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Carrying the weight of the daily news

 

A house bursts into flames as it’s submerged in floodwaters. A doctor tells a cameraman filming a dying Ukrainian child to send the footage to Putin. A newspaper delves into the murder of a young woman. An Australian cricketing legend drops dead overnight. It’s like a fever dream: a pandemic bleeds into the edges of a global war.

I lie in a bed of bubbles, my tired muscles are pummelled by water in the clean, tiled day spa. A friend and I have birthdays in the same week and are treating ourselves, because that’s what you do when you’re a middle-class Aussie.  

But there’s cognitive dissonance to the endless newsreel of tragedy and disaster in my head and the serene spa room. I try to lie still and be present, the rumble of bubbles filling my ears but I’m on edge, like an ant under a magnifying glass. What’s going up in flames next? How can you not carry the weight of the world when the world is at our fingertips?

‘There should be a word for the feeling of “carrying on life in a luxuriantly safe country” while the rest of the world is happening,’ Helen Rumbelow wrote in the Sunday Times. What is that word? What do you do with the jumble of emotions which surface every time you check the endless banner of disaster reeling across your screen? 

‘We take in tragic news stories almost every day, but we rarely recognise them as belonging to a coherent narrative cycle with a distinct moral to impart,’ Alain de Botton wrote in The News, A User’s Manual. Botton’s argument is that we don’t really know how to process the news. Information, historically, was difficult to access so our inner lives were kept ‘in check’. ‘And now the hum and rush of the news (has) seeped into our deepest selves.’

I flip between apathy and helplessness, sometimes within the space of a few minutes. A token donation flicked to Oxfam feels trivial in the face of human suffering, like trying to put out a fire with a humidifier. My life plods along with a predictable rhythm: kids, bills, work, study, sleep, repeat. And yet, the news follows me into the darkest corners of my sleep. Pictures of children who, the previous day, were playing are now running for their lives. 

 

'The news presents information, and it has no moral duty to tell us how we should feel about it or help us untangle the knot of feelings which emerge. This is what theatres, cinemas, museums and libraries were created for, to house the soul.'  

 

Writer and director Bryan Doerries had a hunch that ancient stories could speak to us about the complexities and injustices of the world. His company, ‘Theatre of War’ presents newly translated readings of Greek tragedies, Biblical stories and poetry. He started out presenting the tragedies of Sophocles to returned vets, realising that much of these texts grapple with the devastations of war and the wounds inflicted, both inner and outer. As a result, people opened up like never before starting potentially life-saving conversations. 

‘That purpose (of the plays) was to communalize trauma,’ Doerries said in an interview with ‘On Being’s’ Krista Tippett. He points out that ‘amphi’ in ‘amphitheatre’ means ‘both ways’, both the actors and audience observe one another. He wants to flip the notion that actors are revered, like Greek gods on the stage. In his forums (even the word forum is more apt than performance) the audience plays an integral role in the discussions which follow. In Doerries’ words: ‘(the) audience who had experienced more loss, more trauma, more betrayal, more oppression had more to teach us about these ancient myths and plays than we were to teach them,’ he says in an interview with Thomas McGuire in American literary magazine ‘War, Literature and the Arts’.

Premiering in 2016, Doerries’ production ‘Antigone in Ferguson’ was a response to the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in 2014. The Greek chorus became a gospel choir shout-singing truths behind the actors, which culminated in a solo by Michael Brown’s former teacher. ‘The Book of Job’ was staged following a tornado which devastated Joplin in 2011. The Biblical story of a man who loses everything and cries out to God for answers resonated with those rebuilding their lives.

The conversations which follow are the pinnacle of the event; an alchemy between performers and audience. As Stephen K. Levine writes in Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering, ‘The arts give a form to the suffering of the soul, a ritual communal structure in which it can be held.’

Doerries creates an air of religious reverence, the high priest intermediary between people and their trauma. He asks the audience to identify with one of the characters, to explore what the story has brought up for them.  

Aristotle first used the word ‘catharsis’ in Poetics. He inextricably linked the idea of catharsis or cleansing to tragedy. Watching Paul Giamatti as Job, crying desperately out to God to take his life certainly feels cathartic to those who have experienced the extremes of human suffering.

The news presents information, and it has no moral duty to tell us how we should feel about it or help us untangle the knot of feelings which emerge. This is what theatres, cinemas, museums and libraries were created for, to house the soul.  

I was once part of a theatre ensemble. We’d paint ourselves white and drape sheets over our body with a ‘Make Poverty History’ sash and stand in public corners, still, like statues. A fellow member one day, was standing in full garb, with chains wrapped around his hands. A young man, so moved by this display approached him, weeping, something inside of him unlocked. My co-performer opened his arms and the two hugged. I don’t know what was happening for this young man, but it felt cathartic.

I take a piece of birthday cake to the 96-year-old woman who lives down the street because I know what it feels like to be lonely. We sit in her lounge room, curtains drawn, while news on TV rolls tragedies in the background. We don’t talk about much, but we share the same space, and when you’re carrying the weight of the world, sometimes that’s enough.

 

 

 


Cherie Gilmour is a writer from Torquay whose work has appeared in Voiceworks, The Australian and her blog.


Main image: Woman at home looking at her phone. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Cherie Gilmour, Tragedy, News, War Anxiety, Connection, Catharisis, Theatre

 

 

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Existing comments

The daily news can become our daily prayer-time, as a way of participating in the woes of our sisters and brothers around the world. We are all interconnected, so our love can reach the most distant needs.


