Humanity is depraved - I need uplifting stories to deal with it
May 4, 2009 9:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm having a really hard time dealing with news of humans' brutality to other humans. When I read the news (esp. that coming out of the African continent) , my immediate response is that, as a species, we simply don't deserve to exist. I need some recommendations for literature, films, poetry, that addresses these issues and comes out optimistic. No Cormac McCarthy thanks.

My primary sources of current affairs are the BBC, AP, The Economist, NY Times. I don't watch any TV, but do watch films esp. documentaries. An example of a typical story that just makes me want to cry: (subscription may be r/q)

There's little I can do to prevent this, other than living a good, moral life of my own, so I'm looking for uplifting or thought-provoking stories that would take the harsh edge off my reaction to World current affairs and help me believe that, in the face of what we're capable of doing to each other, we do have some redeeming characteristics.

One other thing: much as I'd like to believe that there is some great benevolent deity that has a grand plan for us all, I don't. So please, no Western religion. At all. You can argue that my lack of Faith is the root cause of my depression, but at this point, I choose to find some other coping mechanism.

Thanks All.
posted by xenoworx to Religion & Philosophy (58 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Stop reading the news.
posted by Theloupgarou at 9:34 AM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Vonnegut. Daily.
posted by rokusan at 9:34 AM on May 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

I hate to do this all the time, but Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is ground zero for this kind of exercise. Here's a pretty fantastic interview with him from a few years ago, 90 years old and still amazing.
posted by Roach at 9:36 AM on May 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

Kristof column. (Warning: still requires you to read about horrible things people do, but the column focuses on the goodness of one person's efforts to counteract the evil.)

Samantha Power's book A Problem from Hell (about genocides) (same warning as above)

Why Can't We Be Good? -- a book I haven't read, but looks good and might be helpful.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:38 AM on May 4, 2009

If you're just looking for uplifting stories, WCityMike's linkhappy FPP has more sources for good news than you're likely to find anywhere else.
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:42 AM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I visited the Holocaust museum in December, the exhibit area about people like these made me feel better about humanity.
posted by pointystick at 9:42 AM on May 4, 2009

My (temporary) coping strategy was also to stop watching TV. (instead choosing to get my information from the internet, where i have more granular control and its slightly more interactive). However I well aware that simply tuning out the news, doesnt mean that brutal things stop happening - so the frustration is still there that i could be doing something more to help. I havent figured out a solution to that yet (that doesnt involve direct action, which at this point I really dont have the resources to do, because I'm still climbing out of debt and there are some days I can barely feed/clothe myself.) *sigh*
posted by jmnugent at 9:43 AM on May 4, 2009


the summer book - tove jannson
swallows and amazons series - arthur ransome
the underneath - appelt
omensetter's luck - william gass

movies (not documentary)

marx brothers
anything by frank capra
straight story
yi yi
together (the lukas moodysson one)
posted by mr. remy at 9:49 AM on May 4, 2009

Both Ode and Good magazine have lots of good news. Also, I recommend getting involved at the local level. You can see change happening and know people who are doing really good things.

I find it's very easy to be overwhelmed by the filtering effect of national and international media. As theloupgarou points out, the stories we hear are the worst things going on at any one time - but they're concurrent with billions and billions of kind, gentle, helpful, constructive acts done by countless humans every day. I do believe that if you lumped together every human act over the course of human history, and then set aside neutral acts and divided the remaining ones into brutal, cruel, or uncaring acts, and good, kind, helpful acts, the helpful pile would absolutely tower over the brutal pile. People cook food for one another, pet animals, sing to babies, teach children, heal illnessess, give loved ones backrubs, hold hands, plant gardens, hold doors open, carry bags and stuff like that every moment of every day. The cruel acts stand out not because they define humanity, but because they stand in such stark contrast to the most common and standard human acts which are the general default.
posted by Miko at 9:51 AM on May 4, 2009 [7 favorites]

For cheerful atheists who acknowledge nearly ubiquitous suffering you'll be hard pressed to do better than Vonnegut.

