Background noise

by +CrystalThieringer    @cdthieringer


Several years ago, I was sharing hotel space with someone. I find hallway noise distracting, and since we were both focusing on our computers,  I asked if she minded my turning the television on.

I just want the background noise.”

As a woman who had lived alone for quite a few years, I appreciate the illusion of company that a television show gives me. It is easier for me to half-listen to a fictional conversation than it is to half-listen to music (the latter tortures me with ear worms for days). I am especially fond of shows that sound like old-fashioned radio plays, where I know the characters and can follow the storyline without really having to watch–much like I enjoy listening to audiobooks now while I walk or cook.

In this case, the show was a popular crime drama that focused on why people did the things they did, and what kinds of things in their backgrounds may have led to them committing their crimes. Of course, the heroes got the bad guys, though victory sometimes left residual scars.

“You really don’t watch it, do you?” said my acquaintance after a few minutes. We turned the television off.

Later that year, she told me details of horrifying stories from her childhood. People can be wretched towards each other, this we know. Listening to her, I understood, painfully, why that particular show bothered her.

Perceptions and perspectives change when fiction and real-life collide like that.

That drama is still on the air, but seldom in our home. I’ve realized how much darker it has become, and I’ve wondered why I hadn’t caught on to it sooner. I’ve seen snippets from the first season again. It wasn’t as graphic, sadistic or upsetting, to be honest. As the viewing audience–people just like me–became accustomed to it, the ratings probably started to slip, and the producers nudged the violence and realism. I became accustomed to that as well.

I didn’t realize it until I did a comparison of the first season to the tenth. My lack of discernment angered me. My blasé attitude towards appalling behaviours humbled me, and subsequently challenged me.

It takes energy, however, to be aware in real-life, and the sad truth is this: I don’t always want to expend it on the important things.

Last year, for example, I was quite upset over the plight of a little boy dressed in red and blue. His “iconic” photo was cropped and meme’d and sent over ever social media network until a more important celebrity knocked him out of circulation with another “break-the-internet” selfie. Now there is another “iconic” photo of another child making the rounds.

I’m struggling with empathy fatigue here. It isn’t that I don’t care. I do. Deeply. Yet I’m tired of having my emotions bombarded, manipulated and twisted.

The thing that struck me most about the photo of the first child, the thing that haunts me still a year later, was not the tragedy of his death–though it absolutely was tragic.aylan kurdi full

The thing I can’t resolve in that photo are the two men we seldom talk about, the ones in the top right hand corner, the people cropped out in favour of the more emotion-tugging little boy who looked as though he was sleeping instead of drowned. These men who appear to be discussing the weather, who seem to be doing nothing but standing around with a fishing gear leaned against the chair, as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

Just like it was with my friend that day, the background noise is the problem.

The question is whether or not I’ve become background noise too, and if I have, has it changed me?


Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 

Philippians 4:8

16 thoughts on “Background noise

  1. Well, I would not consider this piece background noise at all. Excellent points, particularly the questions about the men who are indeed in the background.

    1. We don’t know what happened to them, and they have not become the poster children for what is wrong with the world–yet I think they are equally “iconic” and they are the ones I’m more curious about. They are the ones who challenge me to be better. I often wonder how they are now, and how this has changed them.

  2. It’s so easy to become inured to escalating “noise,” particularly these days when tragedy seems to be coming in unending waves with no relief in sight. Like you, I care deeply, but I am exhausted.

    I am reminded of a line from Sarah Kaye’s poem “B”: “[N]o matter how wide you stretch your fingers, your hands will always be too small to catch all the pain you want to heal.” But we still have to try, don’t we? On some level? Even if it is just to keep our hearts tender enough to care.

    Thank you for your voice, and for reminding me that, as a child of God, I am called to be tender-hearted.

    1. We do have to try. We absolutely do. Sometimes I have to step back and breathe a little, so I can tend the callouses I am developing. I have to reassess my habits–like the television show I was (not) watching, and figure out what my soul can live with. I want to be tender-hearted. I don’t want to be white noise. Thanks for stopping by, Carryl. You have always challenged my thinking and I appreciate your thoughts.

