Revolution and repression in the Arab world, natural and nuclear disaster in Japan. With so much upheaval in the news, just living your normal life can feel pretty insignificant. How petty to wonder why Editor X hasn’t gotten back to my agent about my book when people are being shot in the street for expressing a political opinion. How pointless to worry about wording in my work in progress when in Japan entire towns have been washed away and radiation keeps leaking from those damaged power plants.
You can’t stay ratcheted up for very long and stay sane. After the first flush of fascination with the uprisings in the Middle East, the story starts to get a little tired. After a few sleepless nights of picturing monstrous waves and deadly particles, the psyche resets. And as life returns to normal, a new concern emerges: guilt for not paying sufficient attention to the world’s troubles.
How much can you obsess over events outside your immediate life and completely beyond your control and remain healthy? How much can you abide the suffering of distant strangers and still be moral? What can we learn from all this?
Historians and political scientists, military strategists and others will be analyzing this Arab Spring for years to come, from all sorts of angles. Geologists, physicists, engineers public-health experts and others have much to learn from the March 10 earthquake and its horrendous after-effects. Lots of these lessons won’t be obvious for a long time to come.
As a writer, I’ve been drawn to the smaller, human dramas within these larger-than-life stories. As I hear the stories on the news, I try to imagine myself as the little boy riding on his father’s shoulders, leading the crowd in a chant. The mother who hasn’t heard from her son since he went off to face down the dictator’s army. The petty bureaucrat watching the growing crowds outside his government office. The grandmother spending her days in an evacuation center. The farmer destroying his spinach crop. The young woman whose home was swept away, taking her whole family with it.
I have also been paying attention to language.
Tweets encouraging the pro-democracy activists in Egypt cheered, Yalla! which means “hurry up” or, as in this context, “let’s go!”
A story about the Japanese people’s much-noted cooperation and calm in the face of emergency explained the term ganbatte, which might translate as “persevere,” “do your best” or “hold on.”
Let’s go! Hold on. Hurry up! Do your best. Yalla and ganbatte come from different cultures, and arise in different contexts. Both are good to have on hand, whether you’re dealing with a dictator or a natural disaster, or you just need to keep the more mundane challenges or ordinary life in perspective, and stay motivated.