Also, though much less optimistic, I'd recommend the fun short stories of Voltaire, which for me really put to rest the idea that there is anything fundamentally fair or balanced about existence, and along with that the idea of people deserving anything in particular, good or bad.
posted by bluejayk at 9:51 AM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also: it's fine to read depressing news stories and feel depressed, but always remember the news media's bias. If you're a reporter, your job is to seek out really really bad things happening in the world and broadcast their gory details. Even assuming that all the facts are perfectly accurately and nothing has been exaggerated, you're still getting a skewed picture that focuses on the negative.

Some rare instances of non-depressing news:

It's feasible to live on $1 a day, and the percentage of people who do so is plummeting.

"No, global capitalism is not making the poor even poorer."

"The sex-slavery epidemic that wasn't."

Again, it's the rare story that says: "Hey, things aren't as bad as you thought." For some reason, people (including journalists) have a reflex where they automatically describe every problem as "the increasing problem of ____." Don't get fooled by such rhetoric unless you've looked into the facts yourself.

One more thing: in one of the first couple chapters of Fareed Zakaria's book The Post-American World, he argues that we're in one of the least violent periods of history ever. He explains that the media's focus on the latest explosions distorts our perception and makes us feel like the world is chaotically spiralling out of control. This doesn't address your core concern that humanity is depraved, but at least it gives some perspective: we're not getting more and more depraved over time.

In fact, stop and think about the amazing efforts humanity has made in fighting slavery and the subordination of women since, say, the founding of the US. That's a whole lot of good done in a very short period of time (a couple centuries is almost nothing in the grand scheme of things).
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:54 AM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Jack Gilbert, A brief for the defense

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

— Jack Gilbert
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:54 AM on May 4, 2009 [19 favorites]

marx brothers

Relatedly, the end of the Woody Allen movie Hannah and Her Sisters.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:55 AM on May 4, 2009

Robert A. Heinlein
I am not going to talk about religious beliefs but about mat-
ters so obvious that it has gone out of style to mention them.
I believe in my neighbors. I know their faults, and I know
that their virtues far outweigh their faults.
Take Father Michael down our road a piece. I'm not
of his creed, but I know that goodness and charity and
lovingkindness shine in his daily actions. I believe in
Father Mike. If I'm in trouble, I'll go to him.
My next-door neighbor is a veterinary doctor. Doc
will get out of bed after a hard day to help a stray cat.
No fee——no prospect of a fee——I believe in Doc.
I believe in my townspeople. You can knock on any
door in our town saying, "I'm hungry," and you will
be fed. Our town is no exception. I've found the same
ready charity everywhere. But for the one who says,
"To heck with you——I got mine," there are a hundred,
a thousand who will say, "Sure, pal, sit down."
I know that despite all warnings against hitchhikers
I can step to the highway, thumb for a ride, and in a
few minutes a car or truck will stop and someone
will say, "Climb in, Mac——how far you going?"
I believe in my fellow citizens. Our headlines are
splashed with crime, yet for every criminal there are
10,000 honest, decent, kindly men. If it were not so,
no child would live to grow up. Business could not go
on from day to day. Decency is not news. It is buried
in the obituaries, but it is a force stronger than crime.
I believe in the patient gallantry of nurses and the te-
dious sacrifices of teachers. I believe in the unseen and
unending fight against desperate odds that goes on qui-
etly in almost every home in the land.
I believe in the honest craft of workmen. Take a look
around you. There never were enough bosses to check
upon all that work. From Independence Hall to the
Grand Coulee Dam, these things were built level and
square by craftsman who were honest in their bones.
I believe that almost all politicians are honest . . .
there are hundreds of politicians, low paid or not paid
at all, doing their level best without thanks or glory to
make our system work. If this were not true we would
never have gotten past the thirteen colonies.
I believe in Rodger Young. You and I are free today
because of endless unnamed heros from Valley Forge
to the Yalu River. I believe in——I am proud to belong
to——the United States. Despite shortcomings from
lynchings to bad faith in high places, our nation has
had the most decent and kindly internal practices and
foreign policies to be found anywhere in history.
And finally, I believe in my whole race. Yellow,
white, black, red, brown. In the honesty, courage, in-
telligence, durability, and goodness of the overwhelm-
ing majority of my brothers and sisters everywhere
on this planet. I am proud to be a human being. I
believe that we have come this far by the skin of our
teeth. That we will always make it just by the skin of our
teeth, but that we will always make it. Survive. En-
dure. I believe that this hairless embryo with the ach-
ing, oversize brain case and the opposable thumb, this
animal barely up from the apes, will endure. Will en-
dure longer than his home planet——will spread out to
the stars and beyond, carrying with him his honesty
and insatiable curiosity, his unlimited courage and his
noble essential decency.
This I believe with all my heart.
This was originally a speech for a CBS television show of the same name. It was broadcast December 1, 1952. It can be found in Grumbles from the Grave, a book of Robert A. Heinlein's letters. It is on page 163 of the paperback version.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:56 AM on May 4, 2009 [26 favorites]

