The horror, the horror

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you know Joseph Conrad’s work,“Heart of Darkness”, published in 1902?

These are the dying words of Kurtz, a central character in the book, whom the narrator finds deep in the heart of Africa; the 1979 film “Apocalypse Now”, starring Marlon Brando as U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz echoes the book in its themes, setting and use of names.

The book and the film are dark, despairing, exhausting — and powerfully unforgettable.

But these two words are resonating in my head much of the time now, thanks to what often seems a global parade of incompetence, greed, conflict, misery and despair.

These include:

— The shelling/retaliation between Israel and Gaza

— The epidemic of Ebola spreading through West Africaphoto(48)

— The shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown (only the latest)

— The beheading of fellow freelance journalist James Foley by ISIS

— The New York Times reports that beheadings are now “routine” in Syria

— The nightly newscasts with images of yet another out-of-control wildfire consuming thousands of acres of Western U.S. forests and many people’s homes and businesses

Yet another American multi-national moving into another country in order to save on corporate taxes

There are risks to those who cover these stories, beyond the need to wear Kevlar body armor in Iraq or head-to-toe coverings when working around Ebola. There is also PTSD and secondary trauma for journalists and their editors and compassion fatigue for viewers and listeners.

I am also well aware — and would love some new re-definition of “news” to make misery less compelling somehow — that the mass media are utterly complicit here. By the time you, readers and and viewers, see and hear our/their versions of the world, they have been massaged, edited and sometimes bitterly debated.

Or not.

As T.S. Eliot wrote, in Burnt Norton, in 1935: Humankind cannot bear very much reality.


The world is, obviously, filled with beauty and grace and joy, with people who get up every morning and give their best to those around them.

But, really, my dears, this wears me down.

Then what?

Tune out? Become more politically active? Stop caring? Care more? Write a letter to the editor? Blog it? Blog it again…and again…and again…?

Write a check to a charity?
Rant to others on social media?

Or just…not care?

How about you? How do you respond — if at all — to the world’s madness and brutality?


58 thoughts on “The horror, the horror

  1. mhasegawa

    I alternate between tuning out current events and posting about them on Facebook or blogging about completing different things. I sit on my screened-in porch and watch the sky and listen to the night.

  2. On a daily basis, I take in the world and its madness and brutality so that I don’t become ignorant. However some days it’s so dark and depressing I prefer to get my news exclusively from Jon Stewart and no one else. And then I digest it, worry over it, but find reaso to keep going and have a positive outlook on the world.

    And then I write my own horrors, which can at times be pretty therapeutic.

      1. Sometimes, people prefer a fictional horror to a real one. At least the fictional one has a chance of being defeated once and for all, without missiles or military weapons. And the aftermath usually doesn’t leave simmering tensions for years, decades, or even centuries. And often, even a child can defeat it, if they know how.

        So for some, the genre of horror offers a fantasy of hope.

      2. Horror also can provide a context to talk about those same issues that plague us everyday. My thesis project for example will cover subjects such as domestic abuse, viewing women solely in terms of their biology, and gun violence. And Stephen King’s “Insomnia” talks a lot about fanaticism (in this case, anti-abortion fanatics) and what happens when you take it way too far.

  3. There is very little in mainstream media that isn’t manipulated. I think that is what bothers me the most. Not that I can’t decipher through the nonsense, or simply tune out their news cycle–I appreciate that they have to make a living to a point–but I realize how many people simply trust most of what they see and read, because they lack the ability to think for themselves.

    When I consider the brutality that has always existed in the world, I don’t think that things have changed too much; however, every horror that occurs on our planet, 24-hours a day, are piped into our homes. I’d really rather not hear about it.

  4. themodernidiot

    We’re lucky in many places here in America. We can turn off the TV, walk down the street, and localise.

    Share a smile with a neighbour or a tiny, market, check-out girl. Meet another dog-owner on a leisurely park walk. Volunteer somewhere people laugh a lot, watch funny movies with family and friends. Plant something!

    We have opportunities to regroup and decompress before going back in the ring of activism and education.

    In Rwanda a team of western shrinks were asked to leave because they never let victims rest mentally or physically. They kept asking then to relive the pain over and over. Piss on that. The Rwandan cure for trauma was sunshine, community, and laughter.

    There’s a lesson to be learned there.

      1. Thanks for weighing in!

        Sometimes I wonder…is it just me who feels so tired and overwhelmed by it? And that is also from the privileged/safe perch of merely seeing or hearing it from a distance.

