REACHING FOR EQUILIBRIUM: Private Tranquility and Public Concern
(April 30, 2024)

This month’s post explores an Agile Aging challenge: How can we preserve a tranquil private life while keeping informed about turbulent public affairs?

I’ll lead off with the recent family incident that bumped this simmering tension to my front burner. Then a few personal preconceptions about striking a sustainable balance. Next, the experiences and opinions of a Zoom circle of friends who agreed to share their own perspectives. Finally, some takeaways to distil what we’ve been learning together.   


            The day that sparked this post started off routinely enough. Nancy and I make a practice of heading off on Sunday mornings to one of a half-dozen local coffee bars to enjoy lattes and pastries. These are precious quiet times without an agenda. Afterwards, we usually stroll past unopened shops or drive through wooded neighborhoods.

            Before starting out, we faithfully tune in to the 7am PST broadcast of Global Public Square, Fareed Zakaria’s weekly summary of international and national news on CNN. This has been a family ritual for us since before we returned to the States a dozen years ago. We appreciate the timeliness of his selected topics, the succinctness and moderation of his reporting, and the way he lets insightful interview guests make their points without interruption.

            That morning’s program was particularly meaty. Compact segments covered the politicization of American evangelism, Gaza hostilities and Netanyahu’s machinations, Ukraine’s and NATO’s vulnerability if Trump is elected, and the Chinese Government’s mobilization of social media to smack down domestic entrepreneurs. 

            We were so absorbed that we arrived at the coffee bar still animated, rehashing the broadcast arguments and adding other details we’d gleaned from the internet, newspapers or magazines. Our discussion was stimulating. Our tranquility was shattered.

            Somehow we’d allowed ourselves to ambush our own respite. We joked that we could have salvaged caffeine serenity by watching Zakaria at 10am instead of 7. More seriously, we realized this tension was pervasive. We value keeping apprised of public affairs, considering it almost our civic duty, as well as a legacy of our decades living and working abroad. But peacefulness is also a top family priority. On this and similar recent occasions, we were finding ourselves whipsawed between competing personal objectives.

Breaking News
chair on the beach


            As I began considering using my blog to explore this private/public tension, I quickly confirmed that, for me at least, this was no simple scheduling exercise, segregating croissants from breaking news. Nor did opting solely for either private tranquility or public awareness seem mature or sustainable.

            Turning off the TV and shutting out public affairs did have an impulsive appeal. Why permit these dyspeptic intrusions? Too many politicians are cynical opportunists; too many news bulletins are deliberately inflammatory. Even some courts can seem irresponsibly partisan. Besides, I obviously had no power to ameliorate protracted conflicts. Why not roll down the blinds and curl up with Siddhartha? On reflection, however, private insulation and isolation struck me as narcissistic. I was already wondering whether our retirement community’s packed calendar of intramural activities and entertainments might not be reducing residents’ awareness of extramural developments. Are we dancing on The Titanic?

            On the other hand, I was determined not to get sucked into Trump’s nightly whirlpool. After his 2016 upset victory, I had been depressed and dysfunctional for weeks. Nancy periodically encourages me to try and avoid a repeat of that emotional paralysis. This demagogue holds no more secrets. After eight years of rhetorical arson, he’s in recycle mode. This does not mean we should downplay the gravity of his threats.  If he wins on November 5, he may deploy armed force to deport thousands of immigrants whose labor powers much of our economy. If he loses, he may incite armed mobs.  Elite enclaves could become tempting, vulnerable targets. My consequent aim for public awareness is to stay alert but not obsess.

            I wondered how other seniors were balancing private tranquility with public concern.



            Just as I was wrestling with my own dilemma, it was time for the monthly meeting of our San Francisco Bay Area Zoom circle. A dozen or more members of our Yale Class of 1964 tune in to discuss issues of mutual interest. I asked Convener Owen O’Donnell if I could invite guys around this virtual table to join a balancing-act conversation. He said sure, they said sure, so I distributed two core questions: (1) Are you experiencing tension between maintaining private tranquility and public awareness; and (2) If so, what techniques are you employing to reduce this tension and how is it working out?

