According to the recently released COVID Response Tracking Study, Americans are the unhappiest they’ve been in fifty years. With the pandemic, mass shootings, and ongoing environmental catastrophes, it can be easy to feel like we’re always in crisis—and to believe that the world is coming to an end. But journalist Emma Varvaloucas believes that this pessimism runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and if we want to build a better future, we have to change how we relate to the news.
Previously the executive editor at Tricycle, Varvaloucas now serves as the executive director of the Progress Network, a nonprofit media organization dedicated to countering the negativity of the mainstream news cycle. Through amplifying stories and statistics that often go unnoticed, the Progress Network aims to serve as an antidote to doomscrolling and to offer a more constructive take on current events.
In a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, Tricycle editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, sat down with Varvaloucas to discuss the dangers of cynicism, how her Buddhist practice informs how she engages with the news, and what can happen when we actually pay attention to what’s going right.
James Shaheen (JS): You currently work as the executive director of the Progress Network. Can you tell us more about the organization?
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): The Progress Network is a nonprofit media organization focused on paying more attention to what’s going right. It launched in October 2020 in the lead-up to the 2020 election and in the midst of the acute part of the pandemic. It might seem like a strange time to launch such an organization. But we felt that this was exactly when the United States needed something like the Progress Network.
We’re locked in a zeitgeist of negativity and cynicism right now. There are certainly many reasons for us to feel that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. But there’s actually a lot of evidence for the opposite. There are many indicators that we’re building a world that’s going in a constructive direction, and a lot of people just don’t know about them. The media isn’t giving us a lot of opportunity to pay attention to these stories.
JS: The mission statement for the Progress Network states that pessimism “can focus the mind, but it can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading people to detach and despair rather than galvanizing us.” Can you say more about the dangers of pessimism and the feedback loops it creates?
EV: It’s similar to the Buddha’s teachings on anger: holding on to anger is like holding on to a hot coal; you end up burning yourself. This is true of anger that inspires activism. At a certain point, the anger is going to burn out. Like anger, pessimism can be a really strong force. It can push people to action in the short term. But it’s not going to bring us to the future that we want to see. It’s just too easy to drop from pessimism into cynicism. Often pessimism is built on us-versus-them arguments rather than arguments for creating a better society that make sure that we’re not going to give up along the way.
JS: How does the feeling that we’re constantly in crisis change how we perceive the world and relate to the people around us?
EV: Feeling like we’re constantly in crisis makes everything seem urgent. When everything seems urgent, it flattens the distinction between urgency and importance. Everything gets mixed up because everything seems equally terrible. This prevents dialogue from happening—and it prevents us from thinking through important questions. Are we choosing a way that’s going to lead to more problems down the road? Are we choosing a cure that is worse than the disease?
JS: Before working at the Progress Network, you were steeped in the Buddhist world. How does your Buddhist practice inform how you relate to these questions and to this cycle of pessimism?
EV: I believe that the mindset with which you approach something completely changes how you react to something: how you see it, how you understand it, and how you digest it. This is why focusing our attention is so important. If you continually focus on everything that’s going wrong, all you’re going to do is gather more evidence for why that’s correct. This is going to feed into the cycle of cynicism. And then when you do encounter something that actually might be more neutral or even good, it doesn’t even enter your awareness.
But if you’re coming at it from a fundamentally different framework, then you’re opening up your field of inquiry. You’re allowing reality to come to you. You’re seeing what’s out there rather than imposing a preassumed story about what’s going on. I see this as a fundamentally Buddhist mindset. It’s an inquiry: you’re looking, you’re paying attention, and you’re asking. Every day when I wake up and I read the news, I want to prevent myself from falling into thinking, “Here we go again, the same old stuff.” That Buddhist mindset of keeping nonreactive open awareness definitely helps. This mindset is embedded in the framework of the Progress Network.
JS: People might be surprised to know that the Progress Network tends to avoid headlines that focus on hope. Why is that?
EV: We try to avoid the term “hope” altogether. We’re not trying to convince you that everything is fine. Not everything is fine. We’re not even trying to tell you that the scales are tipped toward better and not tipped toward worse. No one really knows. What we’re trying to put out there instead is that there are facts that we’re just not paying attention to. At the end of the day, you can decide if you think the scales are tipped in one direction or the other. We’re just here to show you some stories you hadn’t heard about and to offer a different way of approaching things.
We’re focused less on seeing the glass as half full and more on ditching the arrogance and the surety that we know the outcome of the future—and that we know that the future is going to be bad. Our attitude is that we try to remain with what is going on rather than being absolutely positive that things will turn out badly. Because we just don’t know. It’s a humble optimism.
JS: The mission statement of the Progress Network states that “the present feels almost unbearably messy, but these are the times to reshape the world.” Can you say more about this? Why are these the times to reshape the world?
EV: If you’re not going to do it now, when are you going to do it? I think that people sometimes are waiting around for things to be simpler or easier to understand. They probably won’t be. We’re living in an age where there’s information coming at us from left, right, and center. We’re dealing with things that we’ve never had to deal with before. We have to be willing to dive into the mess. You can’t look at the mess and be intimidated and just say no. If we don’t jump in, someone else is going to jump in for us, and we’re going to end up in a future that we haven’t taken part in at all.
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