      2. themodernidiot

        Nope. Makes my head want to explode. But then I breathe and remember it’s historically consistent, and go get a cupcake. When you can look at it as just new names to old problems, it doesn’t seem so worrisome-we’ve been doing this for what, 10,000 years and were still here doing good things along with the bad? That’s not a bad record. Restores a little faith to know bad and good have to coexist to exist. I wish the bad were not so ridiculous, but we are animals after all. I am just glad of the progress we’ve made.

  5. i just do the best i can to live without doing harm, and with compassion and kindness for others. when i teach, i do my best to show the little ones that we are all human, all have needs and hopes and to understand that differences are a positive thing, not something to rail against or to try to put down or to force to be like ourselves. my hope is in teaching the next generation to understand this, there will be less misunderstanding, pain caused to others, and war.

    1. always the same thing; beauty and the beast. Humans live in this paradox, on the top of this vertex made by two broad plans: beast and the beauty. Or firefighters and Nazis or jihadists. I choose the beauty but I can be (change your situation and you will be) a murderer. We are not different from the others. We know and I know friendly people that went to war and became survivors by killing others.

  6. This is exactly the feeling I experience- in Washington DC it’s amplified 10-fold as every politician has to go on record with a pithy soundbite which is repeated here across the halls of whichever agency is in the crosshairs of the moment.

    Working strategic communications for Homeland Security means hearing, crafting a response or rebuttal, debating the words and message, arguing over how much to acknowledge, posting the response, monitoring the reaction, defending the data to the Congress, etc etc. Each incident we did or did not predict/prevent our protect America against gets 24/7 attention.

    Your PTSD assessment is spot on. It’s why I wrote yesterday in my post that DC is great for tourists, but brutal for real life if you’re involved with current affairs. It’s just crushing to parse it all, day in and day out.
    I’m another who subscribes to the deck/nature/silence therapy practice. .. I have to empty it out each evening, avoid radio and tv news, only skim the front page (read the rest) of the paper.

    It’s actively taking care of the soul & psyche that gets us through. Even Azerbaijan at war with Armenia was not as hard to live with.

    Thanks for helping us realize we’re all in this together!

    1. What a fascinating/complex job you have! I really appreciate hearing your perspective on this, both as an inside-the-Beltway person and someone with an insider view most of us will never have.

      I was fascinated/horrified by the two recent successful summits of the Brooklyn Bridge…hello, security?!!!

      I wish there were more place for a real conversation about how to manage all this…the Fergsuon shooting, of course, got a lot of media attention. Not sure if you ever listen to NPR’s “on the media”? They had a cynical/smart analysis of how every crisis like that moves through utterly predictable stages, ending with a call for a “national conversation” — which is, basically, impossible.

    2. I so appreciated reading this blog along with all the commentary thus far. jlhilleary, you struck a cord with me, a clinical therapist who lived and worked in the DC Metro area for twenty years. You brought me back several years to the anthrax scare where I literally found myself hypervigilant about opening my own personal mail; the Beltway Sniper month-of-madness where we van driving,children toting moms found ourselves literally ducking behind our vehicles while filling up with gas. I went so far as to drop my kids off at a friend’s home prior to filling up as I didn’t want the kids to see me get shot in the head; and the 9-11 lockdown of a city with only so many routes to escape from. My husband worked across the street from the FBI building where Humvees took over DC and snipers stood alert atop of the buildings overlooking “key” bombing sites. To hear my husband speak from his 10th floor office, it sounded like a war zone. People didn’t know whether to escape their buildings and walk…anywhere else… or stay in their offices watching it unfold before their very eyes, no doubt praying it wasn’t going to be their building hit at some point.

      That three(ish) year period of time was the when the music died for me, the builder of egos and helper of anxiety-ridden children and families was an enormous task (my own children included). At some point the helpers needed help for themselves. That was when nature and mindfulness training came in. It was and is strengthening and powerful. It is breathing in and letting go. (My next blog!)

      Thank you Caitlin and I am grateful, jlhilleary, for this memory today. It gives me perspective, and reminds me of the tools I need to move forward with the presence of mind I need to be a soft place for people to land when the world becomes too overwhelming for them to be attuned to in the moment.

      1. Thank you for this extraordinary memory. I do remember that period well, but thankfully we were living in NY; my husband worked in DC for eight years. It must have been somewhat like a war zone for you then…with all the sequelae one might expect.

        “I need to be a soft place for people to land when the world becomes too overwhelming for them to be attuned to in the moment.”

        What a powerful phrase. Thanks for saying it so eloquently — and being that place for so many!

