In with the new year came a problem that had never confronted me before. I could no longer face the news.
My disdain was platform-agnostic. Twitter, Google News, email newsreels, online newspapers, news-oriented podcasts—I could scarcely tolerate the thought of spending a minute with any of them.
Don’t worry. I had to, and did, overcome my news aversion. I did it by nourishing my mind and heart with more edifying content for a while—stuff that went deeper, stuff that exposed me to the good in the world. More on that below. But first, some elaborations on why the news had become something I just couldn’t take anymore.
During the peak of my aversion, the very thought of news media sent a wave of irritation through me. Much of it was about the conventions of news, the way it’s framed and delivered: the cynicism, the contrived both-sides-isms, the fixation on surface politics of the who’s-winning-who’s-losing variety, the tendency this winter, as Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post points out, to obsess over the Democrats’ political woes. As if they’re just another storyline, with nothing more than the usual at stake.
Way too often in its accounts of daunting social and political challenges, the news focuses not on the ramifications for everyday people—or on solutions—but on the implications for the president’s political fortunes. A few years ago, I joked to a friend that if the world suddenly found out there was going to be a civilization-ending asteroid strike, the second sentence of the news reports would speculate about the effect on Obama’s approval rating.
The news often misses that which is deepest and most important. Because those things don’t flash in a way that makes them amenable to news coverage as it’s currently conceived.
“The things that make good headlines are on the surface of the stream of life, and they distract us from the slower, impalpable, imponderable movements that work below the surface and penetrate to the depths,” John L. Allen writes in Crux. “But it is really these deeper, slower movements that make history, and it is they that stand out huge in retrospect, when the sensational passing events have dwindled, in perspective, to their true proportions.”
The headlines bring bad tidings more often than not. When life goes the way it’s supposed to—when, say, the sun comes up—that’s not news. It’s what goes wrong that captures the newsroom’s attention.
So on any given day, even if all is well with your health and household, even if things are in good shape at your office, the news will fill your head with dread about threats, violence, tragedy, and galling misdeeds, which are always happening somewhere.
Doom-scrolling is aptly named. Twitter, especially, seems bent on destroying whatever is left of my faith in humanity and optimism about the future, assaulting my eyes with endless examples idiotic, malevolent people saying and doing hateful things. Of course there has always been a lot of that. Before social media, far less of it was shoved in our faces. Do I really need the 1,367th example of a random fool saying something insane about vaccines?
Shoulder to shoulder with tales of humanity at its worst come the lights-blaring warnings about real and speculated plots being hatched by evil masterminds, and about near certainty of this or that terrible thing happening in the near future.
One genre vies for your attention by asserting that a Republican takeover of government by nondemocratic means is pretty much a done deal over the next few years, with full fascism to follow. Analogous storylines proliferate about the climate crisis.
Obviously, we need to be aware of legitimate threats and work like hell to prevent them from becoming reality. But for attention-grabbers to announce them as givens—and for us to experience the nightmares as real and already-happened—is debilitating. The world is not yet doomed.
Religion, when it’s sincerely practiced, provides a buffer. The other day I noticed a tweet from a Christian organization reminding its followers that “sometimes we need to be reminded that God is with us and all is well. Read the scriptures of reassurance that remind us of God’s presence especially during this time of fear and anxiety.”
Was I envious? Not really. There are plenty of places secular people can turn to for reassurance and encouragement.
What rehabilitated my ability to face the news was extended time with material that broadened my perspective and reminded me of the good in people.
I read Viktor Frankl. Finally. Both his classic Man’s Search for Meaning and the 2020 release Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything. I devoured wise and beautiful articles from Maria Popova’s The Marginalian. I streamed music during my runs and gym sessions instead of newsy podcasts. I attended virtual humanist meetings, including one where we did an out-loud group read of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” (Thanks, Humanist Association of San Diego.)
I watched episodes of the TV show “This Is Us.” Yes, I realize the Pearsons are not real people. But exposure to these characters—their fierce love for one another, their persistent conscientiousness and goodwill (especially Randall), all of it thoroughly secular—did me good. Fiction though it is, the show reflects a reassuring truth: There are lots of people out there trying to do good and be good. The more we’re around them, physically or otherwise, the better we’ll do at keeping our spirits high and our heads on straight.
At deeper levels of life—levels that evade the news media lenses—new ideas and wisdom and art and movements are taking shape every day. Generational tides are shifting. It’s these that will determine the future. Not the latest spat over Tucker Carlson trolling AOC.
Now is not the time for blind eyes and avoidance. News aversions cannot abide. But recent experience has shown me this, too: Consuming too much news, in too straight a dose for too long a time, will consume you.