“There is a far greater need for total-abstaining societies which would not read newspapers than for ones which do not drink alcohol.”
– Soren Kierkegaard
People act in response to incentives; and in the absence of incentives, they seldom do much. That’s why I believe in publicly daring yourself to do things: making it known to others in your life that you have made a significant choice and are going to hold yourself to it. This provides an incentive – others’ view of you as a person of your word – motivating you to follow through. I’ve done this with some of my most important decisions, like quitting alcohol in 2012, and discerning my vocation at Holy Resurrection Monastery (where I will return as a postulant on December 15).
Last Tuesday, I got frustrated with myself. After the preceding day’s announcement of the grand jury result in Ferguson, Missouri – and the subsequent violence – I wasted a lot of time staring at social media and news sites: reading news, opinions, news about opinions, opinions about news . . . ad nauseam.
It seemed like there had to be something to say, about some aspect of the situation or the popular response; or at least some insight of someone else’s, to take as a foothold to reach a point of clarity. But that “something” never materialized, and that foothold never appeared. So I sat in front of the screen with no insight to offer, wandering up and down the dead-end series of articles on Google News.
For most of my life, including two years as a professional journalist, I’ve enjoyed following and reflecting on current affairs. Opinion columnists have shaped my perception of politics, and much of what I know about writing and civilized discussion comes more from the influence of media outlets – albeit both as positive and negative examples – than from formal schooling.
But there was a time for me to leave journalism, and there is a time – now – to stop following the daily and weekly news cycle. When one can hardly learn anything meaningful from it, or offer others much insight from reflecting on it, there is little reason to pay attention, and good reason to opt out. (I should mention that I intend to follow news about the Church – which has more bearing on my own life – in a limited way. I also maintain my respect for many journalists and editors, especially my former colleagues.)
Having dared myself publicly to do this, I’d like to offer a few of my further reasons for tuning out the news cycle. If you feel your own relationship with the news has reached the end of its usefulness, you might consider doing the same:
1. The news gives us the illusion of being engaged with events just by having opinions about them.
With some exceptions, I believe that opinions – especially regarding high-profile incidents and public affairs – are a debased currency in the modern world. The rise of the Internet has brought this phenomenon to such an absurd point, that our individual opinions on most subjects are like the Deutschmark during the hyperinflation crisis of 1920s Germany. We cart around mental wheelbarrows full of opinions on every subject presented to us as significant; yet we are all familiar with the rejoinder that “two dollars and your opinion will buy you a cup of coffee” (or some less polite version of the same idea). Our opinions create an illusion of engagement with the world; but really, much of our inner editorializing serves no purpose beyond the ego-gratification of making us feel intelligent and astute.
It is said that a past U.S. president, confronted by a journalist who disapproved of his job performance, told the man bluntly: “Who cares what you think?” That struck some people as outrageous; it strikes me as a valid question for self-examination. Not all opinions about current events are worthless; but that line has stuck with me as a spur to do more than just form opinions about passing worldly affairs. If such matters are important enough for me to hold a definite opinion, then they should likely inspire me to do something more; and if they are only important enough to merit the mental equivalent of a pithy bumper-sticker, perhaps they are not even worth that. I agree with my Quaker ancestors as to the importance of “letting your life speak”; I also believe there is a certain wisdom in the words, “Talk is cheap.”
You are not engaged with events simply by having an opinion on them. And to broadcast that opinion into the cacophony of electronic discourse, is not likely to be the modern equivalent of making a stirring speech in the ancient Greek agora. Some issues of the day are genuinely worth commenting on, but in general the Eastern Orthodox priest Fr. Alexander Schmemann was right: “For indeed what you say is less and less important today. [People] are moved only by what you are, and this means the total impact of your personality, of your personal experience, commitment, and dedication.” Sentiments and idle opinions are like cheap metals, compared to the “gold” of action, commitment, and personal influence.
2. The news gives us an illusion of connecting with the wider world, while we actually insulate ourselves from it.
We often suppose that the daily inflow of news expands our horizons – enlarging our mental world, connecting us to developments around the globe. Yet in the context of our individualistic consumer lifestyles, this is almost a pure illusion – like putting up pictures and mirrors to make a small, windowless room feel spacious and open.
In fact, a more pathetic metaphor may be in order. Compared to those experiences that actually broaden our horizons, most of our daily news-consumption is like a commercial DVD that puts an image of a fireplace on a television screen; or a video that entertains one’s cats by making the screen appear to them as a tank full of fish. I mean no disrespect to most journalists; my point here is directed to viewers, seeking something that daily reportage cannot deliver. The news serves certain purposes, but in general it is not a true window on the world or a means of connecting with it, any more than those videos are a real fireplace or fishtank.
An experience one can switch on and off, or toggle with another experience at will (between channels, browser tabs, apps, etc.), cannot be trusted to promote human solidarity or the emergence from one’s shell. The opposite is arguably true: we become disengaged voyeurs, experiencing futile frustration or smug satisfaction over distant events, while the world before us recedes and blurs out.
I think it is important to understand a multiplicity of cultures, traditions, civilizations, and experiences. But this is precisely what the news does not really do for us – since human life and experience cannot be condensed into a series of executive summaries, useful though those may be for certain purposes. If one wants to understand the human condition, a deeper grasp of it is undoubtedly found through the contemplative approach discussed in the Tao te Ching:
Without going out of your door,
You can know the ways of the world.
Without peeping through your window,
You can see the Way of Heaven.
The farther you go,
The less you know.
Thus, the Sage knows without travelling,
Sees without looking,
And achieves without ado.
More succinctly, there is the wisdom of the early Christian Desert Father who said: “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” This is not simply advice for monks: the one who cannot learn from the present moment, will learn little from any number of travelogues and dispatches. Reporting has its place, to be sure; but it will only open our eyes if it is used very skillfully, probably in quite limited doses rather than as a daily staple. Meanwhile, the truly expansive and enriching view is not that of a hundred postcards, but the clear sight of our own horizons and surroundings, seen through our own eyes.
3. The news distorts, and even inverts, our perspective on the things of time and eternity – making passing things appear more real than eternal things.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave concerns a group of people who, born and raised in a subterranean dungeon, have never known the world of real things, illumined by the sun. Instead, they have been transfixed from birth by the spectacle of a series of shadow-outlines created by statues – cut to look like men, animals, and various objects – and cast on the cave wall in the light of a fire. When told of the aboveground, sunlit world by an escaped prisoner, they dismiss the prospect of going there as pointless – preferring to compete in the never-ending game of identifying the shadows cast by the imitation-objects and the fire.
The parable applies wherever the lesser reality is preferred to what is more real. Hence it applies to the relationship between the created world and God; and likewise, to the relationship between the news now broadcast throughout each day, and the “news” that is really of ultimate importance. We obsess over things we will soon forget, and forget matters of ultimate importance. We must re-acquire a sense of proportion that we have lost through our fixation on the firelight and shadows: all other news is dwarfed by the Gospel, by the reality of Christ’s Resurrection.
I would not downplay the relative importance of many things reported in the press, especially to persons directly affected by them. But the most important thing in life is what lies beyond it, and our everyday choices which affect that destiny for good or ill. One way or the other, your soul will never not exist – and the things of this life must be measured by the standard of this truth. “Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat,” C.S. Lewis reflected. “But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.”
Kudos to the man who can keep a truly eternal perspective (which is different from mere religious moralism) while scanning Google News. But I am not that man – so I will join Kierkegaard’s news-abstaining-society, hoping to learn the self-denial that he described as “sobriety in an eternal sense.”