The Sleepwalkers

 

Omri Ceren is a strategy adviser at the Israel Project. I met him at a conference once, a very sharp and likeable guy. I follow him on Twitter. About four hours ago, he wrote this:

 Asian econ collapse. European fragmentation due to debt crises. Westward Russian expansionism. Appeasment in C Europe. Who’s feeling good?

That’s a rhetorical question to which the answer, I would have said, is “no one.”

A close friend of mine works in the mental health field in London. We chat on the phone several times a week. In one of our recent conversations, I said casually that I was sure his patients were reporting a great deal of anxiety about events in the news. To my surprise, he said they were not. In fact, he said, it was extremely rare for anyone to mention a news event to him. “To my recollection,” he later wrote, “it happens about once or twice a year, so once in a thousand sessions.”

The only news events he could recall anyone bringing up, in his 30-year career, were those involving “the mass death of non-combatants caused by ill intent, so 9/11 and Lockerbie, yes. The tsunami no, not one mention.” He said no patient — not one — had ever mentioned elections in the UK or the US.

Obviously, he’s not polling a random sample of Londoners. The people who see him are a self-selected group, and by definition not in good mental health; they don’t go to see him because they’re feeling terrific and they need some help with that.

Still, I’m puzzling over this conversation, and wondering what it means, if anything. Does what he said surprise you? If so, why; if not, why not?

 

 

 

 

There are 34 comments.

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  1. Ricochet Moderator
    Ricochet
    @OldBathos

    People who avoid bathing in the news cycle are probably saner than those of us who do.  That the news-avoidant sample you mention is in treatment while we news-junkies are not (big generalization here about my Ricochet comrades–you obvious exceptions know who you are) may be viewed by future historians as one of the many ironies of the age.

    • #1
  2. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Hopefully, they are people who are working out real and personal problems.   If I am hospitalized for mental illness, I have more pressing things to worry about that Greek pensioners or the special election in Illinois.  One has to prioritize.

    • #2
  3. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    To most people in London, Asia, Greece, Russia, and Ukraine are all very far away.

    To most people in London, Labor vs Conservative means basically Tweedledum vs Tweedledee.  If you think Americans are cynical about politics, try the British.

    If you ask them how things are going in the world, they’ll probably tell you they’re going badly.  But they’re pretty sure they’ve been going badly for years upon years.  Why should it affect their lives more now?  The connection isn’t usually direct.  Even when people do connect the dots on an intellectual level, they often don’t emotionally.

    • #3
  4. user_352043 Moderator
    user_352043
    @AmySchley

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: Still, I’m puzzling over this conversation, and wondering what it means, if anything. Does what he said surprise you? If so, why; if not, why not?

    Not at all. I see a couple of mental health specialists myself, and we don’t talk about it either.

    Try to empathize with someone seeking mental health treatment. Maybe they have a biological problem. Maybe they’re out of work, or in work that doesn’t use their skills or pays enough money. Maybe they have debts that they wonder how they’ll ever repay.  Maybe they’re having relationship issues, of trust or lack of love or bad (if any) sex. Maybe they’re struggling with having kids or raising kids.  Maybe they’re searching for some kind of meaning in life in a secular world.

    Compared against all that, Grexit or the Chinese stock market crash or ISIS just don’t mean much.  They’re the White Walkers — you may think they’re a threat, but in the right here and right now you have more pressing things to worry about. Sure, one can stand back and say, “You fool! These things will mess up your life far more than whatever trivial thing you’re worrying about!” But the fact is that kids and marriages and jobs actually do have more of an impact on one’s life than the nobles and savages playing the game of thrones throughout the world.

    • #4
  5. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Oh Claire, you’re such a politics nerd.

    • #5
  6. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    Doesn’t surprise me at all. Most people don’t worry or feel anxiety about far away crises that they don’t fully understand and that they can do little to change. There is no use worrying about something you can’t change. And the tsunami is like a piano falling on your head while you are on a sidewalk: the odds of being caught in one are close to nil.

    Many people feel anxiety about other people’s suffering, for example in Syria now. But you can make yourself miserable as it goes on and on and on. Maybe that’s why most people have no interest in international news, except as they affect their daily lives.

    • #6
  7. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    I’m not sure that most of us experience news events personally unless they’re actually or at least potentially personal. We have friends in Greece, or offspring serving in Iraq, or cousins who bake or marry in Oregon. In fact, people who get freaked out by bad things that are happening to other people to the point where they are discussing these with their mental health professionals aren’t realistic or even empathetic; they’re projecting.

    I read an essay by a clergy colleague in which she described reacting to the news of the murders in Charlestown with a prolonged bout of angry weeping, balling up her fists, rolling around on the ground… and I know this was meant to convey the downright Biblical intensity with which a nice, white minister in New England confronts injustice/racism/guns/confederate flags, etc. it just made her sound (to me, anyway) solipsistic.