            Question 1

            Most Zoomers responded affirmatively: public turmoil is severely disrupting their private tranquility, with social and news media fanning the flames.

            Don emphasized that this tension isn’t merely intellectual or detached: Diane and I are both liberals. We are friends with a couple who are markedly conservative. Our dinner gatherings frequently devolve into shouting matches. Both sides continue to meet, because apart from that issue, this couple are fine people. And both sides feel it’s important to understand other points of view. But my wife and I periodically ask ourselves “How can they even think that?!”

            Two classmates shared a more pessimistic perspective. Joe volunteered “For me, tranquility is impossible in the face of disorder in America and the world.” Ron spelled out a comparable resignation: “Not a great deal of tension, no. As a professional negotiator, I realized years ago there were outcomes I could not influence, so the wisest course was to exercise emotional self-control. I regret the situations in the Middle East and elsewhere extremely, but it serves little purpose to devote attention to them. And I have known for decades which political party I favor; as Barney Frank put it, ‘We’re not perfect, but they’re crazy.’”.

            Only one Zoom participant reported experiencing no tension. Chip traced the evolution of his immunity: “I read daily newspapers (and I agree we live in scary times). And I watch FOX News and some of the many other know-everything stations. Then I watch some of our local athletics.  I was very fortunate to live with an exciting father (TRW-sputnik), a wonderful mother and 3 great sibs (who stay in touch by phone and get-togethers.” 

            Question 2

            The most popular technique for reducing tension was to tune out unwelcome political information. Owen pulled no punches: “I try to resolve that tension by truncating my consumption of the news by reading headlines only and ignoring articles that I am sure will disturb me. In addition, I never listen to news about Donald Trump for longer than 15 seconds. It is only partially successful.”

           Lee conceded that his self-defense strategy introduces trade-offs: “I limit my exposure to ‘News’ and keep some of my reflection time explicitly for ‘Good News.’ As a result, I often feel ‘under-informed,’ but on balance it is enough.” Don carries this strategy one step further: “It’s simple. We don’t own a television, and sample news sparingly on the internet and NPR.”

            Sandy articulated a more affirmative, spiritual strategy: “For me, that balance is maintained through adopting a higher perspective: good vs. evil, the good that God wants us to experience and perpetuate for others contrasted with the demoralizing evil in abundance in our wider surroundings. I practice a very conscious filtering of the latter, knowing what evil is up to, what the lies and deceptions are, yet without taking in the fret and worry, praying and amplifying the more loving ‘local” aspects of daily life immediately available as friendship, fellowship and compassion.”

            John has adopted an analogous spiritual perspective: “I address this tension by placing current events into an evolutionary context, believing humanity is experiencing a significant biological transition. This long-term view fosters an informed faith in our path to equilibrium, balancing my engagement with tranquility.”

            Tom linked others’ concerns and remedies in a distinctively personal package: “I am indeed addicted to the continuing drama surrounding us these days, and I feel a great deal of concern about the way our country is behaving on a number of fronts. I have a hard time tuning it all out, so I ration myself by watching a few minutes of news early morning and late afternoon and try to tune it out the rest of the time. I am still working so I can try to focus on business stuff. Having said all that, I can keep the TV off, but I can’t entirely shut off the internet. It’s a mixture of distress and fascination for me, watching the ‘leaders’ of our country prove to be so feckless. Wish I had more useful insights.”

            Reviewing classmates’ techniques for reducing tension between private and public spheres, I noticed how most focused on shutting out or screening suspect public information. Protecting private life, whether or not tranquil, by raising shields against public assaults. To me, this resembled selective siloing. My own objective has been to deliberately listen to some “objectionable” messaging. It’s much less comforting than supportive content but keeps me attuned to a broader spectrum of opinions.

