Regulars and Shorts

Outside the Box: Breaking News—An Attractive Nusiance

By Alice Toler

Turn off the bute and go clean out the gutters.
—by Alice Toler

In the law of torts, the attractive nuisance doctrine states that a landowner may be held liable for injuries to children trespassing on the land if the injury is caused by a hazardous object or condition on the land that is likely to attract children who are unable to appreciate the risk posed by the object or condition. The doctrine has been applied to hold landowners liable for injuries caused by abandoned cars, piles of lumber or sand, trampolines, and swimming pools. However, it can be applied to virtually anything on the property of the landowner.

As I lay in bed at 3:30 in the morning, following Twitter transcriptions of live Boston police scanner feeds, I knew I wasn’t doing myself any favors. One of the marathon bombers had been shot earlier that night, and the other, a 19-year-old boy, was on the loose and being hunted through the streets of Watertown, Massachusetts. I was jet lagged, so 3:30 a.m. was a “reasonable” hour to be awake, but still. I let myself be pulled into this story I had no ability to affect, my adrenaline spiking over and over again, until my body started to feel like a kid’s after a Halloween candy binge. Eventually around 6 a.m. I forced myself to close my laptop and get some more sleep.

All of the next day, I found it hard to concentrate. A borked circadian rhythm combined with heightened baseline anxiety made simple tasks like loading the dishwasher seem insurmountable. I wound up online over and over, either checking for news out of Boston or trying to distract myself by looking at pictures of cats. David Sipress, a cartoonist for the New Yorker, expressed it perfectly: he sketched a couple walking down a city street, the woman saying to her partner, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.” Farhad Manjoo over at recommended that we’d all be better off cleaning our gutters than trying to follow breaking news either on TV or the Internet. I think he’s right. The news these days has turned into an Attractive Nuisance.

It may not be as obvious an injury as breaking an arm while falling into someone else’s abandoned swimming pool, but the emotional distortions we all undergo when we let ourselves get sucked beyond the event horizon of “breaking news” leave a mark on us, and have the potential affect everyone we interact with. On April 19, the day of the manhunt, I was exhausted, cranky, anxious and paranoid. I’m not advocating avoiding the news altogether, but I think that it’s important to develop the discipline to decide when it’s worth trading the health of our bodies and minds for a level of involvement with current events. Some people may feel more energized by following the news, but I’m exhausted by it. I’m giving myself, and all of you, permission to turn it off if it makes you feel angry, restless, nervous, revolted, sad, frightened, paranoid, fatigued, queasy, jittery, irritable or just plain bad.

The greatest work that any of us do is to take responsibility for the energy we communicate to others, which is the energy we cultivate inside ourselves on a daily basis. The world is not a safe place and it never will be, so figuring out what boundaries we need to set and maintain so that we don’t get emotionally drained by all the drama is really important. Don’t let yourself be manipulated. Watch out for Attractive Nuisances—they’re everywhere, and not just on the various glowing screens we encounter every day. If something or someone makes you feel bad, ask yourself “Can I affect this? Am I learning something from this?” If the answer is ‘no’ on both counts, then what are you hoping to accomplish? Sometimes what you’re learning is that you’re letting yourself get sucked dry by things you can’t influence. In that case, the best thing is to take the lesson and move on.

Nobody bats 1000, me least of all. I’ve spent hours, days, even months circling various Attractive Nuisances in the past, and I’ll have to forgive myself for that behavior again in the future. Still, when I sit down and interact with someone, I want them to feel better for having talked with me. I don’t want to be a transparent conduit for all the trauma that the world has to offer. I can’t put a stop to all human evil, but I can dampen rather than amplify it. If that’s all I get to do during my time on this planet, that will be enough.

This article was originally published on April 26, 2013.