The Outrage Diet

NASHVILLE — Nurses always smile at me when they check my blood pressure: Nothing to worry about there. But at a routine appointment recently, I was shocked to get a reading in the hypertension range. It was a temporary state, back to normal an hour later, but the whole episode was worrisome. I have no chronic illnesses. In the absence of any change in diet, weight or exercise, what could possibly account for a red flag like that?

Then it dawned on me that my early-morning appointment meant I’d been listening to the news all the way to the clinic. And then I’d compounded the effect of drive-time radio by scrolling through Twitter in the waiting area.

The news feels nothing less than apocalyptic. Climate change on irrefutable display as wildfires turn California and the Pacific Northwest into a furnace, as hurricanes gather and floodwaters rise. Universities returning to in-person classes just in time to worsen the already raging pandemic. Deepening economic pain as aid to our most vulnerable communities expires. Black men still getting shot in the back. Russia interfering with our election, and a Russia-supported president using the White House — our house — as a backdrop for a political convention that promulgated nothing but lies.

I could keep going, nonstop, until Nov. 3, but I’ll end the list right here lest your own blood pressure rise to a worrisome level.

I have friends who tell me that they can’t follow the news anymore, that it makes them too upset to sleep. It’s like the topless dancer’s advice in John Prine’s song “Spanish Pipedream”:

Blow up your TV, throw away your paper
Go to the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
Try and find Jesus on your own

But ignoring what’s wrong has never made anything right. I completely understand the impulse to hide from what is happening to this country, to the very planet itself. I’ve been tempted more than once to tune it all out for now and pray it all turns around on Election Day.

The problem is that our troubled state isn’t temporary. I will be singing hosannahs from the rooftops if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are elected. But a Biden presidency won’t reverse global warming. It won’t stopper the geyser of poison spewing from right-wing media, and it won’t force Facebook to rein the poisoners in. This election is our only hope for positive change, but it doesn’t offer a miracle cure — to Covid-19 or anything else that ails us.

We will have to find some way to keep informed that doesn’t induce a permanent state of high blood pressure. For me, it’s clearly safer to read bad news than to hear about it, so I lean hard on text: this newspaper, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Tennessean, the Nashville Scene, plus a bunch of newsletters, including one from my indispensable local NPR affiliate, WPLN, which offers the most readable form of local news in town despite being a radio outlet.

I have also, from time to time, tried to consume news the way my parents’ generation did: in twice-a-day doses. Several times I have attempted to ignore the news for one whole day each week — an Outrage Sabbath — but I appear to be too addicted to news to go an entire day without it. I’ve decided to try an Outrage Diet instead.

A diet doesn’t require a person to stop eating; it just requires a person to start eating better. Just as a dieter substitutes salads for burgers, my new plan is to substitute resolve for outrage. I resolve to give more money to nonprofits fighting for fairness and reason. I resolve to look for more hands-on ways to make a difference, no matter how small. I resolve to remember that while outrage is the currency of our era, it doesn’t actually buy anything. Action is what buys change.

When the Tennessee State Capitol Commission finally voted to remove a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from our State Capitol, it wasn’t because Tennessee lawmakers suddenly became woke. It’s because people marched, and people camped out on the Capitol steps, and people wrote letters to their representatives demanding change.

When Dominion Energy and its partner, Duke Energy, finally abandoned their plans for an $8 billion gas pipeline through rural North Carolina and Virginia, it wasn’t because they had become environmentalists overnight. It was because of unrelenting community opposition and donor-funded legal defeats led by the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center.

In 2018, when Doug Jones, a Democrat, won the special election to fill Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat, it wasn’t because blood-red Alabama had flipped to blue. It was because of a huge get-out-the-vote effort by grass-roots organizers in the “black belt” part of the state, where voter suppression efforts have been concentrated since Reconstruction.

“Spanish Pipedream” was released in 1971, when John Prine was barely 25 years old, but by then he had already been drafted, served in the Army and knew something about being betrayed by the leaders of his own country. It always helps to plant a little garden, that’s true, but Mr. Prine understood, even as he wrote, that hiding out from bad news was only ever a dream.

Commitment is what changes things. Hard work is what changes things. Powerless outrage doesn’t help anyone, the outraged least of all.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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