            In the public domain, several classmates made the point that they’d rather strive for influence and impact through taking action, rather than merely keeping informed. This aspiration almost certainly requires a narrowing of geographical scope. Steve acknowledged this linkage: “I’ve always followed Marx’s dictum to not simply ‘interpret the world but to change it.’ As I can’t change what’s happening in Palestine, I’ve doubled down on my advocacy efforts which can make a change, such as road safety, local police abuse and voter registration.” In this same context, Bob briefed our Zoom circle on a potent initiative launched by four East Bay individuals. It has quietly raised tens of millions of dollars from small contributions, directing these funds to support local non-profits.

            I respect the pragmatism of acting locally. Having worked as an international policy advisor for 40 years, I’m acutely aware how difficult it is to make a positive contribution at that level. We’re talking decades of sustained dedication, powerful institutional sponsors with deep pockets, and incremental host-country capacity-building. Within America, opportunities for contributing an individual impact at the national or state level is comparably remote. In California, for example, there are almost no electoral toss-ups. Of 52 Congressional seats, only seven are considered contestable in 2024. Democrats control 40 of those seats, both U.S. Senators, the State Executive Branch and both chambers of the State Legislature. Motivated California activists, Democrat and Republican, can make cross-country phone calls to get out the vote in one of six swing states. But long-distance outreach risks provoking reasonable resentment of carpet-bagging. Campaign contributions are always welcome, but how many of us are billionaires?  

            In this money-driven and –dominated public-affairs environment, local engagement emphatically does seem most promising for individual influence and impact. Paralleling Steve’s examples, in Nancy’s and my elder village, residents are actively and effectively involved in such community-strengthening initiatives as emergency preparedness and wildfire mitigation, liaison with town authorities, and promoting self-defense against scamming.    



            This blog post has no statistical significance, no random sample, no quantitative data. It simply reports an informal email exchange between a single blogger and a dozen Zooming friends. Still, Agile Aging is dedicated to growing old thoughtfully, making the most of life’s final stage. So I wanted to record and share our exchange as a freeze-frame of feelings. What’s it like to navigate these turbulent straits with no clue to our destination?

            Here are a few preliminary impressions I’m carrying away from our Equilibrium conversation.

            Chafing at the tension I was experiencing between private tranquility and public awareness, I asked the Zoom circle if they were enduring comparable discomfort. Their responses revealed a strong consensus. Most were troubled by intrusive political noise. I found the intensity of their disruption revealing. Ours is a privileged, secure and educated circle. If we’re feeling so badgered and bothered, what does that suggest about less insulated compatriots? (Small wonder America has recently dropped out of Gallup’s top 20 happiest countries for the first time ever.)

           My friends’ preferred remedies were to tune out manipulative propaganda and focus instead on nurturing personal and community relationships; what they can “influence and impact.” I share this gut-churned aversion to cynical disinformation. But I’m determined to keep informed by reliable sources about national and international developments. Part of my stubbornness may be intellectual arrogance. But I want to be able to contribute to local exchanges and to be forewarned if America’s democratic stability is under siege. If concerned citizens withdraw into informational comfort zones, I fear this may expose communication channels to authoritarian expropriation.      

            A recent New York Times article gave me a shiver of deja vu. (Elisabetta Povoledo, “Formal Dining Room unearthed From Pompeii Ruins,” April 12, 2024.) Archaeologists working at the edge of Pompeii’s excavated zone have unearthed a splendid residential dining room, complete with mythological frescoes. Directly adjacent, they found stacked roof tiles, work tools, bricks and lime. The scientists’ interpretation is that this was not new construction but repairs, patching damage from an earthquake a few months before. Business-as-usual. Vesuvius permanently terminated that routine maintenance on August 2, 79 CE.

Pompeii’s cataclysm was geological in origin. America’s next eruption is more likely to be electoral. LOOK UP, LOOK OUT, LOOK AHEAD.

Thanks to Owen O’Donnell for nurturing our Zoom community.

And to for the use of its photos.



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