Woman reading book in the outdoors

Rachel Hadas for the Conversation: Catastrophe overload? Read philosophers and poetry instead of headlines

Rachel Hadas writes for The Conversation:

For almost two years now, Americans have been confronted daily by ominous tidings. We are living through stressful times. Reading the news feels awful; ignoring it doesn’t feel right either.

Psychologist Terri Apter recently wrote about the “phenomenon in human behavior sometimes described as ‘the hive switch,’ where "catastrophic events eliminate selfishness, conflict and competitiveness, rendering humans as co-operative as ultra-social bees.”

But if hurricanes, earthquakes or volcanoes trigger the hive switch, does this principle hold for man-made catastrophes?

What about the immigration policy that has been separating children from their parents? School shootings, suicides, ecological disaster?

What about the flood of frightening and infuriating news that splashes against us daily?

In response to all this, people are hardly swarming into a cooperative hive. On the contrary, our human qualities of imagination, alertness and compassion seem to be turning against us. To imagine the suffering of our fellow beings and the future of our beleaguered planet provokes rage, dread and an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

What, if anything, can we do?

Listen to Seneca and Epictetus

Rage and dread can morph into political activism, but it’s hard not to feel that any change is too little and too late.

The children who have been separated from their parents, for example, even if they’re all reunited, which doesn’t seem likely, will bear the psychic scars for the rest of their lives, as physician Danielle Ofri has pointed out eloquently in Slate.

How should people react to rising suicide rates? Perhaps, judging from much recent coverage, the most we can hope to do is muster enough insight and hindsight to try to prevent the next one.

Poems like “Empathy” and “Not My Son” aren’t comfortable to read, nor were they, presumably, very comfortable to write. But they represent a measure of what some of us who happen to be poets can do; and I’d rather take in the frightening news as these poets thoughtfully and eloquently present it than gobble down headlines raw.

Yet this spring’s exhaustive coverage of a pair of celebrity suicides – Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade – sent me back to the Stoic philosophers, thinkers who flourished, particularly in Rome, in the first and second centuries. Uninterested in abstruse speculations, these philosophers stressed ethics and virtue; they were concerned with how to live and how to die. Stoic psychology offered and still offers help working with the mind to calm our anxieties and help us to fulfill our function as human beings.

Both Bourdain and Spade, creative and successful personalities, icons of glamour and achievement – particularly Bourdain, whose restless and courageous explorations of various corners of the world inspired countless viewers and readers – turned out to have been vulnerable people.

William B. Irvine, whose 2009 “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” I’ve been rereading, usefully distills from his four favorite Stoic writers, Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus and Marcus Aurelius, two salient Stoic techniques for combating dark thoughts. I’ll continue this teaching tradition by distilling Irvine.

The advice of writers like Seneca and Epictetus feels remarkably germane. The kinds of misery that are often mentioned in connection with suicidal impulses, such as fear and anxiety, are perennial components of the human condition. When we speak of a suicidal person wrestling with demons – a word as old as Homer – that’s what we’re talking about.

The Stoics teach that you can try to counter your demons – not with talk therapy, let alone pharmaceuticals, but by working with your mind.