Crowding Out Pain

On November 9, I wrote about an experience I had with my 2-year old niece, the first time her parents left her with someone else (me) for a couple of hours, while they went to the bank. How, when she finally realized they weren’t there, she searched for them, and then cried, then went into a withdrawn state of shock that frightened me. And how I was able to entice her out of that state by sitting nearby, reading her favorite books aloud – but incorrectly, changing the story – until it annoyed her so much that I was reading them wrong, that she came to sit with me to make me read them accurately, and then we read book after book together until her parents came home.

As I wrote that story on November 9, I reflected on addiction.

I have been addicted to reading since I was a small child.

Reading can be good. You can learn things that you can use in your daily life. You can study with people who you will never meet. Even with fiction, you can learn about times and places you can never visit; or about how people live through circumstances that you haven’t experienced.

But when you begin to use reading to escape from life, from experiencing the raw, true emotions that your life brings you, you are on the road to addiction. You have crowded out life with reading. And I absolutely do this.

When I was a small child, there were a lot of crazy emotions in my life. Fear, loneliness, jealousy, rejection. After a certain point, there were books that I reached for when I felt these feelings. Books I could disappear into, where I could hide, until the emotion had passed.

Again, in small doses, this isn’t a bad thing. It’s helpful when you’ve been experiencing a really painful emotion, to be able to take a break from it, to focus on something else. But when you go from taking a break from the emotion, to avoiding it altogether, that is the path to addiction. (A path, I recognize now, that I aided my niece in finding.)

As far as addictions go, reading is not as bad as some others. Unless taken to a physically destructive end, it doesn’t poison the liver or cause high blood pressure or diabetes. It doesn’t, unless taken to extreme, cause you to lose your job, or to turn to life of crime or debasement to get more books. It doesn’t usually cause fissures in your relationships or cause you to take on risky behavior to get more books. But it is something to watch, because it can crowd out other, milder, emotions, such as boredom, and teach you to seek other addictions that will do the same, until you can no longer process those emotions.

Reading can be a gateway addiction.

Crowding out can be a good thing, used effectively. I remember being on a video call with a colleague earlier this year, when her young daughter asked if she could have a cookie. My colleague answered, “Yes, but before that, run out to the garden, and ask grandpa if you can pick and eat two of those tiny cucumbers you love so much.” This is a technique that they teach you at IIN (where I’m working now): crowd out unhealthy foods with healthy ones. Crowd out cookies with cucumbers. If you crave sweets, don’t tell yourself, “oh, I can’t have the sweets, I must eat a salad,” instead, increase the volume of sweet vegetables (sweet potatoes, squash, corn, carrots) that you eat. The sweet vegetables may satisfy your sweet-tooth – or at least fill you up until you don’t have room for cookies.

I thought about this later in the day on the 9th, as I was scanning the news. Suddenly, news that had been choked full of indignation at Trump’s behavior, was instead full of other things: joy and hope at what the future would bring; sorrow at the loss of life from the virus; pride for having chosen a woman of color as the VP; curiosity about how Biden might get things done; resolution that we would conquer the virus.

All these other emotions and tones had crowded out the six-year media obsession with Trump that gave him such power. The media made him, they gave him power, by focusing on him, at first in amusement, later with disbelief and worry, finally with anger and indignation. They puffed him up, made him bigger than he was, attracted people to his cause, inflamed people against him. We empowered them to do this by giving them the ratings, by listening, and responding with the emotions that they wanted us to feel, by gluing ourselves to the television, either for or against him.

Now the tone and content have shifted a little, and he is becoming the footnote that he has always deserved to be. A humorous story about a press conference at the Four Seasons Lawn Center, with nothing about the equally ridiculous content at that press conference.

There is an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer [spoiler alert], where they learn of a terrible demon that threatens them, once again. Throughout the show, the action is interrupted with glimpses of the demon, in an isolated room somewhere, scheming against the heroes, talking about how all-important it is and how it will take over the world. The team becomes more and more frantic, terrified, as eerie things begin to happen. Finally they figure out where the demon is, summon up their courage, and enter that space. Only to discover that the great and powerful demon is about four inches high, easily dispatched by Buffy, who steps on it. Something of a shaggy dog story, but also an important lesson about the danger of giving someone or something small power over you by fearing it and inflating its importance.

I hope we have all learned that lesson and that we can move on now.

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