      2. Thank you, Julie, for sharing your response to this. I can so identify with you on the toll that constant vigilance takes on a family, a marriage, on living life itself.

        During the time you were going through all that here in DC, I was experiencing the flip side in the Muslim republic of Azerbaijan, just north of the Iranian border. When 9/11 happened we couldn’t get any information in OR out. We didn’t know what danger, if any, we were in. My daughter told me later that she was on the freeway passing the Pentagon when it was hit- a mother’s worst fear. She didn’t know how I was or how to reach me since the cell systems were overloaded… It was bad everywhere then.

        Your comment about the helpers needing help themselves is spot on.

        During 9/11, my daughter was then doing her post graduate work in clinical psychology and learned much about helping others through that experience. In fact, it gave her part of the basis of her dissertation – identifying and dealing with the stresses of caregivers.

        I think Caitlin, as usual, has her finger on the pulse of a very timely and critical issue. Our generation, or at least those of us adults in the post-CNN era, really struggle with the 24/7ness of our graphic news. I’m glad you have developed a coping mechanism. Our world needs all the caring therapists we can hold onto! Certainly, we need to do a better job of supporting those in the healing arts. Good luck, wherever you are now!

  7. Sometimes it’s good to switch off and take a break. I do keep in touch with what is going on in the world but there is so much that is deeply depressing.

    I would add “pharmaceutical greed” to the list in your post. There is a new drug, Sovaldi, which could cure my mother without the horrendous side effects of the ‘traditional’ treatment. But the pharmaceutical company is pushing for as much money as it can get and we are reliant on whether or not the NHS will pay. It makes me want to despair sometimes.

    1. I am so sorry to hear that, Grace. I agree, the costs of some medicines are insane, and when someone is gravely ill, $$$$$ should be the last consideration.

      Maybe (?) this is worth blogging or writing an op-ed about?

      1. “when someone is gravely ill, $$$$$ should be the last consideration” — exactly, especially when the illness is the fault of the healthcare provider in the first place (my mother was given contaminated blood in a transfusion in 1982)!

        I have thought about writing about it and I actually thought of pitching the story to This American Life. There is a lot of debate going on about the new med at the moment (a U.S. Senate investigation into its price, articles in newspapers like the New York Times…). I’m not sure whether my voice will make much difference. But I can try, I suppose…

  8. How do I respond, you ask. Varies. Sometimes I cry (literally). Sometimes I swear to never read the news again. Sometimes I swear off mankind. As an antidote I smile at a child (whilst trying not to remember the world it is growing into), sometimes I look at a sunflower.

    I try (emphasis on ‘try’) to blend out all evil. Trying to forget how good everything could be if only we’d let it. It’s a bit of a job for me to not despair. And, Caitlin, I am of a sunny disposition, one of life’s optimists, happy go lucky – neither am I a monkey: So I do see, hear and find it difficult to keep my mouth shut.

    Have done the maths recently. In terms of remaining years. Shocker if ever there was one. If there is one good thing about time marching on, advancing years, that you become more selective what you spend the remaining on. Not in a selfish way. Not at all. But being very clear where and how you can still make a difference without squandering. You know the one thing I find difficult to get my brain round: When I was my son’s age (he’ll be 23 shortly) I thought of life as stretching before me with no end to it. Whatever I did in the moment didn’t matter. Because there was always the next and the next and the next moment. My son? He has got it sussed. He knows that time is a finite resource. And whilst I admire him for it, I can’t help feeling sorry that he doesn’t have that delicious feeling of youth that time has no measure. And no, I don’t keep one of those egg timers with sand in it.


    1. It’s very true that advancing age is…bracing. You realize you do not have acres ahead with which to dally. It has focused me more, but never in a way that makes 100% clear that my choices are the right ones.

  9. Well, I was so incensed with the recent Israeli-Gaza events and the murder of over 200 Palestinian children, that I posted my outrage on my blog (even though my blog is supposed to be about Paris.) I think that those of us who have some sort of “visibility”, however small, can use that platform to vent. I then posted the link of the Gaza Crisis Appeal which brings 13 leading aid charities together in times of crisis. You can still donate because Gaza needs to reconstruct now. This is how I responded to (a small portion of) the world’s madness and brutality.

    1. Thanks, Juliet. I sometimes (and not proudly) hesitate because so many women are harassed off the Internet when we speak out, and I’ve already gotten the police involved once on this account.

      I look forward to reading these. I have also found BBC much more truthful/graphic in their reporting of Gaza.

