Ask Polly: How Do I Live in a World Gone Mad?

Heather Havrilesky
Jul 16, 2016 · 5 min read

Dear Polly,

At the start of 2016, my New Year’s resolution was to stop listening to NPR’s news report every morning before work and read the news in the New York Times much less. I was suffering from panic attacks that left me physically and mentally rattled, and hearing about the latest atrocity multiple times per day was clearly contributing to my anxiety problems. (Note that this was all before the horrible events of the past month.) I keep up with world events plenty, still, in other ways, by the way. I just panic a little less about it.

In fact, world news is pretty much inescapable now. Bloggers that I’d previously turned to at night for a small dose of levity have started to weigh in more frequently on tragic world events. Just about everybody’s Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of old classmates, family members, colleagues and friends letting them know what has happened and how they feel about it.

I love this, actually. Civic engagement is incredibly important. It’s our duty as citizens of our country and of this world to know what’s going on and to participate in public discourse around it. But since I’ve started suffering from anxiety, it’s also occurred to me (and here is my actual question!): Isn’t maintaining a genuine outlook that somehow, even with knowledge of how shitty this planet is right now, is funny, bright and, dare I say it, cheery? In some ways isn’t that just as valuable as sharing one’s thoughts or even participating in civil actions after these terrible, hope-shattering events?

Need Some Hope

Dear Need Some Hope,

I don’t know if I’d agree that merely being optimistic has the same value as hitting the streets to stand up for what you believe. Ideally, we should do both. That said, many of us definitely need a little hope and optimism right now. Over the past few weeks, we’ve learned the hard way that when we refuse to step back from the nightmares unfolding before our eyes, we start to feel not just heartbroken and angry and crushed, but jittery and empty and lost. That said, it also feels wrong to tune it out entirely. Personally, I’ve gone through phases of experiencing anything on Twitter that isn’t about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the murdered cops in Dallas as aggressively out of step with reality. And then Nice and Turkey added to the shit storm.

But that’s just the nature of social media today, at a seriously fucked up time in history. How are you supposed to confront rampant racism and a broken system and all of these bad seeds armed to the fucking teeth (and ready to take out their misplaced rage on innocent people), and then read something about hot shoe styles to wear this summer? How can you watch Diamond Sterling’s heartbroken plea for justice and then go back to your steady feed of jokes and snide remarks and whatever the fuck else?

The whiplash is extreme. My book came out this week, and even though it’s a book about the struggle to find meaning and survive in this fucked up world, it feels strange and awkward to even talk about it, given everything else that’s falling apart around us. Imagine if I’d written a book about, I don’t know, ’70s era dance parties or celebrity scandals or how to redecorate your summer home?

But even as the world seems to fall apart around us, we still have to do our jobs, even if our jobs are holding forth on the joys of bright and beachy decor elements for that sleeping loft at your cottage in the Hamptons. I still have to tune everything out and write, even when I’m feeling overwhelmed. My kids still need me to joke around and play games with them. I still need to get some sleep, and get some exercise. I owe it to myself to stand up for what I believe and take action to support change in the world, and I also owe it to myself to turn off all of my screens and step out into the sunshine.

Shifting gears is maybe harder than it’s ever been, though. Your phone follows you everywhere. You read some story that just crushes you into dust, and then you have to shut it off and be cheerful and relaxed and present and say LA DI DA NICE WEATHER WE’RE HAVING? It seems wrong. Your phone cries out to you: Turn me on. More bad shit is happening that you need to know about.

But we don’t have much time on this planet, and we have to make the most with the time we have. There will always be trouble in the world. As long as you’re vocal and you’re unafraid to speak out against injustice, that’s a start. You can only be wide awake if you’re also getting enough sleep at night. Remembering that good things are still happening out there, supporting and loving the people around you, living in the moment: These things are even more important when the world looks extra bleak. You were not put on this planet to tune out the most gratifying, most gorgeously imperfect moments of your life and focus on nightmares instead. And if you expect to do anything worthwhile with your time, your mind needs to be a calm, placid sea.

Keeping a calm space for yourself, where you remember what matters, where you believe in the goodness of people, is fundamental. Our survival depends on it, more than ever. We have to reach out to each other and believe in each other. We have to believe that we can make our way through this shit storm, and fix what’s broken.

We don’t owe it to the world to wallow in the darkness, to stay depressed, to mourn indefinitely. We owe it to the world to believe in this day, and to believe in the future.


Please submit your own question in the response section here (where Polly will be answering questions until July 21st) or send it to

How To Be A Person In The World

Advice from Polly

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store