Haruki Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," while very abstract, is essentially the story of one man taking on huge forces of political and cultural evil. it's also a great book, and reading any kind of great book should help restore you faith in humanity.

Wind, Sand and Stars is probably the most humanity-affirming book I have ever read, even though there are chapters dealing with war and slavery. Really an amazing book. Check it out.

as a general thought, and I know you didn't explicitly ask for advice, but whenever I hear people bemoaning how poorly we're doing as a species, my thought is always "compared to whom, exactly?" Until we discover a race of aliens who live in absolute harmony, maybe we should assume we're actually doing pretty well. After all, we're still here. Large portions of the Earth's population live peaceful, happy, prosperous lives. Of course there is conflict and horror, but things are getting better. Compare today's world to the WWII era. Or the Dark Ages. Or just look at a graph of human life expectancies over time.

posted by drjimmy11 at 10:13 AM on May 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

The novel Mating by Norman Rush is set in southern Africa and is a beautiful and satisfying read.

A non-fiction book that is an incredible story of what one woman can and did accomplish in Ethiopia to help the most vulnerable of children: There Is No Me Without You: One Woman's Odyssey to Rescue Africa's Children by Melissa Faye Greene. This one is especially great since it's about an Ethiopian woman helping Ethiopian children.

Another non-fiction book that's the story of the incredible accomplishments of one doctor in Haiti: Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, the Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder

I haven't read it yet, but Three Cups of Tea is similar, from what I've heard.

Is this the kind of thing you meant? These books all have heartbreaking moments, but the people highlighted in them are just incredible.

If you're simply looking for kinder, gentler stories from Africa, you could do worse than the series The #1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:17 AM on May 4, 2009

Coincidentally I just heard of the website See Africa Differently. Not my cup of tea, but maybe it's yours.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:23 AM on May 4, 2009

Not exactly in the same feel-good vein, but if you want to have a less grim view of the situation without a nod to "Western religion" you might try Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker or The Selfish Gene.

Whatever we do, is we were designed (by a billion years of evolution, Dawkins argues) to do. Whatever it is you don't like about (for example) human behavior in Africa is a cause or effect of the very same human nature which is brought about every imaginable height and triumph. As an added benefit, this may immunize you from adopting the silly views of those who see Africans as strange-acting charity cases rather than, as they are, reasonable people doing almost exactly as we would under similar circumstances.
posted by MattD at 10:28 AM on May 4, 2009

Depression is a rational response to the world you live in. Maybe it's time to try irrational responses.
posted by RussHy at 10:45 AM on May 4, 2009

Here's a few movie recommendations.
Caveat 1: Some of these are kind of obscure so I don't guarantee that all of them are actually available for rental/purchase/download/streaming.
Caveat 2: Some of the characters in a few of these believe in a deity, but I think their acts of compassion or justice stand even if the viewer doesn't, and I don't think the film itself asks the viewer to so believe.

OT: Our Town
Shakespeare Behind Bars
Forgiving Dr. Mengele
Playing for Change: Peace through Music
The Conscientious Objector
Ithuteng (Never Stop Learning)
The Hip-Hop Project

Fictionalization of real events:
Dead Man Walking
The Soloist
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:51 AM on May 4, 2009

We humans have a dual nature. There are stories out there of people who have followed the better angels of their nature, though.