Rose Marie Crowe | 29 March 2022  

Cheri. Thank you for putting words to what is a very deep suffering world. Only just post covid we were so divided, now I have seen compassion, people willing to give their lives, offer their homes for the homeless and cry with those who are so afraid …. as we behold these scenes of war. At home in our own land people rescued each other, in droughts, mice plague, fires and now floods, and we cry with them. There is hope when we reach out. Hang in there in our humanity as
we engage where we can.


Sheila Whittam | 29 March 2022  

What a fantastically written piece! Thank you, it took me on that journey with you…..


Stephen Moss | 29 March 2022  

At the beginning of Habakkuk in the OT the prophet is told to ‘write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.’ The daily news is a powerful force in our lives. Those of a sensitive disposition would surely find the current plethora of opinion articles in printed and digital media rather than a dispassionate disclosure of information to be most unsettling. ‘Are you talking to me?’ is a reasonable response in such circumstances. The ancient writers forged the way for us. They were impressive bearers of the news.


Pam | 29 March 2022  
Show Responses

Pam, that's a wonderful quote from Habakkuk but I've looked in three different Old Testaments, including the King James, and I can't find anything like it. Kindly help me find it if it's there somewhere.


Pat Walsh | 03 April 2022  

Hi Pat, yes, they are wonderful words. In my KJ version, it’s Chapter 2 verse 2: And the Lord answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.


Pam | 05 April 2022  

Gautama, who became the Buddha, was by caste a warrior, like the Ancient Greeks who featured in the Homeric epics and Sophoclean tragedy. His answer was not through their sort of catharsis, which is the sort you get from watching a Shakespearean tragedy like 'King Lear'. It is hard to explain his solution in English, because Sanskrit and its derivatives have a much more exact spiritual vocabulary which does not translate exactly. What the Buddha was trying to do was to rise above it and come back with compassion. It was very like Jesus, but in a very South Asian way. Buddha was a man. He claimed to have risen above pain and suffering, not to have abolished them. To equate the Buddhist Nirvana with the Christian Heaven would not be correct. In strict Theravada Buddhism you cannot invoke Buddha as Christians invoke Jesus, but you can follow his Dharma ('Way'). I think your friend and you acted in a very Buddhist way in the actions you relate. In South Asian thought it would not matter that neither of you was a Buddhist.


Edward Fido | 29 March 2022  

Cherie,
I can very much relate to your reflection. We watch on the evening TV News the tragedy of Ukraine and feel horror, anger and grief but at the same time, helplessness. We watch the unfolding tragedy of the floods in Southeast Queensland and the North Coast of N.S.W /Western Sydney and ask why did/do people build houses on flood plains?
I was a teacher of History/Geography for three decades. I find that I continue to wonder , now in retirement, why we just don't learn from history !


Gavin O'Brien | 29 March 2022  

Beautiful, open writing, thank you.


Barry Gittins | 30 March 2022  

Not only did this article impress me, the story of your friend and the young man and your visit with the 96 year old lady touched me. There is another Buddhist concept which roughly translates as 'acquiring merit' which I am sure you both gained through these actions. The young man and the old lady were elevated. This is practical morality. Zen Buddhism was supposed to have originated with a 'silent sermon'. Only one of the Buddha's disciples 'got it'. These days there is a lot of (often) empty moralising by the likes of Brian Houston. Many of these moralisers come a cropper. Your way is far better. 'Actions speak louder than words'. As the Buddhists say, Three Bows from me to you and your friend.


Edward Fido | 31 March 2022  

Thank you, Cherie, for a sensitive and thoughtful article. I would only offer the following comments. First, not being responsible for the carnage, we have no reason to feel personal shame or guilt. Living a comfortable life is a gift, indeed meant to be shared and not for self-doubt. Second, what we do have is the responsibility towards solidarity, and not only for the victim but for whatever remains human in the perpetrator. Donating to Caritas, SES, MSF or UNHCR etc., or demonstrating in the streets, may appear as small acts materially yet are anything but, morally and spiritually. They are an "outward sign of inward grace", the manifestation of the eucharistic impetus by which all Christians (not just Catholics and Orthodox) enact that level of human solidarity which all of us in history have always sought. In the end, two quotations come to my mind: Donne's "send not to know for whom the bell tolls", but far more hopeful and encouraging, Milton's "they also serve who only stand and wait" (where "waiting" means doing so actively).


Fred Green | 31 March 2022  

‘There should be a word for the feeling of “carrying on life in a luxuriantly safe country” while the rest of the world is happening,’ Helen Rumbelow wrote in the Sunday Times. What is that word?’

Australia isn’t a city on a hill but as the only nation which is an island continent at the same time, it is already in aesthetic what it ought to be in symbol, a jewel girt by sea and something apart to be looked up to, even if, correcting for the Mercator misrepresentation of size, it is smaller than Brazil, the US, China, Canada, Antarctica and Russia.

There is no need, like the widow with two mites, for Australia to give to the world out of its substance when, Divine Mercy decreeing that ‘eli eli lama sabachthani’ is not a refrain which applies in any practical way here, it can do so out of its bounty of intellectual and material capital.

Capital is usually acquired painstakingly, moral capital no less so, and a good start might be to join Rumbelow in searching for that word so that the beneficence it describes, and the obligations it surely connotes, can be established.


roy chen yee | 02 April 2022  

You're confining meritworthy acts to Christians, especially Catholics, Fred Green? What about that lifetime practicing Jew, Jesus? The one who said he had come, in the first intance, to save 'the lost sheep of Israel'. Neither Cherie, nor her friend, nor the two different people they helped very nobly were religiously described. Is that essential for you? The Catholic Church and its many social endeavours do a power of good, but they only number about 1 billion of the world's population. What about the rest of humanity?


Edward Fido | 04 April 2022  

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