|Image courtesy of elward-photography|
via Creative Commons.
As a bibliophilic teenager and adult, I moved on to horror novels; Stephen King was one of my favorite authors. I also liked thrillers and would read about serial killers and truly gruesome murders, relatively unfazed, as I was so caught up in the story and the puzzle unfolding inside. I adored dystopian stories on page and screen, fascinated by the dark, hopeless futures predicted there.
The trouble was, I wasn't unfazed. As a child (and as an adult) I had violent nightmares almost nightly. I looked upon the world with a dark lens, simultaneously longing for connection and distrusting and disliking most people. I felt little joy, was quick to anger, and brought judgment to many of my interactions with others. (My husband said that one of the things that initially attracted him to me was my "dark aura." Yikes! Don't worry; we're both better now!)
I'm not sure how, but eventually it occurred to me that ingesting all this negativity and violence probably wasn't that good for me and might be affecting my worldview. But it wasn't until I read an essay in a Buddhist philosophy book that the connection between the kinds of media and messages we surround ourselves with and how we experience ourselves and the world became so clear to me. I realized that all the violence and horror that I was letting into my mind and heart were influencing the way I saw myself, others, and the world, and were hurting my ability to live a joyful, compassionate life.
So I stopped reading horror novels and watching gruesome movies. I stopped watching mainstream news. I stopped reading about serial killers. I stopped surrounding myself with images and messages of violence.
And I started filling those spaces with reading about living a joyful, mindful life and about characters and real people seeking a kinder, better way of living in the world. And eventually, I started noticing a difference in myself. I was more easily able to tap into joy, to empathize with other people, to feel compassion for those with whom I disagreed.
I'm not saying that reading or watching violence make us more prone to violence (though there are studies that support that view); nor am I saying that all exposure to violence and negativity should be avoided. But when we surround ourselves with violence and negativity, we're going to internalize much of that energy and be influenced by it. When we surround ourselves with positive messages, that, too, is going to have an impact. One great example of this is one of our icebreakers, called Human Picture. Volunteers make two collective human statues that depict positive and negative emotions, in order to help demonstrate that what we feel on the inside is reflected in our actions, so if we want to promote a just, compassionate, joyful world, we must be able to draw from a well of joy, compassion, and justice within us.
As humane educators who are inundated daily with examples of violence, oppression and destruction perpetrated on people, animals, and the earth, we cannot choose to ignore all the horrors that we're working to overcome. But we can make sure that we balance that by filling our lives with messages and experiences that enrich and feed the joy, compassion, and hope in us and by choosing to avoid the media and other messages that don't serve us in our journey to help create a better world for all.
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