It’s relentless, isn’t it?
When you read the sentence above, what popped to mind? What is the “it” that just won’t stop, that won’t give you a break, that makes it hard to breathe and think?
If you live in the Midwest, the “it” may be the relentlessly gray weather, which, no matter how hard you try to love it — I’ve been trying — settles on your brain like an elephant.
If you live anywhere in the United States, the “it” may be the argument over a president who has abused his power but who is poised to escape conviction at his impeachment trial.
Or maybe the relentless “it” is the huge, shape-shifting blob of what we call “news.”
Wildfires rage, floodwaters rise, Facebook spies, plastic pollutes the ocean.
The great basketball player Kobe Bryant and his daughter are killed in a helicopter crash.
The coronavirus spreads.
You’re not worried about the coronavirus yet? I wasn’t either — not on a personal level — until a reliably sensible Chicago friend told me on Friday she’d been shopping for masks.
“I found myself on Amazon trying to buy an N95 mask,” she said. “And they were out of the best and most expensive ones. And I’ve wasted a lot of time today trying to find somewhere to get them. Which is probably useless and crazy. But fear is such a weird thing, maybe more contagious than coronavirus.”
Fear is one consequence of relentless bad news. And fear makes everything else seem more relentless.
The word ‘relentless’ has been pecking at my mind lately because I hear it so often, in conversations and in the news. Its use ranges from the relentless rise of carbon dioxide to the relentlessness of email.
“I just want some relief from the relentlessness of it all,” I heard someone say.
Occasionally something good is called relentless. Relentless optimism. Relentless pursuit of justice. I’d say Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead prosecutor during President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, was relentless in the good way while laying out the case that the country is endangered by this president who blatantly used his office to help ensure his reelection.
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Schiff’s detractors would, of course, disagree, and they’re relentless in depicting the congressman in a harsh light, frequently with insults.
Insults are relentless too, aren’t they?
No matter what the topic these days — a movie, a novel, a TV show — public insult too often takes the place of meaningful argument. Every argument gives life to a relentless mob. The online mobs threaten and taunt, and we have to wonder, “Are human beings really this awful? This relentlessly awful?”
We have to keep believing that they — we — aren’t as bad as it so often seems, but that belief is challenged in a relentlessly connected world.
Relentless connection is part of the problem. We’re connected all the time now — by news media, social media, email — and the feeling that we can’t get away from all those voices, all those opinions, can leave us feeling overwhelmed and threatened.
The incessant noise can make us feel like hostages, trapped by forces over which we have no control.
How to escape? And to where?
I once read an article that explained the psychological benefit of partitions in airplanes. The article contended that partitions aren’t merely to separate the first-class swells from the riffraff.
They exist to create an illusion of space, the sense that there’s somewhere else to go.
If you’re the poor person in seat 32E, for example, you can look out and see the mysterious vista of first class up ahead. Rather than feeling you’re trapped in a little flying metal tube, you comfort yourself with the thought that there’s lot of space out there, and you could go there if you wanted.
That’s the relief so many of us are seeking — at least the illusion that we’re not trapped.
Life can be hard. That’s always been true. Avoiding all difficulty and disagreement isn’t possible or desirable.
But when I think about the relentlessness that’s jangling so many of our minds right now, I think: We need to build better partitions. Look for ways to create a sense of space in our lives, free of the relentless noise.
Some days that relief is as simple — and as hard — as turning off all the media and going outside to look at trees, even if the sky is gray.