After the birth of my third child in July, I was hit with debilitating postpartum anxiety. Exhausted and sleep deprived, I nonetheless spent the darkest hours of each night wide awake, while the house slept on, mind whirring with horrific possibilities.
During Mass, instead of submerging into the liturgy, I would imagine a man walk through the doors and start calmly shooting my fellow parishioners. I tried to drag my attention back to the altar, but it pulled against me, toward the unlikely nightmare, and I submerged there instead, mentally running through various avenues of escape, scenarios that would somehow enable my son to survive – the infant cocooned against my chest in a carrier, protected from imaginary bullets only by a thin layer of stretchy cotton and the flesh of my body. So, not protected at all.
It was around this time – once the anxious monster in my skull robbed the Mass of its peace – that I chose to disengage from the world. I stopped reading the news, stopped the endless thumb-scroll through daily litanies of sorrow from around the globe, sorrows that fed my mental monster, no matter how far removed. I checked out, completely. I stopped reading about the latest Hollywood rapist, the latest blood-feud in Washington, the latest domestic tragedy, the latest global atrocity.
When I traveled cross-country recently for my grandfather’s funeral, I had to fake my way through small talk with strangers, leaning on vague phrases – “Oh, I know,” “Yeah, tell me about it” – shaking my head as if I did know, as if I didn’t need to be told about it. Could I believe the weather happening on the east coast? No, I couldn’t. The only weather I could believe, the only weather I knew, was the weather outside my front door.
I steered clear of Facebook, which is its own strange minefield, photos of chubby babies and too-flattering selfies alongside headlines of horror – headlines of articles that few actually read, but we share them anyway, to at least feel like we’ve done something; we’ve shown that we’re woke, we’re aware.
What is the value of this fleeting mass awareness? The news cycle, after all, must keep churning.
I’m not entirely sure.
I’m now being treated for the postpartum anxiety, and life is ebbing back to normal, but I’ve continued fasting from the news. Because of this, I feel more attuned to the duty of the present moment, more attentive to the small joys and ordinary sorrows of the world within walking distance.
Still, I feel vague and intermittent guilt about my ignorance of current events, as if I’m shirking a civic duty, maybe even a religious one, by living in a smaller sphere. I ask myself: how can I pray about these horrors if I don’t hear about them? And I tentatively answer: I can pray nonetheless, for redemption and peace, and for the people I know. Let the Church hold and carry the afflictions of the earth, because my hands are too small. I’m not, after all, praying alone.
Sometimes I find myself imagining what a medieval parish life would have been like. A romanticized version, no doubt. But I think of the ordinary man tilling out his mark in the soil, the ordinary woman sewing a garment for the baby she hopes will live to wear it. I think of them taking the small trek to their parish church, seeing the same people there they’ve known all their lives, for better or worse. They take the body of Christ and return home, ignorant of the latest political maneuverings in the Vatican, ignorant maybe even of the current pontiff’s name. And are they the worse for it? Christ still comes in the Mass, regardless.
Is the voracious consumption of information a virtue? Is seeking not to know a vice?
I had dinner with a friend the other night, and he was talking about how modern buildings are sometimes designed to be seen from an airplane’s view, rather than from the perspective of someone on the ground. Maybe that’s a good metaphor. Is it better to see the world from above while speeding along? To have a vast scope, but at an impossible distance?
Or is it permissible, even beneficial, to know the world at dirt-level? To have a sightline that only goes so far, but the faces within it are familiar and clear?