I recently had a dream. I was living on some island at the far edge of the world, where the sky chased itself through a mirage of pink clouds, and the water hallucinated with dappled drops of purple sunset. It was some strange cerulean paradise.
Only my teeth hurt, so I went to the dentist. She lived in a small pagoda on the edge of a lily pond — only the lilies were pink and purple and the water they drifted upon looked more like the sky. A bridge arched across the water like an oil painting — almost smudged in the way it melted into the landscape.
Her home was lined with tatami mats, a small pot of tea steaming the scent of jasmine into the air, orchids lilting against a windowed wall. She wore a simple kimono, her black hair curled into a bob with bangs, her cheeks plump and rosy. She knelt on the floor and cupped her hands in her lap, gesturing to me in a movement of beauty and grace.
I lay down beside her and placed my head in her lap. She stroked my hair and smoothed it onto my neck and down my shoulders — her touch ever so gentle and lingering. As a dentist, she whispered, she realized long ago that the teeth were only a reflection of the mind, and that she could do nothing for the teeth if she did not first calm the mind.
My jaw relaxed in her care, my teeth released their grip — the many things they’d been holding onto lost as the pain slowly melted away.
I fell asleep in her arms.
The gnashing of teeth
I read an article sometime later, or perhaps it was before, that dentists were noticing more cracked teeth last year than usual. The result of stress held in the jaw, they said.
I told this to my sister and she told me that her old dentist had once recommended a nightguard to protect her teeth while she slept — but that he did so with a hint of condemnation. “What do you have to be stressed by at your age,” he wondered?
The stress is a thing, it has been this past year, but a nightguard will do nothing to stop it. The teeth grinding continues unbidden, a sign of our consciousness collecting detritus throughout the day, with nothing to protect us from them save a piece of plastic held between our teeth when we sleep.
But the sources of our stress are external. They come from the media, which has, over the course of the last four years proliferated into something alarmist — pouring into us every fear that could be unleashed from Pandora’s jar and whispering new furies into our ears by the minute.
And yet, if we look back on the past year, what can we say we gleaned from the news we so voraciously consumed? That there is a pandemic going on, that there are injustices we must face, that we need to vote for the world we want to see. The problems haven’t changed much in the past year. And yet we dwell in them as if trapped within the tangled limbs of Dante’s inferno.
I used to adore The New York Times. It was my favorite paper. I would get the print edition and read every page with a pot of green tea and a box of almond croissants. I adored articles about long-lost princes living in the jungles of India, Indigenous Peruvian musicians that rap in their native language, and long, overshared interviews with Elon Musk and Grimes.
I still admire their journalism, but their news has skewed increasingly dramatic over the years — and that has been done intentionally. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Times saw a 66 percent increase in profits by spiraling into every word (either spoken or tweeted) of our president, and as a result of their so-called “Trump bump” they kept doing it — and nearly every media outlet followed.
With the liberal media so consumed by their fury, the conservative media could do nothing but oppose it. The dueling forces of chaos clashing against one another like a war between winter and summer — and we were the collateral damage, watching every blow from down below, on the edge of our seats as to whether we should put on a dress or a snowsuit before stepping foot outside.
We’ve been doing this for a while. Over the past ten years, our Pulitzer Prize-winning books covered nationalism (1 book), cancer (3), fracking (1), racial injustice (2), mass eviction and poverty (1), ISIS (1), mass extinction (1), and weapons of mass destruction (1). There was only one prize-winning book during that period that focused on human progress rather than regress: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt.
This is the way the media works. We love the drama and we reward it. But we bear the consequences of it in our bones. In the gnashing of our teeth.
The speaking of evil
There was a time in the midsummer when I felt the effects of the media. Our hospitals became full and our phones were lighting up with alerts from the governor. Our stores were being boarded up out of apparent fear of civil unrest. But with each fear-based step, I was reminded of a picture I saw in the news about the 5.7 earthquake that hit Salt Lake City earlier last year.
It depicted a building collapsed to the ground, a pile of rubble strewn across the street — a historical building lost to the ravages of time. The ground tremored, it’s true. The water fell from my bathtub and the chandelier swung from my ceiling like a pendulum. But there was only one building in the city that toppled, and it was the one they photographed for the news.
We were shaken, but fine. Not a single dish fell from our shelves, nor did the mirror leaning against my wall stumble. And yet, if you lived outside of Salt Lake City and saw that picture in the news you would assume the worst — that our houses were collapsed and our livelihoods ruined — many of our friends and family members did. They called us throughout the day anxious for our welfare.
That is when I realized one fundamental truth: even if the world is 99 percent good, the news will report on the one percent that is not — it sells better that way. And, as an unfortunate consequence of that fact, we will dwell on that one percent as if the world is falling away from beneath our feet. And it will seep into our sanity.
Headline by headline, the media erodes our wellbeing. Perforating our thoughts with fear. Forcing us to hear things like “my friend’s co-worker died in his sleep last week and they don’t know why,” and then allowing that thought to permeate into our beings — reverberating around our skulls like a phantom. They were the same age as us, we think as we try to fall asleep, haunted by some new idea just because we happened to hear it.