    In my experience, at least, the people most consistently likely to prioritize their own emotional response to other people’s problems (and expect others—e.g. therapists—to join them in this) are teenagers.

    • #7
  8. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Don’t the mentally ill have enough to worry about?

    The rest of us may be a bit anxious but there are coping mechanisms. You either become a prepper or you pray. Or you become fatalistic and say I’m going to live life to the fullest until the end.

    • #8
  9. David Knights Member
    David Knights
    @DavidKnights

    EJHill:Don’t the mentally ill have enough to worry about?

    The rest of us may be a bit anxious but there are coping mechanisms. You either become a prepper or you pray. Or you become fatalistic and say I’m goingto live life to the fullest until the end.

    Can I do both?  Prep and pray?  I know I should do more of both.

    • #9
  10. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    I suppose what strikes me is that assuming his experience is typical, it suggests that most people feel an extremely low sense of participation in political life. Not one person has mentioned elections in UK to him in a thirty-year career?

    There’s something odd to me about the idea of so many people feeling no emotional connection to the things they see and hear in the news. Amy, your comment suggests that people feel these “nobles and savages playing the game of thrones throughout the world” exist in another universe, and it sounds as if that could be right. But democracy is profoundly hollowed-out if that’s how people view it, isn’t it? 

    I’m groping at the thought that while we’ve in principle long since entered the era of mass politics, it still seems to feel to many people an elite and abstruse concern. Something about this is odd. Man is a political animal, or so I’d always thought. (Perhaps Aristotle needs another footnote.)

    • #10
  11. WI Con Member
    WI Con
    @WICon

    I’d argue that the reason lies in what your friend described to you but in an ‘inverted’ way. There’s a narcissism inherent in all people, more pronounced in “First World Societies” but even more pronounced in therapeutic populations here. Your friend only noted the increase when ‘they’ felt threatened, not strangers, other countries, other peoples.

    Long story short, he may not have seen an increase because they focus on themselves – if it doesn’t affect them, it’s not a problem (again, human nature but perhaps more pronounced here).

    • #11
  12. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    EJHill:Don’t the mentally ill have enough to worry about?

    The rest of us may be a bit anxious but there are coping mechanisms. You either become a prepper or you pray. Or you become fatalistic and say I’m goingto live life to the fullest until the end.

    Modern life as Groundhog Day. Have we learned we can’t save the homeless old alcoholic yet?

    • #12
  13. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Kate Braestrup: I’m not sure that most of us experience news events personally unless they’re actually or at least potentially personal. We have friends in Greece, or offspring serving in Iraq, or cousins who bake or marry in Oregon.

    Well, yes, exactly: We do have personal connections to these news events. They’re not complete abstractions, right?

    • #13
  14. user_352043 Moderator
    user_352043
    @AmySchley

    But is it really a negative narcissism? We’re conservatives, right? We think that human beings have limited knowledge and ability to remake the world to our liking. Well, given that, should we put effort in overcoming our depression, which can be fatal if left untreated and we can do something about, or should we worry about ISIS, which for all its bluster is unlikely to ever be able to affect is directly?

    We can’t solve all the world’s problems, even if we had unlimited resources and resolute will. Given that, is it really so surprising that most people choose to worry about things they might actually be able to affect?

    • #14
  15. Fake John Galt Coolidge
    Fake John Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Most of the people I know do not discuss politics at all, they are uninterested.  It is not part of their lives.  If think many of us call these people LIVs.  If you ask them why they are not interested they will ask you why they should be?  Their opinion means little, the powers that be will do what they want when they want as they want no matter how they feel about it.  Given recent SCOTUS decisions and other things that have happened over the last decade it may be that they have the right of it.

    • #15
  16. Fake John Galt Coolidge
    Fake John Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Kate Braestrup: I’m not sure that most of us experience news events personally unless they’re actually or at least potentially personal. We have friends in Greece, or offspring serving in Iraq, or cousins who bake or marry in Oregon.

    Well, yes, exactly: We do have personal connections to these news events. They’re not complete abstractions, right?

    Depends on the person.  Tell me what connection a single mother waitress in small town America has to an ISIS beheading?  basically none.

    On the other hand Claire B that writes about such things and may have friends and contacts in the area has some connection.

    • #16
  17. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: I suppose what strikes me is that assuming his experience is typical, it suggests that most people feel an extremely low sense of participation in political life. Not one person has mentioned elections in UK to him in a thirty-year career?

    Again, I think this, specifically, is largely because of sheer cynicism.  There are people who care, of course, but I wouldn’t expect that you would typically get that kind of emotional reaction about electoral politics in the UK.  Most people don’t think the elections make things so much worse because they figure they’re all pretty bad anyway.  Blair or Cameron, depending on your taste, is just the best of a bad lot if that… changing parties can’t make it all that much worse, or better.  There just isn’t quite as much emotional intensity as we see even here.  Or such has been my experience.

