How much bad news is enough?
“I can stop any time I want to.” We know this to be the telltale sign of an addict who is in denial about his addiction. We’ve all heard it before. “Sure I can stop drinking (smoking, gambling, etc.), I just don’t want to right now.” I’ve used similar phrases myself. I’ve used them when speaking of a compulsion that began when I was in high school.
You might call me a “news junkie.” As a young boy, I grew up watching CBS News after dinner with my family, secure that whatever Walter Cronkite said was true. (I know better now.) By the time I was in high school, I had subscriptions to several news magazines, and bought the New York Times on Sunday. In college I read several newspapers and listened to news radio throughout the day. Somehow I had always known that it was right for a responsible citizen and one who claimed to be educated to be kept informed of the news of the day.
By the time I was ordained, Internet news was on the rise, and the university I taught at had a free and unlimited connection. My addiction to news flourished. The whole world at my fingertips! I justified the hours I spent immersing myself in the news by saying that as a teacher and preacher, I had an obligation to know what was going on in the world. I still maintain that, but with certain qualifications, which I will get to in a moment.
When I started teaching full-time, I was appalled by my students’ lack of knowledge, and, worse, lack of curiosity, about the news of the day. Legislation, treaties, riots, floods, arrests, assassinations—they were blissfully ignorant of all of it. And I could scarcely convince any that they were missing out on anything. I once asked a class of 35 students about the Fourth Amendment. None knew what I was referring to, although one student suspected that it had something to do with religion. “This does not bode well,” I thought to myself.
When I would ask my students what they were doing with their time while I was spending so much time keeping informed, many would shrug their shoulders. A few admitted to me sheepishly, “Well, we heard that no news source is trustworthy, so we just gave up.” All of these students had unfettered access to the Internet and television, and with those resources they spent a great deal of time striving to be entertained, but little to no time being informed.
One who is not well informed about the state of the world can scarcely claim to be a responsible citizen or a truly educated person. And I will make bold to say that it is hard to be able to claim that one is a good Christian if one is ignorant of and indifferent to what is taking place in the world around us. Didn’t Jesus scold those who did not “read the signs of the times”? (Matthew 16:3) Sadly, many adult Christians seem to be as out of touch as the college students I have taught over the years.
Now comes the big, “HOWEVER…” Like any good thing (food, drink, etc.), seeking to be informed can cross the line to excess. One can neglect one’s daily duties by being glued to the TV newsfeed, just as one can neglect one’s duties by scrolling through photos of people’s cats on Facebook. One has to make a prudent discernment regarding how we spend our time so that we do not fail the duties of our state in life. An excessive amount of time dedicated to absorbing the news is not the object of my big “HOWEVER…” Instead, I want to apply it to the excessive *absorption* of the news and the ill effects that may flow from it.
As an undergraduate, I spent four summers working as a claims adjuster for an auto insurance company. I spent four summers reading thousands of accident reports. Consequently, I have a sense of how things can go wrong that one might call, charitably, “atypical.” Years later, I spent a year as a chaplain in a Level-1 Trauma Center in a major city—there I could see and hear what life looked like when it goes horribly wrong. One result of those two experiences is that I am quite safety conscious; I also have a heightened sense of human fragility and our capacity for bringing about unnecessary tragedy. Also, I am less surprised than most when things do go horribly wrong. That gives me an “atypical” tolerance for facing bad news. While there is much that scandalizes me, little shocks me. That fact allows me to spend more time immersed in the news than most people—and that can be a problem, as we’ll see.
I bring that past with me as I turn to my various news sources. The upside to all that is I can take in a great deal of news and put it to good use in the pulpit and in the class room (which is especially important when I’m teaching medical ethics). The downside is that the sights and sounds of the news, the connections between one story and another, the constant reminders that our Church and our nation are under relentless assault—all that begins to affect my prayer, and my capacity for hope, and not for the better.
On the one hand, I want to avoid a kind of naiveté that is certainly not Christian. Years ago, a visitor told me that she sees no need to put away some extra food for emergencies during Florida’s hurricane season because she heard of a saint who lived for years on nothing but the Eucharist. I was tempted to ask her if she was planning to grow wheat in her backyard in order make hosts for me to consecrate once we ran out of hosts in the sacristy, but fortunately my guardian angel made me bite my tongue.
On the other hand, I want to avoid the rebuke the apostles earned for panicking during the storm. (Matthew 8:26) And that’s where the temptation lies for me. I want to be informed so that I can be prepared. Above all, I want to be a responsible steward of my gifts and a faithful shepherd for the flock entrusted to my care. But when I allow myself to get overwhelmed by the complexities and horrors of what’s going on in the world, I find myself scrambling to find ways to rely on myself rather than growing in trust of God. C.S Lewis treats this matter brilliantly in the second half of
Now I must make a very important clarification. Trusting in God does not guarantee anyone at any time that bad things, even very terrible things such as plagues, wars, violent crimes, earthquakes, famines, riots, etc., won’t happen to those who trust in God. Scripture and history teach us quite the contrary. Let’s not forget that no martyr died of old age. I mention this because a danger for the anxious person of faith is the temptation to turn faith into some form of magic, what Lewis refers to “superstition” in Letter 29. The idea (though not stated quite as baldly as this) is that, “If I do ‘X’ (make a pilgrimage, pray a novena, wear a scapular, etc.), then God is obliged to ensure that the horrible thing(s) I most dread won’t happen.” When we think we can obligate supernatural powers to work on our behalf, according to the demands of our wisdom and actions, we have ceased being believers and have instead become magicians, in the worst sense of the word. (Acts 8:9-24)
At all times, including times of trouble and crisis, the grace of God necessary for salvation is always available to us. That must be the final assurance of the faithful Christian, even one in mortal danger. Yes, we should work to maintain our health, and provide for our family (or congregation); yes, we should strive to become physically, morally and spiritually fit, in order to be able to do the duties of our state in life. Yes, we should arrange our lives so that during times of disaster (natural or manmade) we can continue to perform both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. But nothing we do can prevent all trials or forestall all persecutions; nothing we can do can ensure that we and all of our loved ones will live fulfilled lives and die only at a ripe old age. The only thing we can do with certainty is pray always (as Jesus taught), and act as wisely as we are able with the information and resources that we have.
Sometimes, it may be wise to disconnect from the news cycle for a little while. When I find myself reaching for “just one more” news story when it is time to reach for my Rosary beads or the Divine Office, then I know it is time for me to step back. It is at those times, more than most, when I must seek the Lord, even as I see the storm clouds coming my way.
When I write next, I will address certain topics in Paul Thigpen’s latest book, Manual for Spiritual Warfare. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.