-Professor Tim Blackmore
I bet you’ve been given a drug for something and you’ve heard the phrase “there may be some unwanted side effects.” Actually, there are side effects for everything that happens in life. What drug companies mean is that there are effects they want (you’ll be cured or at least feel better), and then there’s the unwanted crud—you feel like human phlegm.
When you come to university and work toward a degree like MIT, there are going to be effects, and also side effects. The effects are great. Your ability to analyze, write and speak about media will shoot through the roof.
But what about the side effects? In MIT classes we talk about upsetting things like how information and technology can be controlled, who controls them, what happens when they get out of control. What if the issues make you depressed or anxious? Well here’s a story about that.
I teach, research and write about war. I’ve been doing that for the last 30 years. I started reading about war not because I loved stories of combat or believe that war makes people the “best they can be” (to paraphrase an old war ad).
I started reading veterans’ stories because I wanted to understand how people could survive horrible anxiety. I was trying to solve the same problem in my own life. For years I’d suffered from agoraphobia, which is fear of pretty much everything.
I’ve learned that everyone is anxious, some of us much more than others. Everyone is afraid of something. But culturally we don’t want to face our fears. We’d rather be distracted, entertained, diverted. We’d rather hide, just the way I did.
Look how consumed we are by (and how much we consume) other peoples’ lives. According to media scholar Ethan Zuckerman, Kim Kardashian is pretty much the most important person in the world right now. Here’s a citation to prove me right. Also here’s a picture of Kim K. in case you’ve never seen one before.
Zuckerman’s numbers show that a famine or terrible disaster is something we can’t stand to look at. Even Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army was only worth 7.7 Kardashians (check out Zuckerman for more). What did you do first? Look at the picture of KK or read Zuckerman’s article?
We love to be obsessed with the Kardashians (and other rich, unimportant human beings) because we’re afraid. We’re so scared of being alone, having fear, feeling anxious, dying, that we do pretty much anything to distract ourselves.
Our celebrities are famous because they’re celebrities. They got famous from being rich and sex-tape famous. They’re entertaining, they appall us, and maybe we sort of envy them. Also, they help us blow more time Tweeting, Snapchatting, Instagramming each other about them instead of having to deal with being afraid (or read about a famine).
So: What to Do?
- Realize everyone is afraid. It isn’t just you. Fear is wired to protect us from the world. But it also makes us feel lousy, and who likes that?
- Practice relaxation. Get an app that guides you through meditation or what is called progressive relaxation. Don’t wait. It’s easy if you practice just a few minutes every day.
- Talk to people. I don’t mean text, Skype, or other digistuff. I mean sit down with actual human beings and talk about the heavy stuff you’re thinking about. You’ll find out they’re burdened, too, and that you’re in good company.
- Collaborate, don’t compete. Forget competition. It’s a waste of everyone’s energy. Listen to people who also listen to you. Offer help, even for the smallest things. It’s amazing how much you can feel stronger when you help (I know it sounds contradictory). Work with people on the hard things.
Most of all remember that side effects are actually part of the main event. There is no side effect. Anxiety is as much a part of life as is going to class. Dealing with difficult material is our major focus. As you start handling the tough material, you’ll figure out how you want to approach problems, what fascinates you. At that point the fear will ease off.
Then our real work together begins.