  10. Difficult question. The philosophy I’ve been working with lately is that we humans are not emotionally equipped to take on the knowledge of the burdens a world filled with seven billion people. The information age allows us to see and know these burdens but does not help us digest them.

    So I have to pick and choose what i become wrapped up in. It’s a tough choice. It means there are certain things I’m not going to know about. Trying to straddle the line between being overwhelmed and unaware is not easy. I fail a lot.

    But I don’t want to be cold to the world so I try to help the world one small interaction at a time. That’s what I have control over. In the here and the now how can I make life better for the people I come in contact with. That’s hard too and requires you to pay attention. It’s just a different kind of attention.


    1. Thanks…I really like and admire your attitude when it comes to a conscious effort to make a difference when and where you can…you know the “one starfish” story? The man who finds a starfish on the beach dying and puts it back into the ocean. Someone else says, but there are thousands of starfish dying…how are you making a difference? To this one, he replied.

      I call this “calibrating compassion.” I think when we lose the capacity to care, we’re morally dead. But how much can we bear?

      1. If we try to care for everything I’m afraid we will care for nothing. That is a valid concern. Like I have to tell people sometimes, “My care bucket overfloweth.”

  11. I’m at a stage in my life where I have to check out for a bit. I turn off the news and limit what I take in from the Internet. It’s not that I don’t care; I care WAY too much, but for my mental health and in order to function in my daily life, looking away is essential. I have a ritual that I perform, usually weekly, or whenever things feel especially heavy. I light a candle for people/situations and bring my focused attention to them and do my best to put love and positive thoughts into the universe. This has a centering effect on me which often puts me in a better position to act in a helpful way. I still volunteer my time and give money when I can. It’s a balance, and it’s difficult, but I’ve learned that bad things happen, and I can’t control the world around me. Honestly, sometimes I cry and rage, but I do my best to get up and try again the next day.

    1. Thanks…what a simple/powerful thing to do. I think some people can very quickly get flooded and burn out, and then we’re no good to anyone. I have pulled away from a more engaged way of being in the world. Sometimes it works, sometimes I feel a little too dispassionate.

  12. Fatima

    I think about individuals confronting horrors in history. Whether they marched in the civil rights movement, sheltered Jews from the Nazis, or simply try to understand those considered ‘other’ by their culture, they listen to the small voice within. It’s the one saying ‘it’s the right thing to do.’

    That’s the voice I keep listening to at any rate.

    1. Thank you for this…One of the greatest men I ever met, and who became a friend, was a Resistance hero in WWII France. It stuns me to think of what he and his comrades dared to accomplish. I was so honored that he felt my attention worth having.

  13. This list of horrors is indeed bad, but at the same time, we must also consider the problem of “selection bias” in the news media–the notion that “if it bleeds, it leads” … yes, there are many horrible events taking place (with the instability in Eastern Ukraine perhaps the most ominous), but we must not lose sight of all the good events that go unreported

    1. It is at its worst on Twitter and television news, especially local. I agree. It’s also a problem of “ratings” and clickbait — i.e. what which is deemed to gather the most eyeballs/ears fastest wins. I find it appalling.

  14. I agree that people tune out the full horror of things they are relentlessly bombarded with in the news and related media. I think in particular that society’s good intentions to raise informed, caring kids by foisting the problems of the world upon them too graphically, too young, results in hardened or despairing kids. We wonder why teen suicide is so prevalent but I think kids are bady overburdened and burned out by this stuff!

    1. Interesting…and sad. I agree that children/teens deserve some measure of innocence. I see this burnout in some of my adult colleagues; no reason to inflict too much of it (which is how much?) on younger children.

      I am also heartened by some of the amazing children who respond by creating or helping with charitable organizations.

  15. Caitlin, I wrote a post about the Foley beheading and within minutes I was contacted by the Obama administration to take the photo down. How do I know it was the government? Because they pierced the internet veil and addressed me by a name that only the government knows I use AND they knew it I knew it. They also called each one of my children by name and they spelled my kids names correctly. In one instant, I lost my freedom of speech. They let me know, in no uncertain terms, to keep my friggin’ mouth shut and mind my own business.
    Good luck being a journalist.
    If there really is such a thing.

  16. Pingback: [FORUM] What do you do when the world is getting you down? | A Bit More Detail

  17. I’ll be straight with you. Even as a member of the media, I have tuned out. I read the Sunday New York Times. But I don’t watch the news anymore–or troll for it on the Internet. I’m trying to walk the line between being informed and being beaten down. There is so much good in the world. I still don’t understand why we don’t cover more of it.

  18. Pingback: Horror…As Therapy? | Rami Ungar The Writer

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