The writer is a US-based author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Home Free: An American Road Trip, among other books.

I don’t know what to write about.
I don’t mean that I don’t know what to write about this week in particular. A weekly columnist’s job is to write something every week, and I intend to do my job, just like any workman lugging his lunchbox to the construction site. And there’s always plenty – too much – to write about. I’m sure that if, per received norms, I were to write about American current events in and around the week in which I’m writing this, I could muster up some cluster of comments or observations that would sound reasonably intelligent. But that’s part of the problem: too many writers do just that, every week.

What I mean is that I don’t know what to write anymore, that would add anything particularly helpful or original to discussion of public life in America.

Except this: that public life is not all of life.

Retreat into private and family life and narrower loyalties is a coping mechanism that I’ve seen in many Pakistanis over the 20-plus years I’ve known your country. It has its merits, and I can certainly understand the impulse. “This knife-edge we live on today is because everyone sees the successes, nobody sees the failures,” an acquaintance in Karachi said to me, prophetically, some 15 years ago. “Nobody is willing to see the failures. And for every success, there are hundreds of failures. And television plays such a big part in it: when you’re sitting every night in front of the TV, and it’s spewing out this stuff, and you get the sense that this is the centre of things, this is where it’s at. … As an individual, I think the response is to isolate yourself.”

It’s an impulse I’m feeling a lot these days, and increasingly obeying. And I find myself asking: What really matters to me? My family, for starters, and my wife. My grown stepson, who makes me proud. Our two delightful young cats. Our garden and our neighbourhood. My personal friendships, which exist offline at local concerts and, most wonderfully, on long urban hikes throughout the marvellously scenic city of Seattle. None of these people and things has anything directly to do with what we call politics, yet my enjoyment of them is tinged by worry and shaded by the darkness into which the society I live in has recently plunged.

All of these musings come to me because I’m writing this in the week that the American political class went through the hollow annual ritual of the President’s State of the Union speech. I knew it was going to happen, probably snorted in disgust once or twice. What’s disgusting is that they go through the motions as if things were normal, when everybody knows they’re not. So I knew the speech was going to happen, as it does every January, but then I forgot about it. I never watched it even back when American life was allegedly normal.

So what happened was that just before 7:30pm on Tuesday, January 30, as I was dishing up our dinner, I reminded my wife to turn on our favourite game show. She did, but what came on our TV screen instead was the hateful, arrogant face of the President of the United States. She turned it back off promptly, but not promptly enough; we were both left feeling assaulted and soiled. That is the state of public life in America today. The on-demand video channel Netflix is a lifesaver these days. The following day, experimentally and for the sake of my own mental health, I skipped an entire 24-hour news cycle. I didn’t willingly look at a single article of news or opinion all day. I even deleted the “pinned tab” for The Guardian in my web browser. So I don’t even really know what anyone had to say about the State of the Union speech on American TV talk shows or in American newspapers. I got dribs and drabs of some of it via sidelong glances at Twitter and in conversation with my wife, and that was more than enough. A side consequence is that I also don’t know much about what else might have happened that day that I should have been paying attention to, and my wife reminds me that that’s not good. Unplugging from media is a double-edged sword, to be sure. And, ironically, media is where you’re reading this very column. But ignoring the news felt so good that I repeated the exercise again the next day.

What we in America are living with now is more than a mere problem that can be fixed. We Americans are “can do” people; we like to identify and fix problems. But this isn’t one of those. What it is, is fundamental and, I think, irremediable damage to all the institutions of our national life. Which, again, is something I’m regrettably confident my Pakistani readers understand.

What should we be paying attention to? Well, plenty of other things. The severe water crisis in Cape Town, for example. The ongoing suffering in Puerto Rico, a territory whose citizens are fully fledged U.S. citizens, but who have been inexcusably ignored and insulted by the government under Trump since a major hurricane devastated their island in September. The genocidal death toll in Yemen and the continuing destruction of Syria. The millions languishing in refugee camps across Europe. (Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.)

But it’s not only a matter of what we pay attention to, but of how we pay attention. As the late, great American novelist Ursula Le Guin, subject of last week’s column following her death January 22, wrote: “Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence. Reading is a means of listening. Reading is not as passive as hearing or viewing. It’s an act; you do it. You read at your pace, your own speed, not the ceaseless, incoherent, gabbling, shouting rush of the media.”