* You say you are specifically bothered by stories from Africa -- one instance of goodness in an African conflict within recent memory is the story of Paul Rusesabagina, the man who singlehandedly saved over a thousand Tutsis and moderate Hutus during the Rwandan genocide; dramatized in Hotel Rwanda.

* Another obvious choice, since we're talking about films, is Schnidler's List. That's probably an especially good choice, because you can see Oskar Schindler's slow and gradual transmutation from self-centered playboy to someone who did something noble (I find the heroes who have flaws and feet of clay to be better stories, personally).

* Speaking of Oskar Schindler, maybe reading up on the lives of those named as Righteous Among The Nations would also work. These are non-Jews whom the state of Israel has officially honored for risking their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. For some reason, I'm especially personally touched by the mere fact that the 20 members of the Danish underground refused to be thus honored as 20 individuals but insisted on having a single group mention.

* Speaking of the Holocaust, you may want to track down and read the book The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal. It's a bit of a tangent from what you're looking for -- the book deals more so with forgiveness -- but there are a number of thought-provoking essays from people writing about forgiveness, who have been through serious and severe trauma but have come out the other side with forgiveness and compassion for those that did them wrong. Reading about how they came to that point may also be of some help.

* History is also littered with little factoids. An Irish friend told me once about something from American history that I never even knew about -- during the Irish famine, the Choctaw tribe took up a collection and sent $710 in relief to aid Irish famine victims. This was despite the fact that the Choctaw had themselves just forced out of their own homes and onto the Trail of Tears not 16 years before. $710 would be about $16,000 in today's currency.

* Finally, if you keep your eyes open, you can find small instances of the goodness of people everywhere. To this day I am impressed and touched by the fact that when a madman broke into an Amish school and shot a number of the students and then shot himself, the Amish community not only took up a collection for the families of the victims -- but also the widow of the shooter.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:08 AM on May 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

Oh, and I almost forgot --

Doctor Who. Particularly the David Tennant years. Whoever writes the series has created a Doctor who is utterly in love with humankind despite its foibles, and often has some eloquent thinsg to say in defense of humanity.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:10 AM on May 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

For films:

Adaptation always makes me feel better about life.

Also: American Splendor; Breaking Away; Shawshank Redemption.

As suggested, not watching as much of it is a big help. This is not burying your head in the sand. The reality is that we are not made to take upon ourselves as individuals all the tragedies of the world. We have enough in our own daily lives to deal with. Just reading the local news can be trying, let alone the world news. Technology has brought to our doorstep the problems of the entire world, all in a one hour broadcast. So, know your limits. You don't help anyone by feeling miserable yourself.

Set up some donations to causes that you think best represent the problems you are concerned with, and know you are doing a little bit to help. Your little bit, plus mine, plus many others' goes a long way to helping people we will never meet.
posted by The Deej at 11:12 AM on May 4, 2009

You may want to get some sort of journal and start cataloging good things that happen. See a guy on the bus help an elderly person get to their stop? Learn that an old friend has started up a non-profit to help others? See a park being built, or a public art fixture being put up, thanks to a charitable donation? And so on and so on and so on. Keep a list of all the good that you encounter people doing day in and day out. It doesn't have to be a list of Important Things, so much as a list of good things. Then, whenever you're starting to feel particularly cynical about the worth of mankind, you can look over your list, reminding yourself of all the good you've seen and heard of.

There is goodness all around us, we just have to pay attention to it.
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:16 AM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

For cheerful atheists who acknowledge nearly ubiquitous suffering you'll be hard pressed to do better than Vonnegut.

But then he up and died. Bastard.

Fortunately, he left us with Douglas Coupland.

Start with All Families Are Psychotic.
posted by humannaire at 11:21 AM on May 4, 2009

I find doing meaningful work turns the trick. When I am helping others—and genuinely making a difference—everything makes sense.

Essentially, as I see it, there is a whole lot of good, nutrition-filled bullshit in the world. It's reality's fertilizer in which all the good stuff in the world is nurtured and prospers.

It's simple, for sure, but that's all I got. And best of all, it works for me.

