrators want the most is publicity.
If the U.S. wants to worry about drugs and terrorism slipping across its porous northern border, then I am concerned about the insidious infiltration of this kind of secular preaching, these incessant sermons of anxiety and fear originating from the south. And much more than that, I wonder if those of us who have chosen to live our lives differently can perhaps be more vocal and intentional about why, and how. The world has always been dangerous for a vast majority of its citizens, but we in the west have been able to ignore that too long. Living positively, with awareness and joy in each day -- in spite of the possibility of death, which can and does happen anywhere, anytime -- is actually possible, as our brothers and sisters in war-torn, poverty-ravaged societies can teach us. And to look closer to home on this sad day: who knows better the fullness of solitude, or the potential triumph of the human spirit, than the long-distance runner?