    Now the Scottish independence question had that intensity.  If you asked someone operating in Glasgow, perhaps, you might learn that he’d heard about that vote.

    • #17
  18. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Amy Schley:But is it really a negative narcissism? We’re conservatives, right? We think that human beings have limited knowledge and ability to remake the world to our liking. Well, given that, should we put effort in overcoming our depression, which can be fatal if left untreated and we can do something about, or should we worry about ISIS, which for all its bluster is unlikely to ever be able to affect is directly?

    I wouldn’t say should worry. I’m expressing surprise that people don’t worry in the same way. Whether ISIS is or isn’t likely to affect us directly is something we can debate separately, but we’re all affected by politics in some way, and modern political life is usually imagined to be participatory: in principle, at least, the authority of the government is created and sustained by the consent of its people.

    We may have a limited ability to remake the world to our liking, but it sounds as if many of us feel as if we’re passive viewers, with no ability to participate in a story larger than our family lives.

    I certainly wouldn’t expect people to talk only about news events to someone like my friend, but I’d expect there to be some reaction to events, and for the frequency of this correlate to the way people talk (and worry) about these things generally. The subject came up, of course, because as friends we were talking about these events. It struck me as odd that “mental health” and “news events” seemed to be very separate categories to the people he saw professionally. 

    We can’t solve all the world’s problems, even if we had unlimited resources and resolute will. Given that, is it really so surprising that most people choose to worry about things they might actually be able to affect?

    It seems surprising to me that people feel they have so little power to affect them.

    • #18
  19. TG Thatcher
    TG
    @TG

    I’m with those who suspect that people in therapy are much more likely to use their therapy time for their personal issues than to discuss current events.

    A tangential note about reasons why people may not discuss current events:  I have a friend with whom I rarely discuss politics and current events not because we don’t care, but because the two of us agree so thoroughly.

    • #19
  20. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    It seems surprising to me that people feel they have so little power to affect them.

    Maybe they read this?

    • #20
  21. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Real Jane Galt: Depends on the person.  Tell me what connection a single mother waitress in small town America has to an ISIS beheading?  basically none.

    He and I weren’t specifically talking about ISIS beheadings, we’d actually been talking about the possibility of a Grexit and the effect it might have on the economy — personal to me, of course. When I said that many of his patients must be worried about the same thing, he said that he would be very, very surprised if anyone brought it up, and that only a few times in his memory had anyone spontaneously brought up “a news event.” But “a news event” — in our conversation — was an ill-defined term, and perhaps I should have asked him to define what he meant more precisely.

    A single mother waitress in small town America is, like all of us, apt to be personally connected to some news events but not others.

    • #21
  22. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Great Ghost of Gödel:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    It seems surprising to me that people feel they have so little power to affect them.

    Maybe they read this?

    Voting isn’t the only way we participate in political life.

    • #22
  23. user_352043 Moderator
    user_352043
    @AmySchley

    It seems surprising to me that people feel they have so little power to affect them.

    Well, as for me and my house, years of failing to get my body to accomplish the biological task it was designed to do have left me quite humble about my ability to control anything else.

    And I’m surprised you’re surprised. I mean really, what is the point of worrying about Greece? If you’re Greek, well, sure, worry about whether the money you have under your mattress or in the bank will be worth anything. But if you’re French? Your opinion doesn’t matter. Greece will be bailed out or not bailed out by people whom you cannot vote for, even if they felt bound to be delegates of the people’s will.

    • #23
  24. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Kate Braestrup: I’m not sure that most of us experience news events personally unless they’re actually or at least potentially personal. We have friends in Greece, or offspring serving in Iraq, or cousins who bake or marry in Oregon.

    Well, yes, exactly: We do have personal connections to these news events. They’re not complete abstractions, right?

    Right. When 9/11 happened, I experienced it as personally, viscerally upsetting (nauseating, sleep-depriving)  not because “people” were being hurt and killed —which is terrible and sad, and hopefully drives me to prayer and action, but not puking—but because I have relatives and friends in New York and especially friends in the NYPD whose well-being I couldn’t check up on for some weeks after the attacks.

    This also has to do with the nature of therapy: I was going to a therapist back in 2006-7, and was discussing with him all sorts of issues and concerns. What I completely forgot to mention was that I’d had a book accepted for publication that was causing a big stir in New York publishing. At some point, I said something like “well, and next week I have to go to New York to put in an appearance at the book expo” he was a little hurt that I  hadn’t mentioned what he considered to be a really big event in my life. And it was, but unlike my issues with my mom or whatever, this apparently wasn’t something I needed a shrink to help me with.

