From time to time one of my friends announces she is going on a media fast. She (or sometimes he) cuts herself off from the barrage of outside stimulus in order to reconnect to her own mind or body or spirit. While I admire the discipline, my reflexive reaction is always: I could never do that.
I wake up reading the news and often go to sleep reading it. I try to finish off the day with a novel or a poem, but I am not always that disciplined. And I won’t even tell you how many times a day I look at Twitter. It would be undignified.
Some of it is my intrinsic fear of missing something. I worry that if I am away from my devices for more than a few hours at a time, some piece of world-changing news will have happened, and I will not have been there in the know and alert to its significance.
But some of it is something else. I feel some sort of deep obligation to bear witness to what is happening out there in the world. I feel as if—from my position of comfort and safety—the least I can do is face up to what is happening to others who live intimately with violence and repression and environmental degradation. I feel like it is my responsibility to do my very best not to bury my head in the sand.
But my resolve is weakening. There have been months of what we call “bad news”—terrorist attacks and natural disasters and police shootings and political scandals. The weight of human suffering is almost unbearable. I am willing to tolerate that though–painful as it is–in order to keep my eyes open and my heart awake.
But there is also an undercurrent of breathlessness that reeks of glee and cynicism. And that is what I find to be untenable. We don’t have a television at home, but whenever I go to a hotel room and turn on the TV, the scrolling red banner that runs under the newscaster makes my heart jump. It makes me think: Something horrible has happened. And my whole body goes on high alert. Then I remember that the red banner is always running. That the TV news gets what it needs—us—not by reporting but by creating fear and drama. It taps right into our reptile brain, bypassing the genteel frontal cortex.
My own dear state of Oregon has been gripped by a political drama of unprecedented proportions this week. Everyone I know was glued to their phones and radios and Twitter feeds. Each hour offered a new hit of salacious gossip and blanket outrage. Every day was more surreal than the next. I found myself battered from one moment to the next and have landed—hard—in a pile of uncertainty and sadness. I have found myself unclear about how to even analyze what happened or what should have happened. I will say this: A media driven by the need to stimulate our worst, most primal instincts at an ever-increasing speed will never serve the needs of a pluralistic, deliberative nation. It will never serve a society made up of human beings with their frailties and idiosyncracies. If everything is fair game, there will always be more to attack, to tear down.
This is not to say that I entirely blame the media. I blame the ravenous market that can never have enough – enough money, enough power, enough attention. But I also blame myself. I blame myself for my own addictions to speed, to gossip, to the adrenaline of crisis.
So maybe my friends are right. Maybe a news fast is the right thing to do. I sure feel as if my own mind and imagination could use a break. But I also wonder if—in the marketplace of ideas—I need to make a purchasing decision. I need to take my one and only bargaining chip—my attention—out of the mix.
So while I still wholeheartedly believe that it is my—our—obligation not to turn away, I am not sure the news media is the must trustworthy intermediary between us and those who we want to honor. I don’t trust the intentions of the news media at the moment, and I am not even sure I trust my own.
So I think I’ll join the ranks of those who take breaks from the fray. I’ll give my adrenal system and my overtaxed mind a break. And when I come back—which inevitably I will—maybe I will come back with more imagination about how we my genuinely connect, about how we might more humbly and rationally bear witness.