Living Well in a Messed Up World

"It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine."
Song lyric by R.E.M.

From untruth lead me unto truth,
from darkness lead me unto light,
from death lead me unto life everlasting.
Hindu prayer translated by Mahatma Gandhi

If you pay attention to the news it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the world is a mess. Some really horrible events happen. We never hear about most of the horrible things that happen quietly behind closed doors or far away from reporters and their cameras, but when the media gets a hold of a dramatically bad event we hear about it for days, maybe weeks. Sometimes we hear about it for months. The really big bad events come back to the TV and newspapers for years.

We can easily become overloaded with thoughts and images of all the evil and danger in the world. For most of the life of humanity, people lived in small groups, usually not more than a few dozen people. All they had to deal with was their own misery. Their chances of dying young or losing their loved ones was high, but they didn’t hear much about the rest of the world. Their concerns were local and personal. Our nervous systems evolved to pay attention to danger and respond to it in a way that would ensure our personal survival. They were not designed to respond to every trauma and disaster that occurs on the planet every day.

If we are constantly exposed to bad news that we can’t apparently do anything about, we may become numb to the suffering of others, or we may become angry or depressed. We might even take to watching professional wrestling.

The never ending exposure to bad news and the apparent inability of anybody to fix the problems can lead to fatalism or nihilism. We may come to feel, "There’s nothing I can do about it, so why bother?" or "Things are so bad we might as well just tear it all down." These aren’t healthy or helpful attitudes, so what are we to do?

We might begin by recognizing the illusionary quality of the news. News coverage is not balanced nor representative of reality. It features the dramatic, the dangerous, and the tragic, because that is what people will watch. People will pay money to watch car racing, but not to watch a steady flow of automobile traffic. We will watch news that features the exciting, the disturbing and the horrible, because that’s what our minds are drawn to. We won’t watch stories of pleasant, but mundane everyday life, so the media doesn’t show that. We don’t have to be angry at the media for giving us sensationalism, but we can recognize that the media representation of life is not the whole story.


Look at life in a more balanced way. Be watchful for the nice things that happen. Notice when the system works, or a person in authority does something out of integrity. Take note when you see kindness and beauty. Acknowledge that evil and tragedy will always exist, but don’t be discouraged by that. Goodness and love will also always exist, as long as we open our hearts.

Moderate your exposure to crassness, violence and horror. Watching trashy talk shows, violent "reality" news shows, or movies that frighten you has an effect on your nervous system. They influence your beliefs about the nature of the world, and probably not in a good way. They are stimulating, but not enriching. They may wake you up, but they don’t help you to be grounded. They may make you aware of parts of life you aren’t familiar with, but do they give you wisdom?

Look beyond the surface of events. What is the relationship of the events in life to the conditions that preceded them? Criminal behavior, for instance is not unfathomable. It arises out of certain environmental conditions, including problems with childhood nurturing and education. If we can understand the nature of our social problems, perhaps we can find some solutions.

Be centered. Practice meditation to settle your mind. Allow it to clear the clutter of thoughts. Use meditation to see the nature of reality more clearly.

Use prayer to stay connected with the ultimate reality. Attune to that which is beyond sound and image, beyond opinion. Pray for wisdom. Pray for compassion.

Engage the world. Become involved in some activity that makes the world a better place. Nothing counters pessimism better than active involvement in constructive action. Joy is a result of finding meaning in life. A meaningful life is one that embraces some form of service.

"Cultivate Virtue in your self,
And Virtue will be real.
Cultivate it in the family,
And Virtue will abound.
Cultivate it in the village,
And Virtue will grow.
Cultivate it in the nation,
And Virtue will be abundant.
Cultivate it in the universe
And Virtue will be everywhere."

Tao Te Ching

To the Meditation Archive Menu

To the current Meditation of the Week


© 1999-2002 Tom Barrett