“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
How to Live Well In a 24/7 World of Bad News
A recent survey from the American Psychological Association found that more than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, with many reportedly feeling anxiety, fatigue or suffering from sleep loss. Here's how to deal.
No matter where you are on the political spectrum, we're all caught in a deluge of devastatingly bad news. According to a 2011 study, we take in the equivalent of about 174 newspapers' worth of information—five times as much as we did in 1986, the New York Times reported. And that study is seven years old; since then, the pings are only coming faster and more furiously.
A recent survey from the American Psychological Association found that more than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, with many reportedly feeling anxiety, fatigue or suffering from sleep loss. Here's how to deal. One in 10 adults checks the news every hour, while 20 percent cop to "constantly" checking in on their social media feeds, Time reports. Women especially, who are twice as likely to be plagued by anxiety as men, tend to feel overwhelmed by the never-ending cycle of bad news, psychiatrist Gail Saltz wrote in Health.
"Compassionate people are overwhelmed now with the deluge of terrible news," Krista Tippett said recently on On Being. "The pictures are too present and too vivid. The news cycle is too relentless. I see pictures of children in faraway places that wreck me for a day."
What can the compassionate person do?
What we're experiencing now, Roshi Joan Halifax told Tippett, is "empathic distress." "When we are more stabilized, then we can face the world with more buoyancy, more capacity to address these very profound social and environmental issues," she said. Here are some ideas for what that can look like in your day-to-day life.
Limit your news—and be strategic
Instead of considering your phone and its news alerts an extension of your body, set aside time—at lunch, say—to check in with what's going on in the world. We're big fans of NPR's "Up First," a 10-minute podcast segment that tells you what you need to know to start your day. Loretta Breuning, author of Habits of a Happy Brain, advises banishing the news from your bedtime routine.
Whatever you do, don't feel guilty about creating distance between you and the news in the name of emotional wellbeing. "It's important to maintain healthy boundaries, practice self-care. It's your life. Time is really precious," Kriss Kevorkian, who teaches classes on trauma, crisis and disasters in the Master of Social Work program at Walden University, told Quartz. If people find you selfish, she advises reminding them of the airplane air mask principle: "Tell them, 'Yeah, I am, because I come first.'"
Too many of your devices provide access to breaking newsNew York Times
Ask the right question—and then move on
When the news triggers your compassion ask yourself once, and only once, What can I do to solve this problem? On Tiny Buddha, Lori Deschene emphasizes the importance of thinking small. "Whether you have grand plans or not, I think it's important to play small every day—even while keeping your eye on a larger goal. The little things make a huge difference, both for us and the people whose lives we touch." Try not to ruminate and spin your wheels in compassionate distress. "If you can't think of a plan or solution that's realistic, rational, and logical, move on," Saltz wrote.
Go to a holy place
The news whirs, buzzes, drones, and whirls. Replace it with quiet and stillness. "I think there are many antidotes, actually," said Roshi Joan Halifax. "A setting...which is so physically beautiful and psycho-socially safe, is important. I think there are houses of worship in many denominations here, so people can go and touch into the stillness and, as well, into the inspiration." For you, it may be a Quaker Meeting, group meditation at the candlelit yoga studio, or a woodland grove. "This is coming back to the value of a contemplative practice," said Roshi Joan Halifax. "Within any tradition or non-tradition is that when you are in a state of deep internal stillness, you see the truth of change, the truth of impermanence that's constantly in flow, moment by moment. And so that becomes a kind of insight that liberates you from the futility of the kind of grief that disallows our own humanity to emerge."
Practice loving kindness
This form of meditation extends feelings of compassion, love, peace, and safety from the sitter to the greater world. Begin by extending blessings to yourself: "May I be happy. May I feel love. May I have peace." Then, visualize people you love—your mother, your best friend, your spouse—and extend blessings to them, eventually expanding the circle of compassion until it encompasses your town, country, and the planet. "May all beings be happy; may all beings feel love; may all living beings experience peace."
Broaden your field of vision
It's not only spirituality, meditation, and nature that can restore our feelings of interconnectedness and equanimity. This is also the dominion of great art and literature. "We've turned our vision to being so superficial and outward," said Roshi Joan Halifax. In addition to turning your attention to the wider world, focus your attention on works of art and beauty. News isn't the only form of media; remember verse, sculpture, sonnets? Artists have been working through questions of compassion and meaning in novels, poetry, and painting for centuries. Be restored by the answers there.
"There's a potential for a new kind of enlightenment in our time," said Roshi Joan Halifax. "And that is, I think, a yearning that many of us experience, as we see the world distancing itself from its own heart." Seeing this yearning, this desire, fills her with hope rather than futility. Follow the longing you feel. Reframe your discomfort as vital information—your body and soul are telling you they want to reconnect to the heart of the world.
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