Three Universal Laws on Suffering and Information Consumption

I believe the following three statements to be universally true:

  1. Every day, there is suffering and misery in the world that is outside of our control.
  2. There will always be people looking to exploit that suffering and misery to further their own agenda, to raise their own status, or to get us to pay attention to them.
  3. There will always be effective ways to alleviate someone’s suffering and misery that will never receive much attention.

About Rule #1

If you go looking for bad news, you’ll never have trouble finding it.

There are about 400,000 murders a year, which averages out to more than 1000 every day. It’s safe to say that at nearly all moments, someone is either killing someone else or in the process of making it happen. That’s a sobering thought. Probably too much for the human brain to fully comprehend or absorb while still functioning. If we did choose to focus on that fact all the time, it would be hard to get motivated or feel good about anything.

About Rule #2

This suffering isn’t new. But what is new is the way we access and process information about those who are suffering.

If you lived in an American small town in 1900, your life expectancy would have been about 37 years. If you had a child, there would have been about a 1 in 6 chance that it would not live to see its first birthday. Murder rates were higher then than they are now. No women could vote. Black people, only a generation removed from slavery in certain parts of the country, still had essentially no civil rights. Basic sanitation was near non-existent, and so cholera and tuberculosis were rampant.

But as hard as life was relative to now, the average person was probably not as hyper aware of the world’s problems. There was no shortage of low-quality, shock-inducing journalism then, but most news stories were local. Most newspapers focused the bulk of their attention on provincial problems, which almost by definition, in the absence of localized war, were less colossal in scale than the worst problems in the world. And to the extent that people did consume the news, they usually did so with a paper, once a day, delivered to their doorstep.

Today, we have the world’s worst problems curated and filtered for us all of our waking hours. Many of us choose to receive constant notifications about this news pinged at us from phones we keep with us, all day, every day. We’re not just getting news with our morning coffee, we’re getting it pumped out at us through a half-dozen electronic devices, near which many of us spend the bulk of our waking hours. Further, because of social media, the line between where we socialize and where we consume news of the world’s problems has become blurry or non-existent, where the places we seek friendship and companionship and the places we receive recurring negative information blend together in what can be for some a very unhealthy cocktail.

And there is an evolutionary process at work in delivering to us news of the world’s problems. In much the same way that the food we eat is sweeter and saltier than ever before, that booze is stronger, that drugs are more potent, and that TV shows are more numerous and stimulating, so too is news more hard-hitting and engaging. If it weren’t more stimulating than other forms of entertainment, we wouldn’t bother with it. We wouldn’t click. We wouldn’t watch.

It doesn’t matter that the trend in this country and the world has been toward less violence, less crime, less racism, less intolerance, less disease, less infant mortality, longer life spans, and cleaner water.[1] Based on what we read and how we consume information, we cannot help but perceive and sense that the opposite is true.[2]

About Rule #3

I don’t think there is an easy answer to the world’s suffering and misery. As long as there are humans, there will be suffering. And while the rate at which it happens may be reduced somewhat, it will never go away completely.

I do have a proposal for what to do about it. My proposal is fairly simple: While there is always suffering and misery outside of your control, so too will there be some suffering and misery that we have the power to help alleviate.

If you are reading this on a computer right now, you probably have the resources to buy a few mosquito nets or to help fund someone’s medical procedure in a developing country. Even gifts as low as $10 can save lives or permanently reduce another human being’s suffering. Nearly ever city and town in this country has elderly people that could use attention and care. My wife spends a few hours every Friday and gives some love and attention to dogs and cats at a local shelter. These are small acts of kindness. But count me in the group that believes that small acts of kindness matter, both to the donor and the recipient.

It’s easy to get caught in the trap of the first two laws, thinking that the world is spinning off its axis. There is perpetual suffering in the world: that much will always be true. But there are also limitless opportunities for kindness.

The question for you and for me is where we choose to focus our energy and attention.

[1] None of this is meant to trivialize the subjective experience of someone who suffers or is a victim of one of these problems today. A 3% reduction in the violent crime rate is no solace to someone whose loved one is murdered.

[2] I’m a bit nervous that the perception that things are getting worse, however untrue in a statistical sense, might actually have the capacity to cause people to act out in ways that actually do make things worse. Namely, that the perception that things are getting more violent even when they are not might lead to more violence, thus reversing the long-term trend in the direction of less violence.