Start with "don't let the bastards get you down." From there, if you're lucky you can get to, "everything always works out." Good luck!
posted by humannaire at 11:37 AM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

My two antidotes:
posted by mattbucher at 11:43 AM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Forgiving Dr. Mengele was pretty amazing...I 2nd that.
posted by sully75 at 11:50 AM on May 4, 2009

Relying on Western media outlet for news about Africa is, well, depressing.'s filter Africa on the Move collects stories published in African newspapers that deal broadly with successes.

On the first page while I write this comment are a story about Nigeria's upcoming program to get two malaria nets in every household; a pilot program experimenting with using geospatial info on mobile phones to alert farmers in remote areas to key information; a story about 13 schools being built in Eritrea; a profile of a successful pineapple farmer in Uganda who has used his profits to set up a good quality school in his locale, to name a few (this is a news site and the links expire after a few days so I didn't link the specific articles). Perhaps perusing the hopeful and the mundane might help give a sense that the range of human behaviour exists throughout the world, including the good.
posted by carmen at 11:52 AM on May 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Toronto Star's Acts of Kindness section might help.
posted by backwards guitar at 11:54 AM on May 4, 2009

Steve Pinker has a cogent argument that your attention is just being drawn to the horrible bits, but that as a species, things have actually been improving for a long long time. Good news just doesn't make headlines. A quote:

Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.
posted by fcummins at 11:57 AM on May 4, 2009

That Steven Pinker article cites Robert Wright's argument from his book Nonzero. You could also check out that book, or watch Wright give his 20-minute version in this TED lecture. As Wright says, his message seems optimistic, "but it's ultimately grounded in cynicism."
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:11 PM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

As Wright says, his message seems optimistic, "but it's ultimately grounded in cynicism."

And not much fact. The record of human evolution shows people who died at an old age, people who lived long after the loss of limbs, and people with terrible ailments who survived to adulthood. This, as well as modern ethnographic evidence about how people in stateless societies live shows that cooperation and compassion played an important role in our evolution and continue to be a part of all of our societies. There is a spectrum of human behaviour that allows us to achieve greatness as well as participate in atrocities. Most daily life, at most points in history, falls somewhere between those two.
posted by carmen at 12:25 PM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Africa is a lot broader than the current conflicts in Darfur, Zimbabwe, and the Congo. Africa is also South Africa holding peaceful elections, microcredit bringing loans to small scale farmers and helping rebuild Sierra Leone and Liberia. Africa encompasses activists working in Nairobi through improv theater to educate . Africa is going to be the 2010 world cup in South Africa, and young people holding multinational corporations accountable for their pillaging of natural resources.

If you want to be frustrated about the state of the world, by all means do so. There's a lot to be frustrated about. But don't let the biases of the Western media give you a single view of the continent. There's a lot going on and a lot of really positive stuff. Certainly, there are problem and issues that need to be taken seriously and dealt with, but I can't imagine looking to Africa as proof that humanity is depraved. Read Wangari Maathai's memoir Unbowed (2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner) for some hope. Or look into Kiva to get involved with some really fantastic projects. Look beyond what the New York Times tells us about Africa. Gado's political cartoons about Kenyan and internatinoal politics are great. From the Frontline is a really interesting aggregation of independent journalists' blogs. They generally have a different perspective than what you end up hearing. Don't lose hope!!!
posted by ChuraChura at 12:30 PM on May 4, 2009 [2 favorites] has happy stories. Its mission is to promote tales of good in the world. I don't think they have a particularly western-god focus to them, but its been a while.
posted by sandraregina at 12:30 PM on May 4, 2009

There's a great line in Slaughterhouse-Five about how everything one needs to know in life can be found in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. I highly recommend "The Grand Inquisitor" in particular, a chapter from the novel that is often published as a standalone. A taste:

"I have a longing for life, and I go on living in spite of logic. Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why. I love some great deeds done by men, though I've long ceased perhaps to have faith in them, yet from old habit one's heart prizes them.. I want to travel in Europe, Alyosha; I shall set off from here. I know that I am only going to a graveyard, but it's a most precious graveyard, that's what it is! Precious are the dead that lie there; every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle, and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them, though I'm convinced in my heart that it's been nothing but a graveyard. And I shall not weep from despair, but simply because I shall be happy in my tears. I shall steep my soul in my emotion. I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky- that's all it is. It's not a matter of intellect or logic; it's loving with one's inside, with one's stomach."
posted by susanvance at 12:43 PM on May 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

