First Published on Medium.
As my friend made her way to my door, she brushed past a harmless looking fleshy green nopales cactus (which I’d always chalked up as a mystery variety). Later when we sat talking, she sharply lifted her hand from her thigh shooting me a confused look. As she held her palm out towards me, we both saw tiny brown thorns embedded in her skin. On her pant leg, there was a dark patch where hundreds of thorns clung to her. A longtime resident of this desert, she took a deep sigh, rolled her eyes and asked me for tweezers.
Slowly tweezing out each thorn, we sat huddled under the brightest light we could find and caught up on what was happening in our lives. Every once in a while, we’d pause and laugh about how annoying this was. I felt horrible, yet, as we sat there, tweezing out thorn after thorn, I also realized how nice it was to spend some in-person time together talking and sharing.
I had been so busy lately that any energy I used on socializing was mostly spent passively skimming through social media. As we peeled the last of the thorns away from her pants with tape, I promised to trim the cactus back a safe distance from the walkway.
Later when I set up to trim the cactus, I was prepared with all the tools — a shovel, tree clippers and a small saw. Normally, when trimming a nopal with tree clippers, the flesh of the pad is tough, hard to slice through. However, this cactus easily yielded, deceptive in its surrender. Slightly overconfident at how easy it was to trim I scooped up a large section of cactus with a shovel to throw in the trashcan. Suddenly a gust of wind blew across the yard. Thousands of tiny thorns flew downwind onto me like a fine mist. Overwhelmed and humbled I cautiously dusted off what I could before going inside to shower and tweeze out any remaining thorns.
Tweezed and thorn free I settled in to rest on the sofa and pulled up my social media. Hundreds of pieces of information swept into my awareness creating a shower of discomfort.
Before social media, information came at me in a more singular way. Talking on the phone with my Grandma, she’d share family news. Cable news stations highlighted stories as headlines flashed below. At local activist meetings, we’d hear about how efforts were working towards affecting local change.
Even though information could be more limited, the world then didn’t seem any less huge. The biggest difference now is how information comes. I can’t imagine, back in the day, watching the news there’d be a story about how my Tio got lost in Costco alongside images of displaced refugees fleeing their country. But that’s exactly how social media works. Stories of devastation above baby pictures below a local call for action.
The world has always been big and full of justice/ injustice. Yet, engaging with social media feels more like trimming back the nopal. Hundreds of tiny stories scattering, seemingly at random. I don’t know when I open that app what I’m going to come in contact with. Some news stories I can brush off. Others take hours of careful attention to expel. Some I ignore. I hope they fall off on their own, only wincing when I brush my skin and still feel them there. Even happy news or news of loved ones can get lost in my feeling of being overwhelmed.
How do we choose what gets our attention, especially when stories range from long-term conflicts, to current events, to my friend’s personal post? How do we choose what to pick up and what to not?
I am challenged about how to balance staying connected to people I love, with knowing what is happening in the world outside of my direct sphere of influence. Days where my body and heart are exhausted, I know learning of a new horrible thing which has happened feeds despair instead of solidarity. I needed mechanisms to engage in social media to meet my needs in a more balanced way. To create a system to help me manage information.
First, I wanted to stay aware of national and international news, yet also to make the choice that was what I was taking part in. I decided to subscribe to my local paper. I found by limiting international/national news to what I read in the paper once a week I could then use discipline to only read stories on social media around specific areas I cared about or had the ability to contribute energy to in some way. I’ve been trying to limit myself to one or two social media stories a week.
With national news, besides what I read in the paper, I read a condensed on-line summary once a day from a source I trust (who links to all of their sources). This has allowed me to be up on major political news. The best part of this system is the pause I now take before clicking on a story. I ask myself, “Do I have capacity for this information in this moment?”
Activist elders I’ve talked to have always affirmed that we have the most impact locally. So, when I set about creating my system, I decided that I would try to contribute most of my time/energy locally. For local news, I follow the social media updates from local activists and my personal networks.
While the news exists as thorns of information for me, people’s perspectives are like the salve for this pierce of discomfort. I get most sidetracked with other people’s attempts to explain this world we live in.
I crave the kind of reflection that offers a broader perspective on what I feel confused about or upset about in the moment. Yet, perspective pieces can be soothing or a thorn which really gets under my skin. Until I read a piece, it’s hard to know if it is just a rant or a post that provides a bigger perspective.
Before I click on opinion pieces or essays exploring a topic, I try and pause to ask myself, “Who is posting this piece? Do they typically share thoughtful work? Are they someone I could discuss it with later?” I also pay attention to the author of the piece. When I find a writer doing deeper work, I make an effort to follow them.
Through these small steps I’m slowly learning the best ways to thoughtfully engage. I understand part of self-care is respecting my limits of time and energy and devoting what I can, to what I care about most. I have to trust others to do the same.
We must be our own guardians, creating our own protective gear and choosing the best ways we can to engage with information which drifts on social media like a cloud of tiny flying thorns.
How do you manage in the instant information age? Share your thoughts and tips in the comments below.