Reflections on Irene: Cultivating Our Inner Compass

In the days leading up to Irene, and during the two days the storm traveled up the eastern coast of the U.S., I happened to be doing a lot of driving. I brought my son back to his school in Massachusetts and then took a trip to the easternmost county in Maine. All told I spent about 18 hours in the car over three days. Because I have satellite radio in my car, I have lots of news options. I spent most of the time listening to CNN, Fox News, and NPR, following the reports of Hurricane (later Tropical Storm) Irene.

I watched myself being manipulated by the media, which preyed on fear and fed a lust for voyeurism. As it became clear that Irene was not going to be as bad as predicted – at least not in the east coast’s major metropolitan areas – I found myself simultaneously relieved and vaguely... disappointed. That I felt disappointed at all shocked me, until I tried to deconstruct what was happening to me. It’s as if the media had turned Irene into a blockbuster movie, and now the movie lacked excitement. I was conflating entertainment’s adrenalin rush with reality, a reality that was, fortunately, much better than it could have been.

My own mother lives in a 7th floor apartment in New York City. How could I feel anything but relief that her power remained on throughout the storm and that she was safe and secure? When I contacted my son, in the direct line of Irene in Western Massachusetts, to ask how the storm was, he said it was pathetic. Even he was looking forward to something bigger and scarier and more impressive than the wind and rain that knocked power out for only 3 hours. Only later, when he saw the devastation in Brattleboro, Vermont, only 20 minutes from him, did he realize how lucky he was.

Listening to newscasters desperately trying to hype up what was happening, to get passersby to make things sound worse, reminded me of the creepy curiosity that causes most of us to slow to observe an accident, not because we plan to stop and help, but out of some yucky fascination that represents our basest selves.

Noticing how easily we are manipulated, how quickly we can lose our sense of perspective and clarity and even inner morality is important. Finding our compass is a critical component to remaining clear-headed when media (and other) manipulations threaten to erode our values, beliefs, and even our integrity. Maintaining an inner eye that watches our own emotional lability, that observes our response to manipulations, that reminds us to use our critical thinking skills and nurture our best qualities – especially during emergencies – may be the best way to ensure that we have the tools and level-headedness to confront not only apparent crises, but the pervasive problems that should appear as crises (e.g., global warming) but which do not.

Cultivating that inner compass often demands perseverance on our part. We need to expose ourselves to many views lest we be manipulated; we must continually challenge ourselves to learn more and seek out accurate information. We must remain vigilant to the power of brainwashing and recognize our own susceptibility to opinion disguised as fact.

Be vigilant. The world needs your good mind and big heart intact.

For a humane world,

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education

Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education

My TEDx talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach"

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