  3. Thanks for sharing. It is all too easy to become desensitized to the violence and other horrors that are always bombarding us through various media. It upsets me most when people make jokes about such things as a means of making them socially “acceptable”. People go to horror movies to be “entertained” as though there isn’t enough horror to go around in real life.

    It’s good to speak out against such things but also keep focused on the love of God for each and every human on earth.

    1. We become desensitized like the frog in a pot of water brought to boil–we don’t even realize it happens. That’s what bothers me the most. We somehow create a curtain between real-life and imagined life, but the fabric is frayed so badly now, it’s almost translucent much to our detriment. I’m not always convinced the jokes are to make things socially acceptable as much as they are to excuse our unwillingness to admit we don’t know how to fix them (or our simple unwillingness to try). I only chose one example–there are so many more out there. It is overwhelming some days. Thank God for reminders to step back and refocus.

      Grateful you stopped by, Doug. It’s nice to hear from you.

  4. Your post touches on so many good points. The violence and tragedy in the world often times make me want to shut off the tv, close the laptop or newspaper. We should feel outraged, something. As you so aptly reveal, we are emotional exhausted to the point it becomes common white noise, or in my case, probably sheer avoidance at times.

    Great thought provoking post, Crystal. I’m sure I’ll be back to read a few times as I ponder this,

    1. I avoid as well…and sometimes I need to until I can get myself to the point of being able to breathe and absorb and make decisions again. I must focus on the noble, the true and the right in order to even recognize the horrible.

  5. I liked the scripture you left. It reminds me to witness to the grace as well as the horrors in life. I don’t know why certain images capture our attention — especially when a war has been going on for years. It’s always the silence, the indifference (the men fishing in the background) that hurts the most. Loved this. Thank you.

    1. We do need to choose our focus, as you do so well, Carolyn. I have learned much from you because you are not indifferent to the people around you. I chose the scripture because I can choose the background to my life–I just didn’t think I’ve been doing a very good job lately.

  6. “It takes energy, however, to be aware in real-life, and the sad truth is this: I don’t always want to expend it on the important things.” Sometimes life is so exhausting. We don’t watch TV, per se. There is a TV. I think in the almost two years we’ve been married, we’ve watched about six shows. So background noise is not the TV. But there is lots of static provided by social media, and busyness, and tedium that interferes with what’s really important. You are such a lovely person. If you are this aware of how things affect you, I’m guessing the effects haven’t been too detrimental. <3

    1. Static is everywhere. This morning I made myself go outside and just sit in our yard–a treat I haven’t been home to enjoy for awhile. How I’ve missed my birds, our little chipmunk. These help me to refocus again–and reverse what certainly feels detrimental. Thanks for your kind words!

  7. “I’m struggling with empathy fatigue here. It isn’t that I don’t care. I do. Deeply. Yet I’m tired of having my emotions bombarded, manipulated and twisted.” I was trying to explain this just the other day, but didn’t express it as well as you do. The TV shows, the news, social media, certain writers—how can we possibly care deeply about everyone else’s pain without suffering too? As Denise said, it’s exhausting. Self-care matters too.

    Your piece reminded me of a stop at a garage sale, the day after 9-11. I was numb, like most everyone. The woman having the sale said, “It’s over. I don’t know why everyone has to keep talking about it.” She was the fisherman in the photo. I never forgot her words.

    1. It’s hard–but critical–to strike the balance. I’m finding that I need to clear away the background noise, the white noise, the distractions in order to feel truth again. There are things my soul knows, but I’ve not been listening.

  8. There are so many things that we aren’t aware of any more! And I agree, it can be exhausting to notice all of those things. I find social media drains me because you are just bombarded with all kinds of negative things.
    Often I have wondered, what’s the point of writing this, it’s probably been said before. But as I finished reading your blog I realized that even if I become background noise to some people, there are other people that will hear and be aware of my message. I would encourage you by saying it is the same for every writer. Sometimes you’ll only get a passing glance, other times somebody will sit down and thoughtfully read your words and learn something.
    I have certainly learned something from you today, and I am thankful you decided to share this!

    1. Thanks, JB. I think my fear of being background noise isn’t so much that I have nothing to say or won’t be heard–but that I’ve so numbed myself that I don’t notice anything around me. Your encouragement means a lot, thanks for taking time to reach out!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *