I’ve been reading this fascinating book by Daniel Gardner called The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain. One of the things he talks about is how our brains haven’t evolved much since the days when our ancestors learned about new dangers around the campfire, even though our information systems have expanded exponentially. As a result, he argues, we walk around ramped up on fear because of stories we’ve heard, even though we (especially middle class Americans?) live in a much safer world than most human beings in history. His analysis rings true to me. When I got a permission slip for my two children to go on a middle school ski trip, the first thing I thought of was Natasha Richardson, the actress who died last year from bumping her head during a beginning ski class. The chances of that happening to one of my children are so infinitesimal that in a hunter gatherer society I would never have heard of such a thing. But because of the wonders of CNN (my very large campfire), I did hear about it, saw her picture day after day, and that of her grieving husband, Liam Neeson. I’ve also heard about people dying from eating contaminated spinach, from drinking too much water, and from getting locked in a filing cabinet—all unlikely tragedies that Gardner says ramps up our anxiety about everything, even mundane concerns—like do I have anything to cook for dinner? 

A hundred pages into the book, I started limiting my news intake. This was particularly easy because the little radio I usually bring to the gym died (again), which seemed like a sign that maybe a CNN break was due. I also found myself listening to a little less NPR when I was driving and cooking. I mentioned this in the talk I gave at Pendle Hill last week, along with the caveat that turning off the news was especially difficult for Quakers who care about and want to be engaged in the world. And then I woke up to the news about Haiti and felt that conflict acutely. I don’t want to shut out the suffering, close my heart to the tragic stories that are flooding out of Haiti. On the other hand, I’m not sure I need to see non-stop images of the suffering. I want to fuel my compassion, but not my fear, though I’m not certain of the best way to do this.

I remember reading about a Tibetan monk who, with the Dalai Lama’s encouragement, agreed to participate in a study by American brain scientists. The monk had practiced a special compassion meditation for about twenty years. As a result, the scientists discovered that when shown pictures of people suffering his brain responded differently than other participants in the study. Instead of activating the parts of the brain that register disgust (and maybe fear?), the monk lit up the parts of the brain that register love. The article didn’t spell out his compassion meditation or explain how ordinary people in a busy world can cultivate it, but I assume his practice did not involve a lot of CNN, though obviously the news has motivated many people to donate time or money to help the earthquake victims. For myself, I need to find those practices that cultivate compassion, rather than fear or powerlessness.