The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Essays

The Inner Life of a Sinking Ship

Greg Jackson

Detail from an illustration by Ikon Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

You can do anything…and nothing.

“Feminism Lost. Now What?” So read one of about twenty-five headlines that greeted me on my New York Times phone app when I awoke on December 30, 2016. “Your Friday Briefing,” the header ran: “Here’s what you need to know to start your day.” 

“Putin Says He Won’t Expel U.S. Diplomats”; “Obama Strikes Back at Russia for Hacking”; “Is This a Nest of Spies? The U.S. Says It Is”; “Spies vs. spies: A Cold War regularity that never quite cooled”; “How Russia Found Its Cyberwarriors”; “An investigation by The Times found the U.S. was slow to confront Russia”; “Trump Says Americans Should ‘Get on With Our Lives’”

After spiraling around the day’s central preoccupation, the focus shifted to violent conflict in the Middle East and the threat of terrorism at home (“Syrian Cease-Fire Frays But Doesn’t Break in First Hours”; “New Year Celebrations: Times Square’s 16-Ton Guardians of New Year’s Eve”). But as I scrolled down, something happened. A new current flowed into the darkness:

“Snatching Health Care Away From Millions”; “Smarting Living: Tips for Daily Life: An Emotional Balance Sheet to Help with Financial Choices”; “How to Combat Family Jet Lag”; “In the New Year, More Cuddling”; “Home Renovations for the Golden Years”; “In a Brutal Year in Venezuela, Even Crime Fighters Are Killers”; “Join Our Board: Companies Hotly Pursue New Wave of Women in Tech”; “A Majority Agreed She Was Raped by a Stanford Football Player. That Wasn’t Enough”; “85-Year-Old Marathoner Is So Fast That Even Scientists Marvel”

The litany said something profound. But what? It had to do with horror and anxiety, that was clear. War in Syria, election hacking, global chaos, killers, and rapists. The “16-Ton Guardians” were garbage trucks positioned to keep terrorists from driving into Times Square. Feminism was lost; now health care too.

But my sense of some tectonic uneasiness in the culture had frankly more to do with the feel-good stories and self-help features threaded through this morass of terror. How was “family jet leg”—whatever that was—a reasonable concern to which to turn one’s attention after reading about armed conflict and rape? Would creating “an emotional balance sheet” really help with financial choices? Letting my vision blur, I could almost believe that self-soothing was the right approach to any misery. The emotional balance sheet became, then, a metacommentary on the headlines themselves: eighty-five-year-old marathoner in the happy column, never-ending Syrian conflict in the sad; more women in tech (happy) posed against murderous Venezuelan crime fighters (sad/ambiguous).

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