During our first five years as newlyweds, my husband, Tom, and I watched every episode of The X-Files. I was convinced that demented serial killers worked the late shift everywhere that my small town of 7,000 could possibly employ them.
Granted, as a pastor’s kid I had grown up without television, so my imagination was maybe making up for lost time. Or maybe I’m just uniquely susceptible to calculated suspense. But even the smallest clunk from our ancient apartment building meant, in my hyper-vigilance, that the socially awkward single guy down the hall probably was installing some kind of spy camera behind our bathroom mirror. Or that something mutant and drooling stalked us in the ductwork, biding its diabolical time.
It took months after the final X-Files episode before the buzz of fight-or-flight adrenaline wore off. But when it did, I was genuinely surprised at how kind and warm and helpful most people seemed to have become. And was there way more daylight and sunshine that year—or was it me?
It was me. I had succumbed to what one researcher called “mean world syndrome.” As Scott Bader-Saye describes in his book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, research on television violence has found “not so much a direct link between TV violence and real-world violence as a link between TV violence and exaggerated fearfulness.” In fact, “people who watch a lot of TV are more likely than others to believe that their neighborhoods are unsafe, to assume that crime rates are rising, and to overestimate their own odds of being a victim.” Evangelicals, presumably, included.
Though I had grown up without television, regular screen time during that season of my young adult life had convinced me, all the way down to my adrenal glands, that I was one commercial break away from an abduction, every hour, every day.
And social media hadn’t even been invented yet.
We Are Not Helpless
Recently I’ve found that sense of impending doom cycling back up again. Except, this time it’s not some irrational fear of paranormal predators, but the clickbait headlines that turn all my social media newsfeeds into the digital version of a tornado siren. (This involves both ends of the political spectrum, by the way—I haven’t “unfollowed” everyone with whom I disagree, though it’s tempting.) You would think that after a while I’d become immune to the sirens, like those three years I lived near an Amtrak line and eventually didn’t even hear the trains. But no, just like in my X-Files days, the blue light of a screen transfixes me for hours every evening, my heart rate climbing with each new stimulus of fear.
The difference is that real trouble is happening to real people, including people I know and love, and there are no commercial breaks. But my visceral response is the same: the greater the amount of screen time, the greater my sense that I’m helpless to act meaningfully beyond hunkering down with my doors locked or traveling the internet with the cyber equivalent of pepper spray.
We are not helpless. That is a lie.
Yes, there are real dangers in the world. And no, not all people are kind and warm and helpful—especially if you’re on the receiving end of their deepest, most vile prejudices and abuses. We are all sinners. But this doesn’t stop even the most broken among us from engaging the world every single day, for better or worse, because we can hardly do otherwise. We need to eat, we need to work, and we need to survive. We learn coping mechanisms, we learn strategies, we convince and cajole ourselves, we pray prayers of protection, we read Scriptures that remind us to be strong and courageous, and we act with agency in the world.