As a GP I spend a lot of time reassuring people. It may be that the lesion on their forehead looks benign, their cholesterol level is within normal limits, or the insomnia they’ve had since their mother died, two weeks ago, is only to be expected. The power of reassurance should not be underestimated. It can be therapeutic—take the patient whose headaches disappear with a normal MRI.
Nowadays reassurance is in short supply. Particularly in the media. I recently had to take a break from watching the news because I found myself having irrational thoughts about people around me. Thoughts that the pensioner in the park was secretly wishing my children harm; that the lone man walking behind me on the street was actually a sexual predator. I live a peaceful life in which strangers, as a general rule, treat me with respect, and yet the media had me believing I was under constant threat. And it wasn’t just my or my children’s personal safety at risk. It was my country’s security, my children’s future, my very way of being. Depending on who I chose to believe, my offspring were destined to grow up in a world either at war with terrorists or ruled by fascists or devastated by climate change. And if they survived all that then they would be self-serving, socially disconnected, Facebook-addicted narcissists. As far as I could see, there were no proposed or celebrated solutions for the future. Everybody, it seemed, was doing the wrong thing.
A few weeks ago, as I was driving home from work, the song Accentuate the Positive came on the radio. Having just listened to the ABC news headlines about clashes between Anti-Muslim and Anti-Racist protesters, the song seemed an insult—trite and irrelevant. I later learned that the tune was recorded in 1944 and reached number 2 on the Billboard charts in 1945. That such an uplifting song, with its saccharine lyrics, was popular during a world war, surprised me. It highlighted people’s need for a positive mantra, something to cling to, in times of crisis.
There is a pervasive pessimism in the mainstream media today. As a consumer it is hard to feel anything other than despair. Don’t get me wrong, there are awful things happening in the world; injustices we must collectively rail and speak out against. But are there really more terrible things happening today than, say, fifty or sixty years ago? Or is it just that in our world of social media we are painfully more aware of them? When I was growing up people watched the news once a day, in the evenings. Nowadays we have 24 hour news channels. When a major event happens anywhere in the world every network stops regular screening to break the story. Details of violent attacks, numbers dead, are repeated over and over again. And just in case we missed it, there are news tickers running across the bottom of the screen. This is, I believe, having a significant impact upon the more mentally fragile members of our community. I see such people emerge briefly from the darkness of their illness to take stock of the world only to want to crawl even deeper into their black holes.
We have seen Malcolm Turnbull recently enjoy a prolonged honeymoon in the polls. I wonder if this can be attributed his cautiously positive approach. After all— at this stage at least—it is really the only thing separating him from his unpopular predecessor, Tony Abbott. Whether the Australian public believe him or not, perhaps they like being told that “there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian”. Perhaps they delight in hearing that the economy is not so bad after all; that in spite of what happened in Paris we do not need to raise our terror alert; that Australia is, still, a great example of multiculturalism. I see the power of reassurance every day in my line of work. Maybe, like the patient with the headaches, Australians are responding to reassurance that—in spite of media commentary to the contrary—everything is going to be OK.