Emily Articulated

Ignorance and engagement

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

There are periods of time when I allow myself to “check out” of current affairs. It’s a purposeful ignorance I adopt when heaviness is already in my day-to-day — needing no encouragement to derail my sense of ease and wellbeing — or when my thinking simply requires recalibration to a perspective on the world that isn’t colored by doom and gloom.

I recognize my incredible privilege in being able to turn off engagement with big issues; these colossal affairs that so often become the molds in which many people must fit their entire lives. I’m lucky because I am able to — and routinely do — create distance between myself and the kaleidoscope of headlines, scandals and breaking stories that can so easily inundate my life. 

Emily Erickson.

In these periods of ignorance, I invest in the rituals and connections that make me feel good, repairing and reinforcing my cocoon of worldly rightness before re-engaging with a planet-worth of problems. I start my days with gentle books and hot coffee; take long walks with friends discussing childhoods, big dreams and business ideas; seek out acts of service and examples of everyday kindness; and spend introspective time reflecting on what’s important to me and the kind of life I want to continue forging.

Inevitably, though, these periods of ignorance are meant to be temporary. As much as there is goodness, beauty and peace to be found and created, there is also injustice, tragedy and unrest. Remaining permanently isolated from the plights of others and the state of the world is the irresponsible edge of privilege.

I’m either nudged out of my ignorance gently — intentionally dipping into engagement by tuning in to a local news story or listening to a human-interest or narrative-based podcast (their scale entirely more digestible than national and global news headlines). Or I’m jarringly ripped from apathy by a story too pervasive to be ignored, a first-hand interaction with injustice or witnessed bigotry, or by an obstinate debater too eager to flood a conversation with controversy to consider if it’s welcome.  

When I am afforded the space to be intentional about my engagement with current affairs, I follow a set of prompts to guide my thinking — a playbook to cope with the fact that there are simply too many problems in the world for me to hold, let alone impact. 

I first ask myself, “Does [insert problem here] affect me?” Because of the ease in which we can receive news — from all corners of the world (and beyond) — we are often presented with problems as if they all have equal relevance to our lives. As social creatures, we have evolved to care about the plights of others. But this evolution hasn’t accounted for our relatively recent ability to tune in, not just to the hardships facing us and our close neighbors, but for an entire population well beyond our reach. So, being mindful of a problem’s actual — rather than perceived — proximity to our lives, becomes an essential first step in engaging with it.

To this question of a specific problem’s effect on me, I can answer, “Yes”; “No, but I still care”; or “No, and I give myself permission to move on.” If my response is either of the first two, my next question is, “What can I do about it?”

In this, there are two factors to consider: how much bandwidth I am willing to allocate toward this problem and at which scale I can have the most effect. 

Bandwidth is the amount of time and energy I have available to direct toward influencing a problem, and scale is the level at which I can direct that bandwidth. On the low end and at a small scale, I may only have the bandwidth to hold space for grief, anger or sadness toward a “big issue,” or to donate to a local organization dedicated to addressing that problem in my community. On the high end, and at a large scale, I could apply for a job at a national organization and devote my life to creating global change around that problem.

So, finally, when engaging with the big issues and current affairs, I ask myself, “What’s my move?”

Creating boundaries around how I participate in issues, making space for both action and impact and reflection and inaction, helps make engagement feel a little less nebulous and little more productive — all until I retreat again into a cyclical and sometimes necessary bubble of blissful ignorance.

Emily Erickson is a writer and business owner with an affinity for black coffee and playing in the mountains. Connect with her online at www.bigbluehat.studio.

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