There's always your sense of humor to fall back on when, as with Bob the Angry Flower, you begin to believe that "Yes" is the answer.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:16 PM on May 4, 2009

This is the first time I've heard Dostoyevsky recommended as a pick-me-up.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:43 PM on May 4, 2009

I'm gonna try really hard to say this nice and not sound all flame-y, but social service has been a big part of my life for a long, long time. So here goes:

You know what, I call bullshit on "There's little I can do to prevent this, other than living a good, moral life of my own.", because the issues of the world are only "issues" insofar as much as we're willing to let them remain "issues" and not "matters of conscience."

When I say to myself "nobody cares" or "everybody goes on about their business", who I'm talking about are the emocentric (yea I just made that word up, and I like it) boo-hooers who crycrycry but don't do, do, and do.

If reading a book, or manifesting karma through meditation will somehow make amends with all you find is wrong with the world, then I assert that you're part of the problem. You've got to get in the trenches, get your hands muddy, sometimes bloody, and be the solution and not the blogger who complains about it.

I say that not necessarily to the OP, but to society in general. See, now I did it, I said the "S" word.

I know countless people who want to say things like "This is 2009, nobody should starve to death" or "die of cholera" or "be homeless" or "not have clean drinking water" or "be denied human rights" or whatever. But their interaction stops at their checkbook, if they even get that far.

I challenge everyone I know who pledges middle-class guilt to walk away from their comfort and their safe place and seriously start kicking ass.

Bottom line: You can't synthesize being "OK" with humanity and your place in it. You have to manufacture your place, your emotions, and your connection through hard work, and through admitting truths that are easy to turn away from.

I'm not advocating that everyone with a good, cozy job runs away from it to make the world a better place. I'm advocating that everyone can somehow get involved, and I reassert that these "problems" and "issues" should be made local/national/global matters of conscience and action, and less 30-seconds-of-gory-glory on the news, and less passing-by-the-water-cooler-fodder.

So sorry if I completely came out of left field on that one OP, or any soft and fuzzy folks out there who find solace through verse and prose and not through action.

If you need a place to start, shoot me a PM.
posted by TomMelee at 2:08 PM on May 4, 2009 [16 favorites]

2nding what TomMelee said even though I often feel exactly the same way you do.
posted by Vidamond at 2:13 PM on May 4, 2009

Playing for Change, which I mentioned earlier, is a documentary about the recording of this song, about which there was a story on NPR just today.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:32 PM on May 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

We exist as a species probably because of our brutality. Or at least, our ancestors' brutality. The bigger, meaner, smarter monkeys killed off the weaker ones, and yada yada yada, here we are. The poster who mentioned our dual nature is right- if we were *just* mean, we would have killed each other long ago. If we were *just* benevolent, we wouldn't have had enough eat or be eaten instinct to have survived. All we can do is try to do right in every interaction we have, and hope for the best.
posted by gjc at 4:25 PM on May 4, 2009

If we're getting out of the literature realm, here's what's helped me:

1) turn off the TV and don't click on links that sound traumatic
2) volunteer
3) garden
4) exercise and eat well

To paraphrase a saying: the solution is simple and the solution has nothing to do with the problem.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:28 PM on May 4, 2009

Susan Sontag, On Regarding the Pain of Others - specifically about the media situation, "scholarly but readable" (Amazon reviewer)
posted by yoHighness at 4:37 PM on May 4, 2009

minus "on" in the title
posted by yoHighness at 4:39 PM on May 4, 2009

The Other Side of War is a coffee table book put together by Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women For Women International. It's a non profit that provides education and sponsorship to women in post conflict zones. I was fortunate to travel with a small group to Rwanda to learn about the work they did there. The absolute most shocking and inspiring part of that trip was how much hope remained. I met women who had survived conditions I cannot begin to imagine (for instance hiding in a church under bodies to save themselves in 1994). But meeting some of these individuals today, it was clear that they had learned to laugh and love again. Mostly they were working toward a better life for their children.