But this is not a truth problem — it is a language problem. And the proliferation of that language problem. In the book Enlightenment Now, the author frames the truth in two ways, first using positive words then using negative words. Here are a few of them:
- Since the 18th century, life expectancy across the world has risen from 30 to 71. // In impoverished regions, life expectancy is still less than 60.
- Since the 18th century, the percentage of humans living in extreme poverty has fallen from 90 percent to 10 percent. // 700 million people still live in extreme poverty.
- Since the 18th century, the percentage of people living in democratic countries increased from 1 percent to 66 percent. // One-third of humans are still oppressed in autocratic states.
- Since the 18th century, women went from being able to vote in only one country to being able to vote in every country where men can vote save one. // A fifth of the American population believes women should return to traditional roles.
Strange how the words we use define how we feel. Both statements are true, and yet the positive ones fill us with the sense that we have made enormous human progress and the negative words fill us with the sense that we’re on the brink of collapse. This is why we can feel comforted and empowered by a positive, uplifting speech from a president, or fall into anxiety and depression by a negative or angrily delivered one.
As Barack Obama said in a keynote speech about human progress (and has repeated many times elsewhere): “If you had to choose one moment in history in which to be born, and you didn’t know in advance whether you were going to be male or female, which country you were going to be from, what your status was, you’d choose right now.”
The percentage of the world that is good is ever increasing. And the percentage of the world that is bad is ever decreasing. As Enlightenment Now reminds us, over the course of the last century, “people are getting healthier, wealthier, freer, happier, and better educated… [We’ve] emitted fewer pollutants, cleared fewer forests, spilled less oil, set aside more preserves, extinguished fewer species, [and] saved the ozone layer.”
As the book goes on to remind us, on the whole, we are living longer, better, safer, more equal lives. We work less than ever before, travel more than we were ever able to, experience more rights and personal freedoms than any generation before us.
We should protect against the small percentage that is bad. We should work to feed the world, to eradicate poverty and hunger, to increase opportunities for every person. We should protect the environment. We should make the world better for the next generation. We should make that small percentage of the world that is bad even smaller.
But we should also remember that the world is getting better. That we are already living in the best version of it that has ever existed. That there is so much light in the world already. And that drawing ourselves down into the mire will do nothing to abate the darkness that still exists.
The right speech
There’s a thread of thought that traces its way through Plato’s republic, into the ideologies Confucianism, carries on through Renaissancian ideals of humanism, and comes out through modern psychology. It was known by the Greeks as eudaimonia, by the Buddhists as right speech, and by the APA as positive psychology. The idea is simple: that the words we use create our reality.
We saw this play out during the pandemic. Though we were dealing with a shared experience, some of my friends turned it into an opportunity, while others fell into despondency. Around those others, I felt as though I weren’t allowed to be happy. Like I had to think about last year as a communal depression even though that wasn’t my experience of it at all — it was one of the best years of my life.
I don’t negate the suffering — nor were we exempt from it. My husband had to get emergency surgery twice last year, we both got COVID and had to quarantine for a month. But suffering exists and always will, and we are allowed to be happy in the face of it. If we fill our lives with negative words we will live in a negative reality, and if we fill our lives with positive words we will live in a positive reality.
Personally, I wanted to unclench my teeth. I wanted to focus on the Utopia we are building, rather than become mired by the Dystopia. That’s why at some point last year I decided to step away from the “wrong speech.” I canceled my subscription to The New York Times, I unsubscribed to The Skimm. I haven’t read an ounce of “news” in at least six months — and honestly, I haven’t spent as much time with people that dwell in that depression.
Instead, I filled my life with the “right speech.” I subscribed to Delayed Gratification, Kinfolk, and Interview magazines. I filled my nightstand (and by that, I mean Kindle library) with books on things I want to learn about like A Promised Land, The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life, How to Do Nothing, This Could Be Our Future, The Longing for Less. I subscribed to newsletters I love like The Commonplace, Maybe Baby. I focused on spending time with people who were positive influences in my life.
I read books instead of newspapers. I read Medium or the Kindle app on my phone instead of scrolling social media or refreshing a news feed. To this day, I am not aware of what is going on in the news cycle right this moment unless it is irreverently pantomimed on Saturday Night Live (though I will read about it three months from now in Delayed Gratification). I know it seems strange to be apart from the news cycle, but it seems even stranger to be attached to it — as though by reading about what is going on in the world we are somehow helping it.
We are not.
We are only becoming stressed by it, we are only becoming angered by it — and that does nothing to help a world that feels increasingly stressful and increasingly angry. Not when what we really need is the right speech, eudaimonia, positive psychology. When what we need is to see the beauty, and surround ourselves with it. When what we need is to walk across the waters and hire a dentist who will not give us a nightguard but will help us unclench our teeth.
That is the kind of life I’m after. I want to enjoy a cup of tea, lay down in that cerulean dream for a good rest, and melt into the masterpiece that is humanity and the miracle that is existing. And for me, that means hitting unsubscribe on anything that dwells in the negative and hitting subscribe on the positive.