Colors Of The Mind #5

A Vacation from Ourselves

Make Life Worth Living (MLWL) is a project by Zaluso Arts whose goal is to explore and spark conversations about issues concerning mental health, through art.

We’re living in an age of accessibility. Never in our known history has there been so much information at the touch of our fingertips. Current affairs spread at the speed of an electric current; via satellites dotted throughout the sky, fibre optic cables across the oceans floors, network towers spread across the land, all to light up screens that fit in the palm of our hands. The human mind is a phenomenal data processing machine that now, at the touch of a button, has an unprecedented amount of data to process. How well does it cope?

Once upon a time, it was possible for a community in one corner of the globe to exist for generations without ever knowing the business of a community in another corner of our spherical world. No news of war, famine or plague in Prussia would reach the Maravi kingdom, for example. The plight of one people would seldom burden the souls of another in such a distant land. Today, the global community will – at the touch of a button – pray for Paris, Syria and any other region going through turmoil that’s been highlighted by the global news cycle. Pain is shared through our links.

Once upon a time, news of tragedy was isolated. To hear of pain in a village, you would have to be of the village. Misfortunes in small communities are few and far between. Any misfortune that befell the community would have room to shock and upset, then be overcome and remembered in the legacy of the village. We once had space to breathe between tragedies.

Then came globalization. News in one corner of the globe could now travel to another corner in a matter of days. Pain felt in London when bombs were dropped by the Luftwaffe would be felt in tea estates on the outskirts of Blantyre, Nyasaland within the day. Similarly, a drought in Southern Rhodesia could be felt by tobacco companies based in London. Soon, the plight of native South Africans during Apartheid could be empathized and identified with by civil rights movements across the world. The few localised struggles turned into a multitude of global struggles via international pathways of information.

The conception of the 24-hour news cycle compounded our tragedies. The frequency at which we heard of crises began to escalate as news channels scoured the globe for content. Each crisis having less and less room to be grieved appropriately. When towers fell in New York, the shockwave could be felt in Malawi within the hour. Then came the internet and the advent of social media. Tragedy can now be documented and shared globally, faster than most traditional news outlets can report it. Every minute of every day, you can expose yourself to news of different misfortunes.

How well can the human mind cope with bad news? What we know is that the brain shows a stronger reaction to negative news; insults tend to linger in one’s memory much longer than compliments do. The same could be said on a macro level. News of economic calamity resonates in our collective consciousness longer than news of economic growth. This negative news bias was important in the development of our species: it helped us recognise danger and respond accordingly. However, how does one respond to a constant barrage of negative information that one is often powerless to react to in any meaningful way? The answer in many cases is apathy. We hear so much bad news through our globally connected gadgets that we give up. This is a new danger we face.

“If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

A similar mental danger has also been amplified by the omnipresence of social media. Today being Valentine’s Day, you will have likely seen a multitude of posts on your favourite social media app highlighting the gifts people have received from their significant others. Maybe even gifts from other peoples’ significant others (this is a judgement-free zone). Hell, you might even be one of the people posting! You may have even noticed that one of your peers was much more extravagantly gifted today. A bigger bouquet, a fancier brand of chocolates, a more expensive outfit. Suddenly, your own presents don’t look as good as they did when you received it, and everything on your phone’s screen is starting to have a tinge of green to it, no? What didn’t start out as a competition suddenly is. And you’re losing. Welcome to the desert of anxiety.

This anxiety is an unreasonable fear that you are not as happy as you should be compared to other people, based on their lives as portrayed through their social media profiles. We are more competitive than we may like to think, and seeing our counterparts getting win after win might leave us feeling like we’re falling behind in the rat race. As everyone we follow is doing well, it’s easy to begin feeling isolated. We tend to forget that people only put their best content on their pages and don’t necessarily live such a lavish lifestyle.

Sometimes it makes sense to unplug. We’re obviously being overwhelmed by the endless stream of data we subject our brains to. The double edged sword of apathy and anxiety is forged from an excessive need to know what’s going on outside of our bubble. The sheer amount of negative news overwhelms us to the point we no longer care, and the seemly positive developments in other people’s lives astounds us to the point we no longer relate. It seems as though as a people we’ve never been so connected and yet, simultaneously, so disconnected. It’s very easy to fall beneath the waves of information as we wade around for information. Stay under too long as your vision blurs; the rhythm of your heart becomes erratic; we begin to lose a sense of ourselves. Pull yourself up from the depths and breathe.


Author: Francis Chanthunya is an economist, lecturer, business consultant and artist and is usually much more casual and upbeat. You can find him on twitter here.


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