When I was thirteen or fourteen, I started reading the newspapers. Big mistake. Murders, bombs, genocide in Rwanda; I was terrified, but I couldn’t stop myself from inhaling it all. Until one day, I came home from school, got into bed and basically refused to get out again until the world was a better place.
That plan was nixed. (Just as well, clearly, as otherwise I’d still be there waiting.) Instead, my mum told me to remember all the places where war doesn’t take place, all the people who don’t murder each other, all the planes that take off and land safely. (I still think of this, every time I get off a plane).
It was good advice. I got over it. I grew up, and became sensible – or complacent. And it’s been many years since I’ve threatened to go on strike until the world improves.
Juno, in Love and Other Man-Made Disasters, is like me aged fourteen, but on steroids. She’s scared of climate change, war and terrorism. (She’s also worried about the zombie apocalypse, urban foxes, and her mum being killed while riding on her new stepfather’s scooter.) She’s the sort of girl who seriously worries about what skills she could use in a post-apocalyptic scenario. The story is about how she learns to live in the world with those fears, without letting them overwhelm her.
These kinds of fears can hit teenagers harder, because they have access to so much information about the world but have limited experience of it. When I started writing the book, around two years ago, I assumed I had outgrown Juno’s fears. Certainly I found the news worrying but it didn’t keep me awake at night. Now … well, let’s just say the zombie apocalypse seems a lot closer. But I still find that the things she learns, over the course of the story, are the same ones that I remind myself of these days, to keep me sane.
- Keep perspective. It’s essential to remember that there ARE good things happening in the world. For example; with the tragic exception of Syria, war is actually at a historic low. So is absolute poverty. Increasing areas in Africa are now malaria free. Global carbon emissions have flatlined. (And yes but Trump, but still). Our brains just aren’t built to deal with all the world’s horrors; we need balance. Juno starts to realise this when she meets Boy, who’s able to tell her a few nuggets of good news, including about a robot arm that will help people who’ve lost a limb. (You can read their conversation here). It’s not a total cure for her anxieties – far from it – but it’s food for thought.
- Self-care: it’s not just a marketing tool! Sleeping enough, eating properly, exercise, Netflix, time with friends: these aren’t selfish, they’re vital to being an effective advocate for your causes. You can’t help anyone if you’re falling apart yourself. It’s no coincidence that Juno starts to be able to relax more while she’s discovering a new physical activity (skiing). Which also involves facing her fears (though see 4, below).
- Take action, however small. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, but even the tiniest action – volunteering (I volunteer for this organisation), campaigning, donating, joining a political party – instantly makes me feel better and less helpless. Juno makes a big decision, towards the end of the book, about her future that will mean she can actually do something about her worries instead of being consumed by them. And yes, all these individual actions are drops in the ocean. But as David Mitchell puts it in Cloud Atlas, ‘Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?’
- Be patient. I gave Juno quite a harsh lesson to learn, which is that overcoming her fears isn’t one magic moment that fixes her for good; it’s something she’ll have to work on forever. As a friend of mine said, these life lessons we get are pay as you go; you have to continually top them up. But it gets easier.
The other thing that helps balance out Juno’s fears is falling in love. It’s hard to recommend this as a cure-all for everybody, but it does help. It means that all her intense feelings find a new outlet, or get diluted at least. But I was also trying to show that it’s important to develop your own life instead of feeling you have to fight the good fight all of the time. It’s OK to build relationships that are meaningful to you instead of trying to devote yourself to the world at large. And, as Boy says, when the apocalypse comes they can be on the same team.
You can order Love and Other Man-Made Disasters from your local bookshop, or read the beginning and order it here.