I Read the News Today, Oh Boy
Reading the news is often the best way for a pessimist to confirm his priors about human nature. This week’s papers, for example, speak of the soaring violence of the Mexican drug war, rising civilian casualties in Kabul, Islamic State’s tactic of weaponizing the disabled by strapping bombs to them, and — as if all this wasn’t enough to sour a reader's belief in the supposed excellency of the human animal — a Chinese firm using miniskirted models posed alongside laser-guided missiles to advertise the awesome destructive power of drone technology. The news, in short, can be disturbing.
It can also disturb. Swedish immigrant children are reported to have fallen permanently unconscious when confronted with the news that they face deportation. Trump’s election in the United States has led to a spike in “post-election therapy.” There appears to be no limit to the destructive power of the news.
But it needn’t be so. We all have the option to respond to bad news like the Muscovites in today’s chapter. Reports of Napoleon’s approach has reached them and, yet, they continue on as they normally would. Tolstoy writes:
At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal power in the human soul: one very reasonably tells a man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of escaping it; the other, still more reasonably, says that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger, since it is not in man’s power to foresee everything and avert the general course of events, and it is therefore better to disregard what is painful till it comes, and to think about what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally listens to the first voice, but in society to the second. So it was now with the inhabitants of Moscow. It was long since people had been as gay in Moscow as that year.
This is a sensible response to troubling news. The Muscovites understand that are some events that lie outside the realm of their control. These events they treat with measured indifference and continue on with the things they do have control over. Important things like mocking Pierre for his eccentricities and fining each other for speaking French.
Keep this chapter in mind, then, during the next disturbing news story.
Whenever disturbing news is brought to you, be ready with this reflection, that news can never affect anything that lies within the sphere of choice.
Epictetus, The Discourses