The human spirit is capable of amazing resiliency.

Also, I studied a lot of African history as an undergrad and had an instructor who prioritized the importance of what he called African "agency". Academics are often prone to blame the problems in Africa on colonialism (and I don't dispute this point) but the professor encouraged us to focus on what the Africans were doing, both positive and negative. This helped me see the nuances of many different conflicts in Africa, and also gave me a new perspective for looking at conflict.

Sembene Ousmane's God's Bits of Wood is a historical fiction account of a railroad strike in West Africa...very inspiring. I think I might have lost my focus, but I believe it is easy to lose sight of all the good and joy and love that exists throughout the world, when all we see are stories about war, AIDS and poverty. Mefi mail me for other reading suggestions.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 4:44 PM on May 4, 2009

You know, just knowing that there are people out there who pay attention and are willing to offer constructive advice has been enough to get me some of the way just today. I just got in from work and read through the comments above - ALL useful and all suggestions (TomMelee: good points) followed up on. I now have a massive Amazon reading list.

Being from the reductionist, scientist, athiest camp, I should really have thought about the Dawkins angle. Read him at college and maybe its time to go back. I seem to recall River Out of Eden was an especially nice play on our place in the World.

I think the problems may have started when I finished TNG and started on DS9 :-)

Vonnegut eh? Any suggestions on where to start?
posted by xenoworx at 5:29 PM on May 4, 2009

Sort of seconding TomMelee (though I'm not quite so assertive about it). I think you should volunteer your time and donate your money. Reading books and watching documentaries is useful inasmuch as it will keep you motivated and remind you there are others out there who aren't depraved.

In a more general sense, the statement, "There's little I can do to prevent this, other than living a good, moral life of my own" is true, but it short changes itself. Living a good life is all anyone can do. I think you may be lamenting your lack of power as an individual. I'm guessing that xenoworx isn't President Obama's nom de plume here. Unless I'm wrong about that you can't compare yourself to a dictator with an army at his command. You can only compare yourself to the soldiers in the dictator's army. Remember, just like you are limited to your own "good, moral life" the depraved people can't do any more than living their own bad, immoral life. If you hear about an army raping and pillaging it may be natural to imagine that "evil" can destroy thousands of lives, while all you can do is be good. An army is made up of individuals, none of whom can destroy a village on his own. So don't belittle your own ability to change things by being good - it is no less powerful than an evil person's ability to change things by being bad.

To keep up the militaristic metaphor, people living good, moral lives are the ones who make up the opposing army - the one that brings clean water and medical supplies to the village. You get to decide whether you want to go to officer's training school, enlist, join the national guard, send care packages, put a ribbon magnet on your car, or just walk around with a sense that you're on the right side. What you need to focus on isn't how powerless you are, but how powerful you can be as part of a larger system. Do all you can, or, to beat this metaphor to a bloody death, be all you can be.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 5:42 PM on May 4, 2009

I came in to recommend Mountains Beyond Mountains but I see that I've been beaten to it. I am a huge Paul Farmer fangirl.
posted by naoko at 6:38 PM on May 4, 2009

If I could favorite Devilsadvocate's comment about Playing for Change multiple times, I would.

It's actually a documentary about more than just an international recording of "Stand By Me" -- I just followed the link to the main documentary's web site and found even more music -- an international collaboration on "One Love," and six other songs. Looks like they have a whole album you can get with everything from covers of "Biko" to "A Change Is Gonna Come". They do have a couple of "ringers" in there, too -- Bono and Keb'Mo are who I spotted.

Okay, yeah yeah, they have Bono and all that, but hearing a sitar jamming with a singer in the Congo to "One Love" just tickles me in a place I can't reach.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:11 PM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Forgive the link to my own FPP, but you could try introducing sources of positive news into your news diet.
posted by WCityMike at 9:37 PM on May 4, 2009

There is more than one Cormac McCarthy. Try that other one.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:36 PM on May 4, 2009

I'm surprised it took as long as it did for an answer like TomMelee's to come along in this thread, and I can't favorite it hard enough.

