Sometimes, Staying Woke Means Staying Away

Photo illustration by Elena Scotti/The Root/GMG
Photo illustration by Elena Scotti/The Root/GMG

Waking up to tragedies of some measure has become the norm over the years. Lately it feels as if every day there’s another hashtag created to expose our worst fears or break what’s left of our hearts.


I wasn’t clear on what had happened; all I saw were the hashtags floating down the page. My head started to spin, and I suddenly couldn’t remember what Manchester was. A college? A town? Both. But where?

Then I remembered the soccer club my son hates and the cousin who went to university there. My heart slowed and then quickened with the “RIPs to,” “prayers for” and “My [sister/cousin/best friend] was there … I can’t reach them … ” And the faces smiling into a future they won’t see; the tweets full of panic, turning Twitter into a virtual search party.

It reminded me of all those years ago, sitting in my Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment, my face boneless and wet, as I watched those buildings crumble to dust. That day is part of my DNA. Much like the stillness of my classroom as the Challenger exploded before us, or the fear and sadness that swallowed me as I watched Los Angeles go up in flames.

Back then, there were no hashtags to search, no accidental viewing of dead bodies between the latest celebrity happenings or presidential blunder. There were no pundits to politicize or finger-wag (yet); there was just a collective grieving. A community of people saddened and confused.

And though I took each incident harder than made sense to my yet undiagnosed self, I knew that I wasn’t alone in it. I knew that others had seen and had felt the same horror and confusion. But there was also the ability to simply walk away: from the news, from the grief, from the constant deluge of information. There was space to just forget; there was time to gather ourselves and make sense of the senseless.

With the advent of the internet and social media, it feels as if these tragedies are amplified. At every turn, there is a hashtag or photos of broken bodies littering streets, or video of brown and black bodies bleeding and the echo of gunshots. It is almost unavoidable. I’ve accidentally seen more than I have ever chosen to see.


The pressure to take to the streets, to do something (RESIST! RESIST! RESIST!), is great. The thought is that it raises awareness; that we are part of the solution; that we must never forget these horrors or place one above the other in attention and amplification. But for some of us—the ones who hold life and death in the same shallow expanse of breath; the ones who find sleep an uneasy, uncomfortable space; the ones who are unable to keep our moods and our spirits at the same elevated level—exposure to these things does a damage.

And yes, it can be argued that our discomfort or anxieties or depressions don’t hold a candle to the atrocities in the world, but I will say that just because we can’t spend our days consumed by or staring it in the face doesn’t mean we don’t care. Often, we care more than makes sense. We carry these things with us until we are heavy with it.


There is often guilt when there is no movement or room for marches, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t care or that we have grown complacent; it only means that for some of us, the mere ability to find morning is a radical act of resistance. We simply cannot afford to melt and sigh into the latest thing that has broken the world open. Some of us need permission to turn away, to turn off, walk away and spend time in spaces that hold us steady.

The balance is not easy even for the most stable among us.

Times have changed.

Social media has become our community.

The people we connect to and with have become family. What happens in Nigeria appears in our laps thousands of miles away; conversely, those across the world have gathered the names of our martyrs in their mouths.


This week I did what I could: I shared a call for the missing and checked on the people I knew in and around the United Kingdom. I tweeted my thoughts on terror and what it means to politicize our fears, and then I changed into my workout clothes, splashed water on my face and went to the gym.

I could not afford to let the thing enter. I could already feel it tugging at my corners like an attention-starved child. I had to give myself permission to turn it off and turn away.


I hope you give yourself permission to turn it off and turn away. Find Netflix or Bruno Mars or a book that only asks that you believe two people can fall in love.

Sometimes, staying woke simply means staying alive.


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