Social media and rolling news channels have a lot to answer for. For the most part I am a huge fan of both, loving the fact I can feel connected to people and events all over the world from the small phone in my hand. That I can Skype my parents to show them how my granny has settled into her new care home after they moved her in, follow William and Kate’s wedding from a hotel room in Paris or watch a friend live Tweeting her labour and the birth of her child. We feel connected to events, regardless of geography.
The first time I remember watching the news with an event unfolding was the OJ Simpson car chase. I was in a bowling alley in a hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Star News (their version of Sky) was following the police helicopter as his car sped down the highway. I remember thinking “bloody hell this is so clever”.
Yesterday, not so much.
I woke at 4.30 and do what I always do, glanced at my phone to check the time. The screen was full of alerts from The Guardian, the BBC, The Telegraph. All I could focus on was “19 dead. Manchester” Instantly I was awake. Opening Twitter, flicking to Facebook, reading the online newspapers, watching in horror as I came to, as the day dawned, that something horrific had happened overnight. Something barbaric. Something evil.
Once at my desk, I put the BBC breakfast news on my ipad and had it beside my computer screen as I worked. Absorbing the news as the number of dead rose to 22. As eyewitnesses were interviewed. As stories unfolded of heroic sacrifices people had made. Of the countless stories of good: pizzas being delivered to A&E units, countless cups of tea brought to paramedics, taxi drivers turning off their meters.
It was hard to comprehend what had happened. In a town I had been in 24 hours before, but was now 200 miles away from, yet thanks to technology I was right in it.
But by 5pm I couldn’t do it anymore.
Having trained to be a Victim Support worker (a role I no longer do sadly, but I remember the training) we are taught to understand how to deal with absorbing all of the emotion of an event that is not our own. Listening to people tell their stories, often raw, always personal, we have to develop coping mechanisms as we have to be able to deal with those revelations in our own heads. For many Victim Support workers, that can be for many months, often years if it is a case that goes to trial. It is the same training that got me through being in a refugee camp talking to Syrians who had fled the bombing of their homes, often injured in the process, losing loved ones along the way. Who told their stories so openly to us, because it was their story but from whom we walked away wondering how they could cope having gone through such tragic events.
To deal with hearing these stories, we need to think of ourselves as a sponge. A sponge can absorb so much more than you think it can. It looks fragile, it is fragile, it’s a living organism, but it’s tougher than you think. It can absorb ten times its own weight. When you think it can’t absorb anymore, it often has just enough space left for that last drop of water on the work top. And then you think you’ll just mop up that other bit.
Except the sponge fails. It can’t absorb anymore.
You have to squeeze it out.
And then you can go back to soaking things up again.
That’s how we are with world events, with rolling news, with a 24/7 connection to social media. We have to know that we reach a point where we say “I can’t absorb anymore”. There is no shame in reaching that point. We are not in anyway denying those events have happened. We are simply saying “right now, I need to go and wring out my sponge”.
Terrible world events have been happening forever. Historically though we didnt hear about them until they reported on either the hourly radio news bulletin or on the evening news. And once that news broadcast was over, in a way so was the world event. Yes, our thoughts were with those people but we were detached from it. Bombings in the 70s from the IRA for instance were horrific, as many people died, but they came into our day, for a few minutes and then were gone again. They were contained. Almost sanitised in a way.
One of the most harrowing aspects of what happened in Manchester on Monday night is the stream of tweets searching for missing people. Twitter is a tremendous tool for events such as this. It gets the news out immediately, it helps people desperate for news, and connects them to those who are as equally desperate to help. Just look at #RoomsforManchester to see the stream of people offering tea, beds, lifts, changes of clothes to see Twitter at its absolute best. But also interspersed with that are the stories of families frantically still trying to find a missing loved one. Their photo shared. Snippets of their story “she wanted to be a singer and had applied to X Factor twice” are divulged. We feel we know that person, we want them to be found.
And then we see them named on the next news bulletin as the latest victim.
We feel devastated and find it hard to carry on. Suddenly the bad hair day and the pile of washing up don’t seem so important.
We wonder about cancelling a planned birthday party at the weekend. We ponder what to do and if it is wrong to go out for dinner. Should we be carrying on? Should we be laughing? We don’t know how to behave whilst these events are still, for the most part, happening. More people will be named today I am sure. Heaven forbid any of the 119 injured are transferred to the death toll. Undoubtedly we will hear some of their stories and that they have “life changing injuries”.
So we need to acknowledge that we are a sponge. We need to know that there is nothing wrong with turning the TV off today. With logging out of Facebook. With not buying a newspaper, or reading it online. It is fine to do that. It is okay to say “I need some time out”
I did it yesterday. I wrang out my own personal sponge by putting my headphones in and turning up the music. I danced at my desk to Taylor Swift. I banged my head and sang out loud in the garden to Guns N Roses. Getting rid of the water in my sponge has always involved music. It’s an instant escape for me. I can close my eyes and with music I can be anywhere. It resets my brain, flushes out the stuff I don’t want to deal with, and lets me start anew.
Yours might be taking the dog for a walk. Going to the woods and hugging a tree. Standing in wet grass. Meeting a friend for coffee. Photographing flowers.
Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to acknowledge that you can only absorb so much and that you do need to switch off, walk away, and squeeze it out.
Nobody will think you don’t care by doing that, in fact it shows you do care. That you care about yourself and that you care enough to want to be able to carry on absorbing tomorrow.