Disclaimer - I moved to Africa to work with an NGO here doing relief and development work. Not everyone can do that, but everyone can do something.

The simple fact of the matter is that if you can read the BBC, AP, The Economist, NY Times, if you can see documentaries, then you *can* do something. Most of the people my organization works with will never learn to read, let alone know the luxury of watching a documentary - they don't have things like electricity or running water or basic sewage systems.

I don't say this to invoke guilt. I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with a rich, western lifestyle - frankly I wish more people had it - because the more you have, the more you can do for others (read: Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, et. al.). The problem is that most people never focus on the latter part - what you can do for others. I do think there's something wrong with that.

Think of a small luxury you have in your life. Maybe its a daily latte at Starbucks, maybe its driving to work and paying parking instead of taking the bus, maybe its going out with friends a couple nights a week for drinks, maybe its seeing a Broadway show on the weekend. There's got to be something like that in your life - but let's take the Starbucks example - let's say its a $5 / day luxury. Let's say you cut out just one day a week and set that $5 aside for "not me." That's 20 bucks a month. That much can feed a family, or send a child to school, or inoculate a small community, in many places in the world. Your day without coffee can drastically improve many, many lives. I know it sounds all Sally Struthers, but take it from me - from here in Malawi where unemployment runs north of 70% - its the God awful truth.

Humanity is depraved, you're right. The right response, however, isn't burying your head in the sand about it. It also isn't focusing on the small victories that have been one and being "happy enough" with those to not feel the need to do anything more. The right response is finding your own unique way to help, even if its small - even if its just one person. If everyone did that, you wouldn't have to ask this question.

Its a good thing that you're feeling what you are feeling. But the best way to "deal with it" is to actually deal with it. Trust me - I know.

You can PM me too for help on ways to start, or see here for a list of orgs I previously posted.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:03 AM on May 5, 2009 [6 favorites]

For Vonnegut, definitely start with Slaughterhouse-Five - it deals specifically with his struggle live and find meaning in life despite the horrors he witnessed as a soldier during WW2. An incredible book, probably one you'll have trouble putting down. Everything else he wrote is pretty great too.

Rereading your question a bit, I wanted to add a caveat to the recommendation for Brothers Karamazov, as it does contain some Christian themes and discussions of faith. As someone who is not at all religious I got quite a bit out of it - it is one of the existential masterpieces, with very complex and often ambiguous themes. The passage I highlighted earlier, which begins in "Rebellion," is a long discussion between two brothers, one atheist and one Christian, about living life despite its overwhelming atrocities. In the end what they can agree upon is the idea of living life more than the meaning of it, an idea which I found very inspiring, along with the continued struggles of the Ivan character (the atheist) throughout the book. But if you really don't want any religious discussion at all, you should probably take this one off the list.
posted by susanvance at 7:21 AM on May 5, 2009

This is why I watch the Daily Show every morning rather than watch the "real" news.

Here is a literary recommendation that seems counterintuitive: We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families. I know, it does not sound uplifting at all. And it often isn't. But his insights into the genocide that took place in Rwanda are jarring and wise beyond words. And helped me to see the humanity even in our darkest chapters. Do you think you would find it gratifying/useful to face the root of your disgust and then work your way out of it throufh his stories? If so I cannot recommend this lyrical, gorgeous book enough. I found reading it redemptive, cathartic & haunting.

When asked why he spent so much time writing and researching on a topic most would prefer to turn away from, the author explained "The best reason I have come up with for looking more closely into Rwanda's stories is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence and my place in it." Perhaps you will find the same thing?
posted by ohyouknow at 11:46 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]
posted by dawson at 12:00 PM on May 5, 2009

Movies that make me feel good and will lift any dark spirits:

Yi Yi
Eat Drink Man Woman
The Milagro Beanfield War
My Life as A Dog
Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris documentary)
Bride and Prejudice--Bollywood version of Pride and Prejudice--lots of color, singing and dancing--you can't help but smile while watching this
Monsoon Wedding
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 8:50 PM on May 5, 2009

Oh, and how could I forget! Monty Python's "Life of Brian" -- MP at their funniest
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 8:51 PM on May 5, 2009

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