What do you do when the world is on fire?


Men and women stand in a temporary displacement camp for Iraqis caught-up in the fighting in and around the city of Mosul on June 24, 2014 in Kalak, Iraq (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Just made a quick trip to Florida, saw the family, and spent a little time on the beach, pondering the eventual boiling away of the oceans, and in the nearer term the fires of the Middle East. Question: Is it okay to frolic at the beach and get heavily involved in World Cup soccer, directing major amounts of emotional energy on biting incidents and last-second victory-snatching goals, in a world of war and hatred and misery?

My short answer is yes. It’s a question of psychological health. You cannot carry the weight of the world on your shoulders or you will be crushed. Some things are beyond resolution; others are inherently not your department, as they say. (Also, “Man Bites Man” is always going to be an interesting story.  “Man Kills Man” is, sadly, not a novel event.)

I am sure there are ethicists who have chewed on this difficult question: How does one justify happiness in a world of sadness? Pending further instructions I’ll take care of my family and friends.

It is not a sign of being uncaring to wall off from one’s emotional state the madness of the world. It’s more about prioritization. The same is true of one’s immediate set of challenges and duties and obligations in our ramped-up, overly connected, accelerated world: You can’t let your list of Things To Do torment you. My list routinely runs longer than 100 items, and many of them are significant. There are professional projects unfinished, new projects that must be launched. There is so much to be cleared away, cleaned, decluttered, denatured, and then reconstructed and re-conceived. There are boulders to push up daunting hills, not even metaphorically (the backyard volcano complete with operational magma chamber has been a beast to construct). The way I manage all this is by not doing most of the things on the list and then training myself not to worry about it too much. I can’t do everything, or even most things.

My motto: Let a thousand fires burn.

Of course this means that, on my deathbed, I’ll still be on deadline. I know what the final moments will be like.

Editor: “Do you think you can get it to us by Monday?”
Writer, lying: “Sure.” [Expires.]

Back to the news: The Iraq crisis is staggering to behold and there seems to be no immediate resolution other than de facto partition. At worst it’s a full-blown sectarian civil war that will rage across the entire region. Hold on to your hats.

A unified Iraq with power-sharing among Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds is U.S. policy, but tell that to ISIS or the Mahdi Army. The Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, told John Kerry,  “We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq.”

The traditional, McCainian approach is to send in the military and sort things out. But this is an unholy mess, as we see in this passage in the Post’s story today:

ISIS militants are fighting the governments on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, and an apparent decision by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to intervene to help Maliki further tangles the already complex knot of actors in the overlapping crises.

In Syria, the United States opposes both Assad and ISIS, which it condemns as a terrorist, al-Qaeda-inspired organization.

Iran supports both Assad and Maliki and is sending aid to both, although Iraq’s ambassador to Tehran on Tuesday denied reports that the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps was in Baghdad helping the government there, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a difficult formula when the “friend” winds up being Iran or Assad.

President Obama’s tenure will be remembered for many things — make your own checklist — and among the broad themes will be his failure to stem the disintegration of the tradition of bipartisan government. He will exit office with Congress virtually unable to legislate due to the ideological purity tests (on the GOP side in particular — see Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi barely fending off a challenger who declared that he’d drifted far to the left over the years).

Even in this foreign policy crisis, there’s little sense rallying to a common purpose; it’s all blame-game all the time.

Obama’s signature philosophy has been to turn crises into mere problems. It’s a ratcheting down of dilemmas, at least in theory. The catastrophe is reframed as a crisis and the crisis is reframed as a problem and the problem is reframed as a policy question.

[A fellow journalist, reading this item, points out to me: "His ratcheting-down approach is a way of managing his To Do list, which of course is the greatest To-Do List of All Time."]

Unfortunately, reality, including Iraq’s “new reality,” hasn’t cooperated.

With furrowed brow we scan the horizon for new signs of smoke.

But we’re also thinking about that big World Cup match tomorrow against Germany.

 

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach | June 20