Monday, December 13, 2010

Balance in a world of agonies

I've been reading a book I borrowed from my dad: My War by Andy Rooney. Yes, the same Andy Rooney who's on 60 Minutes, or used to be—I haven't seen that show in ages so I'm uncertain as to whether Andy still offers his curmudgeonly commentaries there. Anyway, it's an interesting, sometimes funny, often brutal and upsetting account of Andy's time as a war correspondent during WWII.

A first-hand account of what someone sees during bloody wartime makes for some pretty awful stories. I wouldn't say the book is fun to read, because it's not. Parts of it are fun, parts are entertaining (his opinionated reports on George Patton and Ernest Hemingway are downright laughable), and parts of it are stomach-turning because they include factual accounts of death scenes I couldn't imagine in my worst nightmare.

Why am I reading this book? Well, I need to know more about American history, for one thing; I seem to be the member of my family most lacking in general historical knowledge. For another, I like Andy Rooney's style; I admire his succinct and sometimes caustic delivery. Lastly, I live in such an innocent little suburban bubble that I feel the need to expose myself to reality. Unpleasant, messy reality.

That sort of reality doesn't exist only in the past, as you well know. It's all around us. You can't turn on the news without hearing of death and destruction, fire and floods, murders and terrorists. Our world is a scary place. I can tune out and live in my bubble, but in order to exist in our culture, I have to expose myself to news coverage at least somewhat, especially if I want to know when the snowstorm is coming.

I guess if we want to live a balanced life, we need a little bit of both worlds: the dangerous place all around us versus the good place where most of us are blessed to be regularly. I read a book like the Andy Rooney account, and then I read an easier, happier, more escapist novel that gives me a little boost. Recently, I re-read The Secret Garden. That's a feel-good kind of story, and pretty much the antithesis of a war memoir.

I try to take the same approach to daily media consumption. Do I need to know that there are people in the world who are capable of burying a child alive? Is it necessary to hear that another drug deal went bad and someone was shot in the face? Must I be advised of a deadly dog attack, see pictures of a vandalized cemetary, or know the details of a little boy's drowning in a septic tank?

I don't know. I certainly don't want this information. Yet neither do I want to live so blissfully and ignorantly that I'm unaware of the fallen world around me. If I don't hear the bad news, perhaps the video of a soldier's homecoming won't touch me as deeply. If I'm never reminded of the evil that surrounds us, perhaps I'll forget to teach my child wariness of odd strangers or unfamiliar dogs. If I don't read the stories of tremendous casualties during combat, I might never truly appreciate a serviceman's duty done well, or the scars that service leaves.

We have to find balance. We have to be careful, because what you put in your mind stays there. If you fill it with gore, violence, and hatred, it will consume you. Likewise, if you fill it with mindlessness, with too many new cars and fashion and man-made fluff, it's probable you'll lose touch with real priorities. Lord knows it's easy to do that, with our silly, selfish, overly-comfortable lifestyles. It's important to read the comics; it's also important to read the headlines, the features stories.

I filter everything that comes into my world—books, papers, magazines, television, movies. You can't take something out once it lives in your mind. Be selective. Be perceptive. If something feels disturbing and wrong, walk away. I will forever be haunted by a taped 911 cell phone conversation I heard on a news show years ago: the last words of a woman who'd mistakenly driven off a bridge and into water, where she foolishly called 911 for help instead of getting out of the car immediately... That's a phone conversation I never wanted to hear, and it will never be out of my head.

Balance is difficult to achieve. I don't think I'll ever get it exactly right. I'm trying. Meantime, we watched It's a Wonderful Life the other night; it was nice to go there, and take a break from liberating the French countryside.

(Sorry—this is about as far from a light, Christmas-y post as you can get. But hey, Christmas is still almost two weeks away! Plenty of time left to be jolly! Now, where are those jingle bells!?)


Facie said...

Balance is something most of us struggle with, particularly parents. I recently stopped shielding Jordan from the bad in the world. When my kid was almost six and she thought only old people died (i.e., not kids), I knew I could not let her go on like that, as much as I wanted to. (Don't worry; I limit the bad stuff.)

There is so much crap out there, but you are exactly right when you say if you did not see the bad, you might miss/not appreciate the good.

As for It's a Wonderful Life, I saw it once only and was disturbed by a scene in which a character (Jimmy Stewart's?) was hit on the ear and it bled. Or something like that; I watched it about 17 years ago so can't remember. I know there is a good message there, but I unfortunately chose to focus on that one bad/negative aspect. Maybe I will watch it again...

chris h. said...

Mel, you know how I feel about veterans (particularly World War II vets)and I admire you reading the harsh account. Truly the Greatest Generation (which has been on my nightstand for months and I've only read a few stories). As for It's a Wonderful Life...the movie is such a paradox. You expect it to be this light uplifting movie, but there are so many moments of sadness and despair before you finally get to that (relatively short) happy ending. Yes, it's a wonderful movie (ha ha), but for sheer uplifting Christmas fun, I'll take Elf!