    One way to look at it, I guess, is that if a therapist is in the category of “doctor,’ it’s no more peculiar not to mention the U.K. elections to him than it would be to fail to mention them to your orthopedist. You tell the orthopedist about your knee pain, and only occasionally would a news issue—say, a referendum on the quality of the city sidewalks —arise in your conversation.

    Do therapists ever ask about current events, politics, stuff in the newspaper? I remember being asked about my relationship with my parents, or major losses or traumas in my life, but I can’t remember ever being asked “so, are you a Democrat or a Republican? How did you feel about the 2012 elections?” Do a therapist’s questions set, or at least strongly imply the boundaries for what is relevant in the context of the 50 minute hour?

    I know that pastoral counselors and Christian counselors are distinguishable from other therapists because they deliberately bring up questions of faith (e.g. “where do you see God in this situation?” and “have you prayed about this?”). I wonder if there is (or should be/could be) a therapist who advertised herself/himself as “politically conservative.” Would the therapy then be understood to include discussions about the personal impact of public events?

    • #24
  25. Quinn the Eskimo Member
    Quinn the Eskimo
    @

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:There’s something odd to me about the idea of so many people feeling no emotional connection to the things they see and hear in the news. Amy, your comment suggests that people feel these “nobles and savages playing the game of thrones throughout the world” exist in another universe, and it sounds as if that could be right. But democracy is profoundly hollowed-out if that’s how people view it, isn’t it?

    A lot of people believe that because Rome has been world power since for centuries, that it will always be a world power.  And then, one day, Rome falls.

    In general, it does not bother me, to the extent that I think a certain amount of equanimity is common in human nature.  Right or wrong, people in affluent stable societies think things will work themselves out.  And things seem ok, until the day they aren’t.

    • #25
  26. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Voting isn’t the only way we participate in political life.

    True, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the phenomenon scaled down, at least to urban megalopoli like Los Angeles, pretty well. But I suppose this is just making the subsidiarity point again: it feels like it makes more sense to be politically engaged as Paul when I know Peter and Mary are too, trust their judgment, and just accept that at any scale larger than our neighborhood, some mechanism like voting is the most efficient way to aggregate those judgments. And I think this is why voter fraud matters: because it strikes at the heart of this aggregation of subsidiarity. If we thought our fellow voters were bad actors, why would we care if bad actors subverted the election?

    • #26
  27. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SoDakBoy

    A

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Real Jane Galt: Depends on the person. Tell me what connection a single mother waitress in small town America has to an ISIS beheading? basically none.

    A single mother waitress in small town America is, like all of us, apt to be personally connected to some news events but not others.

    Right.  So what might she be connected to?  A son serving in the military.  A family member who farms in drought stricken California?  A firefighter serving in the Canadian wilderness?  The possibility she may lose her job if minimum wage is increased?  The possibility she may miss a house payment if her benefits are cut?

    It’s pretty easy to come up with ways politics could have an impact on a person’s level of anxiety.  Still, I believe your friend who says mental health patients do not discuss politics in relation to their anxieties.  Perhaps the lack of a connection to mental health discussions relates more to the nature of mental health issues rather than saying anything about the general public’s level of civic engagement.

    Or, it is a statement that the only politics that have an impact on one’s state of mind are the politics of the neighborhood, rather than the nation.  This is probably relatively true even if the national issues (ie national minimum wage) have a fairly direct impact on your own neighborhood.

    • #27
  28. Retail Lawyer Member
    Retail Lawyer
    @RetailLawyer

    If I had a mental health professional, I would certainly mention anxiety caused by current events.  The great recession has made my life much more stressful, and I was just livid about having my health plan cancelled and forced onto an incompetent government website to get a replacement at twice the cost and half the value.

    But even more abstract events, like having a federal government incapable of recognizing adversaries for what they are and lying about almost everything really bothers me.

    Maybe my life is too good.  I’m not foreclosed on, no health problems, no wife running off with a hippy to join Occupy Whatever.

    But yes, what your London friend surprises me very much.

    • #28
  29. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: I said casually that I was sure his patients were reporting a great deal of anxiety about events in the news. To my surprise, he said they were not. In fact, he said, it was extremely rare for anyone to mention a news event to him. “To my recollection,” he later wrote, “it happens about once or twice a year, so once in a thousand sessions.”

    People are generally pretty rational.

    This shows it.

    But it also might be indicative of who is out of “touch” really. Claiming calamity every time something happens in a place where something always happens and is always expected to happen, isn’t a good idea.

    Yawn, is generally the right response to these things.

    Things for conservatives to keep in mind if they plan n running in 2016 on “foreign policy” issues: nobody cares.

    • #29
  30. ParisParamus Inactive
    ParisParamus
    @ParisParamus

    Did you see TMZ today? No mention of anything about China, Iran or Russia. TMZ is great!

    • #30
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